How to measure the intensity of your lifts: Determining your 1RM

1 02 2013

I seem to mention the term intensity a lot, and this is due exclusively to the fact that intense workouts lead to nothing but great things for the human body. As you know by now, intense workouts are the best way to burn fat during your workout, the best way to increase your metabolism outside of the gym, and are the key to increased athletic performance as well. So what does intensity truly mean? As I laid out in a previous post:

In most cases, intensity can be described as one’s perceived effort, but for anaerobic lifting in the gym, intensity directly correlates to the amount of weight lifted. Increase the weight, increase the intensity. It’s as simple as that. In regards to aerobic exercise where there are no weights involved to determine the intensity (I’ll use running as an example), sprinting is far more intense than jogging. Doing as much as possible, as close to the maximum exertion you can put out, is intense.

The beautiful thing about weight training is that everything is quantifiable. Progress can be seen through increases in weight or number of repetitions. The numbers don’t lie.  This is where the term “1-repetition max” or 1 RM comes into play. This is the maximum amount of weight that you can theoretically lift for 1 repetition for a given exercise.  Determining this number is a difficult game to play for intermediate lifters, and a very difficult game for beginners.  Prior to assessing a 1 RM, you must first master the movement at hand. If you are not squatting correctly, there is no way to accurately determine the amount that you can actually lift; without the proper technique, weight is irrelevant. Attempting to lift heavy weights with poor form is a very risky proposition.

Don't be THAT guy.

Don’t be THAT guy.

So where do you start?

Beginners should start by perfecting their form. Until you can do an exercise safely, please do not attempt to add a lot of weight. Lift within your means and eventually you’ll get to a point where you can start looking into your theoretical maxes.  When you arrive at this stage, I recommend working up to a 5 repetition maximum, ie) the heaviest weight that you can lift for 5 reps.  Unless you are an advanced lifter, it is dangerous to actually attempt a true 1 RM. By working up to a 5 RM, you ensure your safety and can thereafter calculate your theoretical 1 RM.

Here’s the protocol:

1) Warm-up with a light weight that you can very easily lift for 10 repetitions. Rest for a minute.

2) Estimate your second warm-up weight by adding 5-10% more weight for upper body exercises or 10-20% more weight for lower body exercises. Be conservative. You will lift this weight for 5 repetitions. Rest for 2 minutes.

3) Based on the degree of difficulty of the previous lift, again estimate your third weight by adding 5-10% more weight for upper body exercises or 10-20% more weight for lower body exercises. Rest for 2-4 minutes.

4) Continue this process until you reach a weight that is very difficult to lift properly* for 5 reps. Ideally, you will reach your 5-rep max within 3-5 testing sets.

* If your form starts to break down, you have reached your 5 RM. Do not add more weight. Do not collect 200 dollars. Do not go to the hospital.

Once you have determined your 5 RM, you can use the following chart to calculate your theoretical 1 RM:

%1RM-Repetition Relationship

%1RM-Repetition Relationship

For example, if you are squatting and can successfully lift 135 lbs for 5 repetitions, you can estimate that your 1 RM is about 155 lbs (135/155=87%). With this same logic, 145 lbs would roughly be your 3 RM, and so on and so forth. Now, this is far from an exact science (this chart, for example, is linear and the relationship between percentage and repetitions often because more curvilinear as percentage decreases), but it is a safe and fairly accurate way to determine the amount of weight that you can actually lift for a given exercise.

How to apply this to real life

– Intensity is good. The closer you lift to your 1 RM, the more intense you are lifting.

– Beginners should start by perfecting their lifts with light weights before attempting to measure a 1 RM or worry about intensity percentages. Lift within your means, work as hard as you can, and eventually you will develop the confidence needed to start thinking about RMs.

– Your first exercise(s) should be the most intense. These should be multi-articulated exercises (think: squats, deadlifts, upper body presses, etc.), and you should lift as intensely as safety permits. For these first lifts you ideally want to work up to a weight that is above 90% of your 1 RM, ie) a weight that you can maximally lift for no more than 5 reps.

– Again, I need to stress, beginners should NOT attempt to lift anything heavier than an 8-12 RM. Safety first!

– After your first exercise or two, you should move onto accessory exercises using a higher rep scheme (6-15 reps, depending on the exercises chosen and your personal goals). To follow the same track, these lifts should also be as heavy as possible for your given rep scheme. Just because you’ve finished your “main” lift, don’t slack-off for the rest of your workout. If you are lifting a weight for 12 reps, make sure you’re using a weight that makes those last few reps pretty challenging. The goal, as always, is to keep the intensity as high as possible!

– For a more specific idea of how to apply all this to real life, please consult yesterday’s post on the ideal workout template for intermediate lifters.

That’s it for today! My last two posts tie together nicely and should give intermediate lifters a good idea of what to shoot for in the gym.  If you have any questions, you know how to reach me!



How to select the right weight to use for resistance training

6 01 2013

confused-300x199People often ask me how they should determine the weight they use for resistance training exercises. Do I base my percentages off of a set 1-rep max? Do I go by feel, depending on the day?  The answer isn’t cut and dry, and it really depends on your programming and goals, but for those of us with the main goal of getting stronger, Cressey simplifies the process of selecting appropriate weights in yet another of his long line of great articles:  How to Select a Weight to Use in a Resistance Training Program.

As always, don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have any questions, or need any assistance with your training programs!

Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it!