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6 Mistakes that Minimize Your Max

Striving to improve your one-rep max in one of the major strength lifts? Don’t let these common errors derail your efforts.

Notching a one-rep max on a major lift is exhilarating, and the feeling of accomplishment when you set an all-new personal record is like nothing else. Thing is, people tend to make a lot of mistakes in the pursuit of those PRs, turning an already challenging process into a frustrating backslide.

To ID those costly errors head-on, we recruited Heather Farmer, a personal trainer, CrossFit group-class instructor and top-ranked national Olympic weightlifting competitor based in New York. Here, Farmer calls out the six most heinous mistakes she sees and the Rx she recommends for hitting those PRs.

Mistake #1: Expecting to make fast, uninterrupted progress.

As you train, your strength may initially advance more rapidly than your ability to execute proper technique, and you may actually need to dial back on your weight for a while to focus on form. “You can’t always expect to just add weight or reps without plateaus in your progress,” Farmer explains. “A cycle is progressive. It’s designed to build up your strength over time.”

When squatting, for example, your back may be a weak link, unable to stabilize properly in the bottom. Taking time to strengthen this bodypart is essential when trying to build to a max, according to Farmer, and should be prioritized.

Mistake #2: Only performing the lift you want to PR.

“If you want to PR your snatch, you can’t just snatch all day, every day,” Farmer warns. “You need [to perform] auxiliary exercises to strengthen the components of the lift.”

Buttress your training with movements that hit the same muscle groups and stimulate similar muscle recruitment patterns as the lift you’re targeting. For instance, do hack squats and lunges to bolster a squat, and overhead squats and barbell pulls from the floor for a snatch, says Farmer.

Mistake #3: Failing to focus.

Try to do too much all at once and everything will suffer. “Pick one or two exercises at most to focus on as your primary training goal,” Farmer suggests. “Those should take priority in designing the rest of your program.” For instance, if you’re working on your squat max, put your leg/lower-body training day first in your split, after a rest day. Your squat should be done first after a warm-up, when you’re strongest. And the intensity for the rest of your lifts and bodyparts should be scaled back accordingly to allow for optimal recovery of the main targets.

Mistake #4: Doing higher-rep sets in your pre-max training mode.

If you want to hit a one-rep max you’ve got to progressively move toward that rep range. And though you might start with heavy five-rep deadlifts at the beginning of a cycle, you should phase into lower-rep sets to prepare for your ultimate goal.

“There is deeper muscular recruitment required to hit a one-rep max than a 10-rep-max set,” explains Farmer. “Make sure that as you near the peak of your cycle, you’re emphasizing a rep count similar to that at which you want to peak.”

Mistake #5: Ignoring flexibility training.

“If you lack mobility in any lift, you’ll be limited in what you can ultimately achieve, or you’ll develop strength in a shortened range of motion,” says Farmer. To that end, you’ll want to do dynamic stretching preworkout and stretch and foam roll afterward, paying extra attention to your trouble spots such as the hips, hamstrings, calves and shoulders.

Mistake #6: Skipping active recovery.

While Farmer thinks true overtraining is rare, it’s important to be aware of the signs. “Soreness and fatigue, which are normal effects of training, should not be confused with loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping and racing resting heart rate, which indicate a more serious overtraining issue,” she says. Consider recovery modes such as sauna, massage, swimming, and even recreational games like table tennis or basketball, as part of an active recovery plan to prevent overtraining and avoid injury.