What if you could accurately estimate an athletes one repetition maximum (1RM) every single session?
You could chart progression on strength levels on a weekly basis, or adjust load and volume prescriptions in response to real-time fatigue data. When done well this system can help deliver an optimised training stress for every individual in every given training session, reducing burnout and accelerating gains.
Read on to learn how velocity based training makes this a reality, by simply recording velocity data across your standard progressive warm up sets. No extra reps or sets, and no need to do highly taxing maximal sets!
Update: Since writing this blog I have learnt and experimented with a number of new approaches to 1RM, along with speaking with a range of coaches and athletes. All this has been put together in a more extensive and updated blog post. You can find that blog linked here, or continue reading this first blog and then find the newer 1RM blog linked further down.
What is a 1RM?
A one repetition maximum, or 1RM, is the amount of weight you can lift on a given exercise for a single repetition. It is a measure of your strength and technical ability on a given exercise. A true 1RM is uncovered by progressively lifting heavier loads until you find the weight you can no longer lift. This process is quite time consuming and fatiguing due to the high intensity of the test. There is a growing opinion among coaches that 1RM testing is a potentially dangerous and impractical way to track progress (1, 2). Instead opting for force plate tests such as an IMPT, given its time efficiency and strong correlation to athletic performance (3, 4). Another popular method is to use an estimated 1RM (e1RM) to predict their maximum strength levels from a series of submaximal sets.
The 1RM or e1RM number can then be utilised either simply as a marker of training progress or to inform training and programming decisions such as in percentage based training programs.
1RMs and percentage based programming
Percentage based training (PBT, or %BT) is common practice across a range of training settings and contexts, there are a few variations but in essence it takes an established 1RM value at the beginning of a training block then prescribes a number of weeks worth of training using a percentage of this 1RM to determine load, set and rep combinations. Effectively it maps out an entire training phases training in advance.
It might be something like:
Week 1: 4x6 @82.5%
Week 2 4x5 @85%
Week 3 3x4 @87.5% ...
And so on for the fixed training block until the next testing day and a new block starts with a new 1RM, ideally heavier than the one before.
I'm not the biggest fan of this approach to programming, it's biggest limitation being the reliance on a fixed 1RM that is set at the start of a training block, making it potentially outdated and irrelevant as the training block goes on. The issue of an outdated 1RM is made worse by the impact of daily fluctuations in strength levels, a major factor that can rapidly turn what is normally an 80% of 1RM weight into something that feels a lot more like 95% when fatigue levels are high.
However, the popularity of percentage based training lives on and it can still be effective for some contexts, especially when programming for large numbers of athletes. The good news is percentage based approaches to training can enhanced through the use of velocity tracking and profiling tools like finding a daily estimated 1RM value.
Using velocity to find an e1RM in real time
By collecting velocity data during our normal training it is possible to create a load velocity profile and extrapolate out to an estimated 1RM. This ability to predict an accurate 1RM hangs on a key number: The minimum velocity threshold. Minimum velocity threshold (MVT) is the slowest speed an individual can perform a given exercise at and not fail. This value varies by exercise, by individual and it can even vary over time as an athlete becomes stronger and more experienced at the movement.
The table below gives some example minimum velocity thresholds for standard barbel lifts, but don't be surprised if you also see values outside these ranges!
Typically the shorter, the stronger and the lower the range of motion the lower the MVT will be.
Once you know your MVT, all you need to estimate your 1RM is to extend the linear load velocity profile and find the intersection between that line and the point of the MVT. As an interesting aside the MVT for your 1RM also tends to be very close to the speed of your final rep on any other set taken to its repitition maximum (RM), this last rep velocity is it's own metric and can be used when programming around fatigue and failure lmits - a topic for another time.
Test protocols to find an e1RM
To get an accurate calculation of your 1RM you will need to collect velocity data for at least three sets performed across three different loads for the target exercise. While three data points is the minimum required to begin estimating a daily 1RM, the more data points you can gather, and the closer to an actual 1RM that is used as a sample the more accurate the prediction becomes, so for better reliability of your e1RM over time, I only consider the e1RM value once at least one of the sets is at or above 75-80% of 1RM (roughly is fine).
To find the e1RM value, punch all the values into the free velocity profiling tool that you can download from this website.
Then you can log these results on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to chart progress and trends in strength over time. This video explains the process and how to use the profiling tools.
The beauty of this process is you can collect this data during the normal training process using any ascending warm up set protocol and recording the best rep mean velocity, propulsive velocity or working phase velocity of each set.
This short video from @VBTcoach on instagram, highlights the protocol in action:
This approach can be a great tool for adding precision to your strength level estimations on a daily basis to help make precise programming decisions or to simply monitor your progress in training.
TIP: If you are not a powerlifter who relies heavily on precise 1RM data for their sportI recommend sticking with a consistent MVT, yes your actual MVT will change over time, but what is important is tracking changes in your load velocity profile over time.. For powerlifters and other strength sport athletes then knowing your actual minimum velocity threshold will be important for making good training decisions or selecting attempt loads for on the platform, then simply perform an actual 1RM testing session and record the velocity on 1RM or collect this data from your competition efforts if possible.
Alternative strength measures using VBT
Some coaches prefer to avoid talking in terms of 1RM, for these coaches there are also some alternative scores that you can use to track training progress with. Learn about these profiles scores and go even deeper on 1RM estimation in this blog.
Update: Since writing this blog I have learnt and experimented with a number of new approaches to 1RM, along with speaking with a range of coaches and athletes. All this has been put together in a more extensive and updated blog post. You can find that blog linked here
References and resources
Dohoney, J, et al. 2002. Prediction of one repetition maximum (1-rm) strength from a 4-6 rm and a 7-10 rm submaximal strength test in healthy young adult males.
Braith, R.W, et al. 1993. Effect of training on the relationship between maximal and submaximal strength.
De Witt, JK, et al. 2018. Isometric Midthigh Pull Reliability and Relationship to Deadlift One Repetition Maximum.
Wang, Ran, et al. 2016. Isometric mid-thigh pull correlates with strength, sprint, and agility performance in collegiate rugby union players.
VLADIMIR M. ZATSIORSKY,WILLIAM J. KRAEMER & ANDREW C. FRY. 2021. Science and Practice of Strength Training-3rd Edition
Jidovtseff, B. 2011. Using the load-velocity relationship for 1RM prediction.
Picerno, P. 2016. 1RM prediction: a novel methodology based on the force–velocity and load–velocity relationships.
Are you a velocity based training beginner?
I suggest you start here for the single best way to apply VBT. Or if you have more time, explore my full 10-part fundamentals of VBT series, starting with a practical definition for velocity based training.