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Strength Basics: Understanding Maxes

Strength Basics: Understanding Maxes

November 30, 2016

Client Awesomeness | For Coaches | Training


If you haven’t figured it out by now, strength training is important. In a world dominated by aerobic fitness, strength training is slowly and surely gaining ground, and for good reason: It works! Strength training is great for a lot more than just building bigger muscles. Strength training can increase your metabolism, help you burn fat, make your bones stronger, and when done correctly it can even help to make you more flexible. As an added bonus, it’s also very empowering for many people. If you don’t think picking up heavy things is bad ass, I question your outlook on life. All jokes aside, being strong is important. But strength isn’t black and white, there are several different types:

  • Maximal Strength- This is probably what everyone thinks of when they think of “strength.” This is literally the most amount of force you can generate. Because the amount of force your body can exert against a load is proportional to the load itself, this is demonstrated in the gym by the infamous “One Rep Max” or 1RM for short. This is literally the most weight you can lift for a single rep.
  • Speed-Strength aka “power”- We’re going to oversimplify this one because it’s not totally relevant to the topic, but this is essentially the speed at which you can move a given load. Thinking back to high school physics, power is work/time. For example it it took you 3 seconds to squat 400lbs, and it took someone else 5 seconds, you are more powerful since you were able to do the same amount of work in less time.
  • Strength Endurance- This is the ability to repeat an action for a prolonged period of time without force decreasing. In other words, if you have two athletes and they each are asked to deadlift 200lbs for as many reps as they can, the athlete who deadlifts more reps has greater strength endurance.


There are more, but the 3 listed above are the basics. Since maximal strength is the foundation of all other human movement, it’s rightly the most popular, and well understood. If you’ve done any legitimate strength training you’ve probably maxed out at some point, and possibly later on in your program trained at a certain percentage of that max. There are some general guidelines in regards to how many reps you can perform in a single set at a certain intensity zone. Intensity in fitness refers to the load. For example, if your max squat is 200lbs, 70% of that would be 140lbs. In general you should be able to lift 70% about 6-12 reps per set. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, I’ve seen people struggle to do 5 reps at 70%, and I’ve seen some athletes perform 20 reps or more at 70%. How is that possible? It depends on two factors: the muscle fibers of the athlete, and the exercise being performed. There are a lot of charts out there that give guidelines on how many reps to do based on a certain “intensity zone.” Some are more accurate than others. One of my favorites, that I’ve used extensively to create medal winning strength athletes is Prilepin’s Table. For coaches, or those looking to create their own program, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when looking at this chart. It was created using data from high level competitive Weightlifters, and a lot of the reps pertain to highly skilled athletes performing snatch and clean & jerk, which have a different impact on the body in terms of adaptation and recovery. Secondly, the athletes studied were likely on performance enhancing drugs. The creator of the table, A.S. Prilepin, was head of the senior national Weightlifting team in the USSR from 1980-85. Both the USSR and modern day Russia have a lengthy history of Weightlifting success…and drug scandals. This matters, as the way you train a natural athlete is significantly different from an “enhanced” one. Lastly, these were very exceptional, seasoned athletes that were studied, not beginners or even intermediates. In case you’re wondering what “level” you are, consider this: I’d classify Mackenzie, a nationals medalist, as an intermediate. They say it takes about 10 years to master the sport of Weightlifting, she’s been doing it for 4…so she’s not even halfway there yet. Back to the point: People will fall outside of these margins by a lot.

It’s All About Fiber

Fortunately we’re not talking about eating a lot of kale. Again, oversimplifying things, there are two basic types of muscle fibers: Fast twitch and slow twitch. Fast twitch fibers are big and strong, and great at generating a lot of force, but they fatigue very quickly. Slow twitch fibers are the opposite, they aren’t extremely powerful, but they are better at resisting fatigue. Everyone has both types, and both types are constantly at work in all human movement. But someone with more developed fast twitch fibers will have better maximal strength, but may struggle with strength endurance. On the flip side, someone with mostly slow twitch fibers will people able to perform reps at a submaximal load, but will struggle to add total weight to their 1RM. I once saw an athlete squat 90% of their max for 9 reps (which is basically unheard of), and then failed to add a single additional pound to their 1Rm a few weeks later. This person obviously had some well developed strength endurance and thus likely a lot of slow twitch fibers.  If you’re worried that you’re all slow twitch, and want to be fast, or vice versa, don’t fret, there is evidence to suggest that “hybrid” fibers exist in all of us, and will adapt to however we train them.

Training Percentages vs Maxes

If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back, we’ve arrived at the point! A technique we often use at Arkitect is the “rep max” system. This is the same concept as finding the most amount of weight you can lift for a single rep (1RM), but instead you find the most amount of weight you can lift for multiple reps. You can assign any amount of reps here, but common ones are 2RM, 3RM, 5RM or 10RM. Using this method has several significant benefits, but is particularly helpful when dealing with athletes that fall outside of the norm for the rep range guidelines. While most people will only be able to tolerate a set of 1o reps between 70-80%, some people will be able to do upwards of 90% for 10. If you were working off of strict percentages, it would be difficult for the coach to know that an athlete was capable of that…so we use the rep max system, which gives the client a bit more autonomy and discretion. We usually reserve this technique for clients with a little more experience, as they typically are better at judging effort. It’s important to note that the rep max system only really works if you’re using it for a few weeks consecutively. 3-4 is ideal. The first week is always a “test” week. Pick a weight you’re confident you can do for the prescribed amount of reps, and start there. Based on how it went will give you a better idea of how much to ty to increase the following week. The benefit to this method is that it allows you to push your limits without using an absolutely maximal load. If you tested your 1RM every single week, the likelihood that it would increase weekly is very small. Pushing up rep maxes is slightly easier because you’re not working at an absolute max, meaning your body can recover more quickly from it, and progress comes a little easier. We limit this method to 4 weeks for any given rep scheme, because progress tends to fall off around the 3-4 week mark. Where the first week is a “test” week the last week should be a “go for broke” week!


Another distinct benefit of the rep max method is more psychological. Even more experienced trainees tend to put mental blocks in place that slow their progress. We have preconceived notions of what we’re capable of, and when we push those limits, we tend to doubt ourselves. With the rep max method we dissociate the weight from a percentage. So after 4 weeks of incremantelly driving up your 10RM, you may be near 90%. Now if I just asked you to squat 90% 10 times, you might think I’m crazy. But if I ask you to squat only 3 more kilos than last week for a set of 10, and that extra 3 kilos just happens to be about 90% of your 1RM, you probably would view the task as much more manageable.

The Bigger Picture

It’s important to remember that when it comes to strength training, and fitness training in general, there are no rules. There are dozens of methods, techniques, tips, tricks, and guidelines you can use. The best way to succeed is to pick a method, understand it inside and out stick with it. When a particular method stops producing results, that’s when you switch things up. Remember that progress is never completely linear. There will always be ups and downs in training, and in life. So don’t get too discouraged if you’re using the rep max system and you fail to hit a new PR every week. This method is great for helping to push yourself, which is also why it’s a good idea to not do it all the time. A good program will purposely work in periods of training that are less intense. On the flip side of the rep max system, we have the situations where a weight is prescribed, and a client asks if they can do more weight because it feels too easy, and I say “no.” As mentioned in many previous write-ups on this website, you can make progress without pushing yourself to your limit every time. This is something I refer to as the minimum effective dose, which we’ll leave for another day. In the meantime, if you’ve never tried the rep max system, I encourage you to give it a go, the benefits can be amazing!


Dr. Brett Scott


Arkitect Fitness

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