MAXIMIZE POWER were a fun high school football weight room ritual to show off how good you benched or squatted for a full rep, but if you’re beyond those glory days and you’re still hyper focused on your one rep max as the ultimate training goal, it’s time to quit. Now.
According men’s health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, CSCS, and Mathew Forzaglia, NFPT, CPT, founder of Forzag Fitness. Experts say maximizing too often is a total waste of time if your gym goals are to generate muscle and strength gains. There are better ways to test your strength – and develop it – than simply shooting for the highest possible single effort. Even more worryingly, if you max too often, you risk limiting your gains and putting yourself at risk of injury.
“That’s why we have three smarter approaches for you that will always build your strength, push your limits, and in the long run can also help you increase your peak power,” says Samuel.
Why you shouldn’t focus too much on the max
You can only max out a few lifts
Of course, sometimes you can be tempted to test your maximum capacity, especially when it comes to big multi-joint lifts – squat, deadlift, bench press, etc. – but these are special cases. Performing maximum singles on curls, calf raises, or any other incidental exercise provides no benefit and is simply unnecessary (and dangerous).
Maxing Out Crushes Your Nervous System
Maximizing a deadlift or squat creates an immense amount of tension and stress on the body, and not just on the muscle groups you think you’re targeting. This is especially true for squats and deadlifts, which strain the spine and strain your central nervous system (CNS). This will tire you out and often require a long recovery period afterwards. This is why you will rarely see lifters peaking before competition time. Instead, they will gradually progress to their best lifts over a period of a training cycle. So if you’re pushing yourself unnecessarily too often, you’re probably pushing your nervous system too much.
“So one of the problems that happens when people max out and when they max out too often is that their body is always tired,” says Samuel. “It’s really going to prevent you from maximizing your potential if you did it with a more coordinated schedule. So it’s really not good to maximize your workouts too frequently, especially to do it several times a week.
Maxing Out does not promote hypertrophy
This again comes down to your goals. Chances are you’re not lifting just to be as strong as possible. Muscle growth should therefore be part of your goal, both for aesthetic and health reasons. When your goal is to lift as heavy as possible, you often exert your energy at the expense of sufficient time under tension, which is what you need to grow.
Maximize wear results
Hitting a new PR can provide a short-term ego boost, but over time the strain required is more likely to lead to joint damage down the road. Most of us will push that weight by any means necessary, which often comes at the expense of good form, leading to shoulder or knee and lower back issues.
“If you max out too often, you invite your joints to end up in bad positions which over time will wear down your ligaments and tendons. It’s just not a smart way to train,” says Samuel .
3 better alternatives to assess your strength than maximizing
Max Out Reps, No Weights
If you’ve ever watched the NFL combine, you were more than likely glued to the 225 bench press test where athletes pushed to pump out as many reps as possible. The same principle applies here, but in this case, it’s wiser to work with a weight that you can push for about three to four reps, and then work to that number, focusing on safe form. With this approach, you’ll also spend more time under tension, leading to greater muscle and strength gains.
“Now you’re maximizing reps, instead of maximizing weight. It’ll be a little safer, but you’ll still enjoy pushing your limits,” says Samuel.
The message here is not to stop heavy lifting, just keep doing it. However, don’t max yourself out at the expense of establishing an optimal time under tension. Here, doing a few more reps per set, around three to five, still gets you heavy lifting, but without the extreme wear and tear associated with ongoing PR attempts. “We get all the benefits of hypertrophy with the load, the time under tension, the muscle-mind connection, but now we’re in a safer window,” Forzaglia says. “So for me to be able to move 350 for three to five reps versus one rep at 375 is more impressive.”
Only Max Out once in a while
That said, you might still want to max out. If you must, be sure to only do so when necessary (or desired) to assess your progress. Try to reduce the number of times to three or four times a year, at the end of a training cycle. You’ll have weeks of training under your belt by then and give your joints more time to recover between big attempts.
“Try these approaches instead of hitting the gym every time and doing your heaviest weight for one rep — it’s just pointless,” Samuel says. “If you do what we do, you’re going to gain a lot more muscle, a lot more strength, and have a bigger max.”
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
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