Rep Maxes

Working up to a maximum effort set on the barbell lifts is a challenging endeavor you'll be asked to do frequently when training. These sets can be 1-rep maxes (1RM), 3RM, 5RM, or any crazy number really. Technically speaking, you can do 20RM sets, but the effect is a lot different than 5-reps or less. Low rep / heavy weight sets help improve our neuromuscular efficiency. Without getting too sciencey, this is basically how effectively we recruit contractile/motor units. Basically, neural efficiency results in our muscles firing properly and in the correct order. This has less to do with the actual size of our muscles, but rather how they work synergistically with our brains. This is how smaller, less muscular people can be drunk-gorilla strong. For instance, Taner Sagir has absurd neuromuscular efficiency:

So how do we improve this? We lift heavy. Often. That's the simplest explanation I can muster without bullshitting or boring you. With CrossFit Balance's current programming, you'll be asked to max on a variety of lifts three times per week, descending from 5RM to 3RM to 1RM (or possibly 3RM to 2RM to 1RM). This is based off of Mike Rutherford's excellent Max Effort Black Box program. The problem I see most often with people is not knowing how to appropriately work up to these heavy sets. So, let's get to it...

Finding A Range

First and foremost, if you've been training for a while, you should have a general idea of what weight you're capable of lifting. This reinforces the importance of tracking your progress. If you have no idea what you squatted last week, how the hell will you know what to squat this week? So, for the sweet love of Christ's Chin, please make sure to write down your numbers. Drawing from your past performances, you should have a range from which to pull numbers you can feasibly lift. Quick/easy example: If you can squat 225x5, then you can almost certainly squat 235lbs for a single.

If you've never attempted a 1RM on a particular lift before, but have gone for 3 or 5 or whatever-rep maxes, you can use the following formula recommended by Jim Wendler: weight x reps x .0333 + weight

1) Your 5RM squat = 225x5
2) 225 multiplied by 5 = 1125
3) 1125 x .0333 = ~37
4) 37 + 225 = 262

So, generally, if you can squat 225x5, you should probably be able to squat 262lbs for a 1RM. This obviously isn't exact and may not be entirely applicable to women, but again, it will help give you a range to work from. Naturally, factors like lack of experience, fear of heavier weight, and so forth will play a role. Figuring out your 3-5RM maxes will take more work since there isn't a fancy formula for them. Also, it should be noted that this formula is better served for the powerlifts since the Olympic lifts are much more technique dependent, but I'll get more into that later.

So, once you have an idea of what you're going to lift, an effective warm-up will be paramount. Many people struggle to find the balance between sets/reps/load and will either do way too many warm-up sets or not nearly enough.

Working To Your Number

Before you even get to the bar, you should have already done a basic warm-up consisting of foam rolling, mobility, and some light calisthenics. This will help reduce the risk of injury, improve range of motion, lubricate the joints, and hopefully assist in setting some PR's. Don't go for a max cold. Also, if you know you're working to a max on the bench or back squat, be sure to have a spotter. More importantly, make sure he or she knows how to spot. And just to keep things thorough, you can't spot a deadlift, press, push press, snatch, clean, front squat, or jerk - these either happen or the lifter just safely drops the bar.

Don't ever do this. Or I will kill you.

So, now that you've done a basic warm-up, begin with an empty barbell. I think this is very important before lifting any significant weight. One or two quick sets of 5-8 with an unloaded barbell will help reinforce solid technique, warm up the body, and groove the movement pattern into your muscle memory. After that, you will begin adding weight. The weight you choose will hinge on a variety of factors, such as what rep max you're going for, what lift you're performing, and what color plate you think is most pretty.

This is where your rep/load approach gets important. Essentially, your reps should decrease as your weight increases. I sometimes describe this as "pryamidding down" although in retrospect, I have no idea why I call it that. I also have no idea where I get off trying to use "pyramid" as a verb, but I digress. So, let's look at an example. Let's say the workout is to work up to a 3RM back squat. Your best 3RM is 225lbs and you'd like to set a PR. Here is a potential approach:

Barbell x 8 reps
95 x 6 reps
155 x 5 reps
185 x 4 reps
205 x 3 reps
225 x 3 reps
235 x 3 reps

So as the load increases, the reps decrease. This helps prime our central nervous system to lift heavy weight. What is also important is that your rest periods must increase as well. The heavier, more taxing the weight becomes, the more rest your body will need to lift at its full potential. When lifting maximum loads, you should be resting at least three minutes between sets, if not more. One minute will not nearly be enough and fifteen minutes would be far too long.

I've read that renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin recommends the following when working to 1RM back squat:

4 @ estimated 40%, rest 10 seconds
4 @ estimated 40%, rest 10 seconds
3 @ estimated 60%, rest 30 seconds
2 @ estimated 75%, rest 60 seconds
1 @ estimated 80%, rest 120 seconds
1 @ estimated 85%, rest 120 seconds
1 @ estimated 90%, rest 180 seconds
1 @ estimated 95%, rest 240 seconds
1 @ estimated 100%, rest 240 seconds

Now, this is incredibly precise and may not even be feasible without some assistance. You would obviously have to have your percentages sorted out beforehand and have the bar loaded in a specific manner. Nevertheless, the concept of load increasing while reps decrease remains.

Other Factors

Form: After attending the 2009 CrossFit Games, there was one thing that kind of irked me. The deadlift event, which was cleverly conceived and exciting to watch, left me with a slightly bad taste in my mouth. For the sake placing as high as possible, many people's form went to absolute shit. I don't fault them for this at all - they were in the midst of a competition and did whatever they could to score points. Plus, they were all seasoned CrossFitters and knew the potential risks of poor deadlift form. Again, none of that bothered me. What pissed me off is hearing people exclaim, "Oh yeah, that's a PR!" Seriously? Do you know why so many people "PR'd" that day? Because in training, none of them are dumb enough to do this:

My point is this: don't call something a PR if it's a dangerous or plain disgustingly performed lift. If I receive a jerk or snatch with my elbows partially bent, then it doesn't count. In training or in a meet, it won't be a personal record. If you don't go below parallel on a squat, then it wasn't a complete lift; and how could you logically compare it to your previous full-depth efforts? I'm not saying the lift in question needs to be performed with the grace and elegance of Jackie Onassis, but if not performed correctly, you didn't set a personal record and you run the risk of getting hurt. Okay sorry, rant over.

Experience: If you're just coming out of Foundations or generally new to lifting heavy weights, be patient. Don't get all Gung Ho like Michael Keaton and throw 600lbs on the bar to try and impress the girl (or guy) smothered in Lululemon. What's most important is familiarizing yourself with the lifts, developing sound/safe technique, and building slowly. This will result in steady strength improvements and almost eliminate any chance of injury.

The Rep Scheme: The daily rep scheme will vary from time to time i.e. 5x5, 5x3, 5x1, or maybe 5-4-3-3-3. Unless the workout is designed for straight sets (the same weight for all sets), do not feel chained to a rep scheme. If the ultimate goal is lift a 3RM and you've got more in the tank, keep going. Oftentimes, I see people smoke a weight with ease and then stop. "What are you doing?" "Oh, that was my fifth set." "I don't care, it wasn't your max - put some more weight on the damn bar." Don't sell yourself short - if you're lifting safely, set some personal records.

Power lifts vs. Olympic lifts: This is also important. The difference between these types of lifts means that warming up and approaching your sets will be a lot different. For one, I personally don't think the Olympic lifts should be done for more than three reps at a time. Load increases will vary between the power and Olympic lifts as well because the O-lifts are so damn technique-dependent. Don't get me wrong, the deadlift still requires some technique, but it's not nearly as complex as a snatch. If the workout calls for a 2RM power snatch and you're not confident in your technique, then don't go for a 2RM. Do sets of a two with a light-to-moderate weight and drill your technique in. Proficiency in the Olympic lifts takes a long-ass time and there is no reason whatsoever to rush it and develop bad habits and shit technique.

So there you have it: a long, excessively verbose discussion on finding your rep max. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I will find someone much smarter than me to answer them. Now, get off the goddamn internet and go lift some heavy weights.

Saved By The Bell couldn't get rid of this Max fast enough


  1. Max looks like a young Harold Ramis.

    Great post!

  2. Nice write up Quint! A couple of thoughts that I had: Your 3RM "Pyramiding down" example, I would argue to not lift at your 3RM, especially if your goal is to PR. Throw an extra pound on either side for that set and you have a PR if you hit it, then still room to go up in weight for another set. Also, I think it's important to remember that the formulas and approaches are a good starting point, but it is SO important to listen to your body. Some days a weight that should be "easy" based on your previous records just feels heavy. The more you lift, the less likely it is you will set a PR every time. Sometimes we force it and get greedy, and I think that's what you were referring to with your discussion on form break down.
    Lastly, I can understand the reasoning behind no more than 3 reps on the OLYs, but I do think that there is a reasonable argument in favor of OLY variations in higher doses (for example, High hang starting position, power versions, etc.)
    Anyway, great write up, I want to come by Balance and lift some heavy weights :)

  3. Thanks, Jimmy B! One comment Jim made on my Facebook that should also be noted: "...warm-up reps should be done with maximal speed (priming the central nervous system), as well as perfect form. Perfect form is not just for PR's! I see too many people half-assing the warm-up sets with poor form." Well said.

    CoMo, very good points all around. Definitely more ideal to hit a PR rather than repeat a previous best, especially if you've got it in the tank. And listening to one's body is paramount. You won't be able to PR every time you lift (unfortunately).

    And I agree with you on the Oly variations. Snatches from the hang, snatch balances, power versions, etc will all help build/improve the full versions of the lifts. Nevertheless, I still prefer these lifts be done in sets of 3 reps or less. For instance, if you do 10x2 with snatch balances at a moderate weight, you're getting 20 total solid reps with little chance of form deterioration. In other words, "Randy" is a stupid workout. There, I said it.

    Thanks for the comments and insight, guys!