How to Properly Train for Max Out Sessions!

Properly train to max out for bench, squat, deadlift

“In the weight room, if you’re ‘testing’ all the time, you’re not going to get stronger every workout. We need the reps/volume to build strength before we retest.”Ray Zingler, Zingler Strength, Speed & Co

I am asked quite often why I program the percentages the way I do. I explained that in order to prepare our bodies for maximal effort testing we need to build a strong foundation in our fundamental movement patterns. Those movement patterns being the squat, bench, deadlift or any major compound lift you can think of. These are all technical movements and could be a challenge to hammer the proper technique, especially for beginners. This is where you, the client, need to understand the difference between training vs testing and hopefully by the end of this article you will have a better understanding as to what I mean.

To give you an inside scoop on where my mind goes when I program I often refer to this relative intensity chart. On the chart you can see different percentages, reps, and what will be considered max effort, heavy, moderate, and light with recommendations to the right. You can see how the colors are made for a reason, and how the majority of your training should NOT be in the dark/bright red. Those are used for testing and to see the progress you have made after weeks of consistent hard work with a competent coach (aka me) telling you if your form is good or needs some adjusting.

So how often should I be pushing myself? When should I increase percentages and how many reps should I do? Lucky for you, I do all of that for you and you just need to show up and put in the effort required to make progress.

If you really want to know, however, I refer to something called the 80/20 rule. This rule is popular amongst marathon/long distance runners but I think it applies to training as well. What the rule is is that 80% of your training should be in that green to yellow zone of the chart above. With small percentage increases on a week to week basis with the reps ranging from 1-5 (you could go all the way up to 10 but here we try to stay in 1-5 reps for optimal strength gains). The other 20% is where you shoot for the orange/bright red after you’ve spent a majority of your training preparing for these “test” sets.
You don’t want multiple weeks in a row being in that “red” zone since your body will not be able to recover fully in order to see adequate strength gains, and being overly fatigued could hurt your performance on the field/work/court or wherever you spend the majority of your time outside the weightroom.

“But coach, every week should be max effort! No pain no gain! Grind doesn’t stop!”

Sure you can have this mentality starting out, but it won’t put you on the best path for long term athletic development. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that exact statement to multiple coaches when I was 16-19 years old, and it led me to multiple hamstring strains, Achilles and bicep tendonitis, and two disk herniations in my L4 and L5 with a muscle cyst in between them. It also took away from my performance on the baseball field since I’d always be too sore/stiff to swing my bat to the best of my ability. It was a tough life lesson to have, but I experienced it first hand and is why I got into coaching so I can help others learn from my mistakes. If you’re still not buying it I’ll give you an example that I shared with one of my morning high school sessions just recently.

Say you have two athletes, athlete A and athlete B.

Athlete A’s max bench is 100lbs and all they do is try to max out a heavy single every week.
Athlete B’s max bench is also 100lbs but they do a training program where they go 3 sets of 5 at 70%.
If you guess who will get stronger overtime, you would be wise to pick athlete B, and here’s why.

Total training volume: Week 1
Athlete A: 100lbs x 1 rep = 100lb total 
Athlete B: 70lbs x 15 reps = 1,050lb total

As you can see Athlete B smokes Athlete A in volume in a single session. Sure Athlete A probably is feeling good they got their 1RM, but Athlete B put in a little more than 10x the amount of total work being done during that session, and more than likely got really high quality reps in since the percentage was low. The likelihood of athlete A setting new maxes every week is very low, but Athlete B has a much higher chance of increasing 5-10lbs the week after. If I had to choose between the two athletes I’m taking Athlete B 10/10 times every day of the week.

This may sound like I’m saying “don’t max out” but the purpose of this article was not to scare you by training hard. I actually encourage clients pushing themselves on a day to day basis to see where their mentality is at and how bought into the program they are. What I hope you realize is that there is always a “smart” way to do things and my job as a coach is to put together a program that will set you up for success not only in the short term, but for the long term as well. Training should be a lifelong journey so take it day by day and enjoy the process of becoming the best version of yourself. Your older self will thank you that you did.