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Improve Your One-Rep Max

Get stronger in any lift in just four weeks with this one-rep max improvement program.

Sometimes you just can’t help it: On certain lifts, whether it’s a deadlift or a biceps curl, you just want to feel stronger.

The good news is you can improve your one-rep max on any lift you like. And even better, training for pure strength from time to time does actually contribute to your overall size and muscularity by introducing a different stimulus.

“One of the unique qualities of the human body is its ability to adapt to stress,” says Dustin Kirchofner, an active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, a Colorado-based certified strength-and-conditioning coach and owner of Modern Warfare Fitness, who devised this one-month 1RM program. “The SAID principle — specific adaptation to imposed demands — states that the body will specifically adapt to the type of demand placed on it. So if you repeatedly lift heavy weights for lower reps, you will produce higher levels of maximal strength, and if you lift lighter weights for more reps, you’ll develop high levels of muscular endurance.”

To improve your 1RM, therefore, you need to place more demand on your muscles in a progressive fashion with lower-rep ranges over the course of four weeks. “Then your body super-compensates for the challenge, preparing itself for the next time it receives the same stressors,” Kirchofner explains.

Four Weeks to Gainsville

In this four-week periodization scheme, you’ll use a five-reps, five-sets approach for the chosen exercise, doing it every five to seven days. Here’s the breakdown:

Week 1:
5 sets* of 5 reps @ 60 percent current 1RM

Week 2:
5 sets of 5 reps @ 65 percent 1RM

Week 3:
5 sets of 5 reps @ 70 percent 1RM

Week 4**:
5 sets of 5 reps @ 60 percent 1RM

*Does not include three or four warm-up sets that build in weight.

**“This deload week will help prevent injury and allow your body to recover,” Kirchofner says. “The weight should feel lighter than it did during the first week.”

Why are five-rep sets a sweet spot for strength improvements? “This range emphasizes muscular strength and neurological improvements,” says Kirchofner. “From week to week, each repetition is so close to the body’s maximal strength level that it compensates, or super-compensates, via recovery, improving maximal strength for next time.”

Testing, Testing

At the end of the month, you may be tempted to test your 1RM. If you do, perform ample warm-ups to pyramid up, with a spotter on hand for safety. For instance, do a very light warm-up of 15 reps, then 10, five, three and finally a 1RM attempt, which should be no more than three to five percent higher than your previous 1RM.

Ideally, however, you should not regularly try for a 1RM because handling your max weight could put you at risk for injury. Instead, determine your new 1RM by figuring out how much you can lift for 10 reps. Multiply that weight by 1.33 and you have an estimated 1RM. If you’re doing military presses, for example, warm up adequately, then do a set of 10 at which you fail at 185 pounds. Multiplying 185 by 1.33 gives a likely 1RM of 246.

Now, if you do another strength cycle, calculate your new percentages for each week based on your new 1RM, thus bumping up your working weight for each of the weeks. “By the fourth week, you should be stronger, so 60 percent of your 1RM will be higher, and as a result you will be able to lift more weight,” Kirchofner says.

Although you may be doing all this for purely impractical reasons — perhaps an ego boost? — the tangible benefits of pushing yourself to lift heavier will keep you coming back. A fresh challenge may be just what you need to spur new gains and get growing again.