A complete guide to 1RM testing & strength estimation

Is one rep max testing the key to incredible strength gains or a road to constant plateaus, and wasted time in the gym?

You're in the gym, you’re tired, the weights feel heavier than normal, and you're about to attempt your heaviest sets of this training block yet. Are you fatigued? burnt out? overreaching? or just under caffeinated?

It's moments like these where understanding your true maximum strength levels isn't just about hitting personal bests and bragging about how much you bench – it's about training smart and safe. A consistent approach to accurately assessing strength levels and readiness in the moment can be a key advantage to making progress in the gym.

For athletes, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts alike, the most popular tool for  measuring strength levels is the one rep max (1RM). But is this number truly the best measure of strength training progress, or is it a misleading legacy metric, fraught with risks and inaccuracies?

This complete guide explores how the 1RM shapes training programs in gyms worldwide and while it is really useful, learn why doing a max 1RM test too frequently it might actually be hurting your progress and even leading to overreaching.

From the squat, bench, deadlift of powerlifting platforms, S&C weightrooms, to the garage home gym, we question the validity and safety of chasing and testing the 1RM. Finally, uncover alternative way to measure strength levels with estimated one rep max testing thanks to RPE and velocity based training (VBT) methods that can revolutionize how you measure strength. Saving you precious training time with your athletes, with all testing done directly inside your regular workouts, no max out sets or testing days needed.

Are you looking for the 1RM calculator to measure your strength levels?

Check out this page for a range of free online 1RM calculator →

What is a 1RM (one-rep max)?

A one repetition maximum, or 1RM, is the most amount of weight you can lift on a given exercise for a single repetition, through full range of motion and without assistance. This number (in kilograms or pounds) represents the heaviest weight an athlete can lift for a single full repetition on a given exercise. Any heavier and the lifter would fail to raise the weight.

It is a measure of your motivation, focus, strength levels, and technical ability on that exercise. It can vary by training context, but typically for a 1RM to count you must meet specific technical criteria, the most strict criteria for a 1RM to count is in a powerlifting competition where 3 judges will assess your lift technique and deem whether the rep was done within the rules of the sport. Here is a basic idea of some form criteria for your 1RM:

  • Full range of motion. Particularly on the back squat, many people insist that the thighs go below parallel for the squat 1RM to count.
  • Lock out the top position. The lifter must fully extend their limbs at the top of the lift. In the deadlift 1RM the lifter must complete the repetition with straight knees and hips coming to a fully standing position.
  • No bouncing of the bar. A particular issue with the max effort bench press, but bouncing the barbell off your chest is a way to cheat your lift and increase the weight lifted. There is a big difference between benching 225 with a full 1-second pause vs pressing 225 with a bounce or touch-and-go off the bottom!

Estimated 1RM vs actual 1RM

It’s also important to note the difference between a 1RM, e1RM. A 1RM is the value that you actually lifted for one repetition, it requires that you actually perform that rep and that weight. An e1RM is an estimated 1RM, a predicted weight that you would be likely to lift for only a single repetition, there are a number of ways to find an e1RM, and in many ways its the best way to measure changes in your strength levels with high frequency (we will get to that later).

What’s the difference between a 1RM and 3RM?

1RM, 3RM, 5RM - and any other repetition maximum (that’s the RM bit) requires a set taken to failure, the number just indicates the amount of repetitions completed in the test before failure. There are easy ways to convert between 1RM and 3RM (or any RM for that matter), you can use this free RM converter here on the VBTcoach website.

How do you do a 1 rep max test?

To perform an actual 1RM test, you will need to have a spotter, be injury free, have good technique, and confidence on the lift you plan to test.

This blog details the full testing protocol of how to perform an actual one rep max test. Alternatively, there is a second link below will take you to another blog post that explores 5 scientifically valid protocols for performing an estimated 1RM test - some of which do not require you to do any max effort sets.

In saying that, my preference, and the gold standard for safely, efficiently and frequently testing your 1RM, is to use velocity based training to create an individual load velocity profile and then find your e1RM from this.

Don’t stress, I have created online calculators for all of these estimation formulas approaches along with another link to the 1RM testing and estimating protocols at the end of the blog post.

What is the point of a 1 rep max?

Like so many other principles from the world of strength and conditioning and resistance training, the 1RM test gets its start in the world of powerlifting. Powerlifting is a sport built entirely around training to maximise and then express the highest possible 1RM on the three barbell lifts — SBD. The back squat, bench press and deadlift.

Not only are powerlifters incredibly strong and muscular, they are also incredibly efficient, as masters of moving barbells, lifters will find as many ways as possible to make their lifting techniques as efficient as possible while staying within the rules of the competition. Widening their grip of the bench press, switching to a sumo stance over conventional for the deadlift, and lowering the barbell on their back during the squat are all methods to not necessarily increase force production but to improve efficiency in the lifts, shortening the range of motion and providing mechanical efficiency.

In strength and conditioning and even general fitness settings, the 1RM (also 3RM, 5RM etc) has been adopted as a method for measuring an athlete or clients strength levels and progress, allowing coaches to track progress and adherence in the weightroom, or as a number to base programming decisions off - as used in percentage based training, which we will discuss shortly.

Benefits of maximum strength training?

Once a 1RM value is established, beyond just ego and bragging rights, there are plenty of ways to use the 1RM in your training.

In powerlifting, 1RM is king, and so all training is done with the aim of improving and even manipulating the lifts to become stronger and more efficient to increase the value of the 1RM. For these lifters they have a strong sense of their 1RM at all times in training, and can quickly and easily extrapolate from velocity data, RPE scores or from a new PR (personal record) at any other rep number to estimate their 1RM.

In general fitness or S&C settings, other than just tracking progress and motivating athletes to train hard, the most common use for the 1RM is to base all future sets, reps and loading decisions around this 1RM with a programming and periodisation methodology known as percentage based training.

Training with percentages

In percentage based training, coaches will craft multi-week strength training mesocycles (also sometimes called waves, blocks, or cycles) basing sets, reps, and loads off of a pre-defined 1RM value that is tested at the start of the block.

Load and repetition combinations are based on the well-established percentages of 1RM that correlate with harder or easier training prescription in Prilepin’s chart. Effectively it maps out an entire training phases training in advance from that initial 1RM test.

A strength program with percentages might start something like this.

  • Week 1: 4x6 @82.5%⁠⁠
  • Week 2 4x5 @85%⁠⁠
  • Week 3 3x4 @87.5%⁠⁠
  • Week 4 3x3 @92.5%⁠⁠ ...
Prilepin's chart for percentage training. Optimal set-rep ranges for each relative intensity.
Prilepin's programming chart. Recommendations for lifting volumes at given intensities.

After 6-12 weeks of training the 1RM is then retested and the training prescription starts again with a new 1RM value

Percentage programming like this represents an “all-in” commitment to the 1RM, with the load lifted on testing day serving as judge and jury for all that will happen in the sessions that follow a testing day.

Percentage based training has major limitations and flaws, and in my opinion it is not a very effective way to program. With the affordability and accessibility of barbell velocity trackers like Metric VBT, using velocity based training instead is a much more effective approach.

Disadvantages of 1RM testing

The negatives of one rep max testing go beyond the limitations of percentage based training.

Collecting true 1RMs is time consuming, can take away from your opportunity to develop your athletes, is potentially distracting, and in some settings has the potential to add unnecessary injury risk to training.

Safety when testing 1RM

If we look purely at the research, injury rates in powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit and among general gym goers, are incredibly low. But a quick scroll through YouTube, TikTok or Instagram for gym fails, will provide seemingly endless videos of people getting themselves hurt in the gym. There are even cases of people being killed by heavy barbells due to a lack of spotters or mistakes when lifting.

By definition, to find a genuine 1RM an athlete must push up to or even beyond their point of failure.

1RM testing is not something to be approached in a haphazard or casual way. There are inherent risks with pushing your body beyond its physical limits.

These risks can also be mitigated. Checking your ego at the door, attentive coaching, safe equipment, thorough warmup, and excellent spotters reduce the risks of a testing day injury significantly.

Depending on who you ask, the 1RM testing process can range from not at all risky to catastrophically dangerous. But regardless of where you sit on this, there are still a number of other negative factors at play when testing 1RM.

1RM testing is time consuming

Testing 1RM necessitates multiple all out efforts for each exercise. Even a single rep of this type of work is incredibly taxing on the nervous system. Subsequent reps need to be done in a fresh state to give us meaningful data, so the rest times tend to become lengthy. At least 4 minutes for a novice lifters and up towards 6-10 minutes for stronger individuals.

It isn’t just the rest time within a session that can be a problem. Doing a 1RM test will likely require setting aside an entire training session from your schedule every 6-12 weeks just to test 1-2 exercises, this can be a significant distraction from your regular training.

In an S&C setting like a high school, college, or private facility, giving up a week of training just for testing for testing means sacrificing a significant chunk of your planned training sessions. Stop training every 6-weeks to run 1RM tests means 16% of your training weeks are testing weeks. That testing data had better be worth it, imagine the progress you could make if you had 16% more time with your athletes?

1RM testing is taxing

One of the most significant consequences of 1RM testing is neural fatigue. Lifting at maximum capacity doesn't really stress our muscles too much, but it does place stress on the nervous system.

The nervous system is responsible for muscle activation and coordination, and when pushed to the point of failure, it can accumulate fatigue which takes days to recover from, compromising performance for up to 72 hours afterwards.

A study into training to failure shows that training to exhaustion reduces vertical jump for 48 hours or more
Short term effects of max effort training suppresses performance for more than 48 hours afterwards

Technical failure

1RM testing will also push your technique. Technique change under maximum effort sets is so common that it has its own qualification of failure: “technical failure”.

Technical failure is the point when technique crosses outside an acceptable threshold versus complete failure or volitional failure where even with a technique adjustment the lifter still fails.

Different coaches will have different tolerances for technique slip, but regardless this creates more questions around the relevance of your 1RM as a pillar of programming decisions. Does a 1RM performed on testing day with atypical technique and an atypical environment (high arousal, longer rest etc) honestly reflect an athlete’s day to day strength levels? or just their ability to cheat when pushed?

1RM fluctuates with readiness

Strength levels fluctuate significantly on a day to day basis.

variations in Strength on a daily basis with 1RM testing
3 powerlifters did a 1RM everyday for 36 days and showed incredibly wide variation from day to day

As a result, the 1RM we test on one day, may not be an accurate reflection on our strength levels 6 weeks later, or even a few days later in the same week.

In any given week, an athlete might be 5-10% stronger than they were on testing day thanks to higher readiness and adaptations. As a result, making percentage based programming decisions off an fixed and outdated 1RM score taken 4-weeks ago is no longer smart programming. A much better option would be if we could assess this change in strength levels in real-time. Thanks for barbell velocity trackers, estimating 1RM from bar speed during every training session is possible.

Managing the negatives of 1RM testing is good coaching

So 1RM testing has it’s downsides.

But that’s not to say a good coach with competent lifters and a structured approach to 1RM tests can’t make them a safe and effective part of their programming and training!

In my opinion it takes talent, vigilance and meticulous planning to make the 1RM test an effective part of any training program.

But (also in my opinion) even if you are that talented coach, I think 1RM testing is ultimately a non-essential part of all training programs except in powerlifting.

The more time-efficient, logistically easier and safer way to estimate strength levels is to use a barbell velocity tracking app like Metric VBT.

Thanks to the principles of velocity based training (VBT) in-training monitoring makes it easy to track progress in training on multiple dimensions while continuously estimating 1RM with the load velocity profile.

All without doing a single extra set outside the planned session.

That is a win-win in my book.

Alternatives to 1RM testing - estimated one rep max

Performing genuine 1RM testing can have its downsides, however we can still find one rep max scores from submaximal testing. The number one way to do this is with velocity based training to create a load velocity profile.

Alternatively, if for you the benefits of actual 1RM testing make sense in your context and program then you should check out this 1RM protocols LINK CHANGE article, it details how to approach testing day and includes a free calculator so you can find the perfect 1RM warmup weights.

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References and resources

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