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The Right Way to Find and Use Your Maximum Lifting Weight

Knowing how and why you should test your one rep max can really help you achieve your potential in the gym this winter.

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There are many benefits to heavy lifting—especially at this time of year. After all, who doesn’t want increased bone density and muscle activation, greater efficiency and resiliency, improved movement patterns and greater economy, better core strength, posture, and longevity, as well as increased force production and power output? While that can all seem like a no-brainer, particularly for the athlete looking to move well, train consistently, and realize their potential, your work in the gym can only really come to its true fruition if you are working at the right intensity. And how do you do that? Well, it all comes from knowing your maximum one-rep lifting weight.

As with benchmark tests for your endurance training, knowing your maximum lifting weight (for one or many exercises) can then help you ensure that all of the training that follows is right for you. You’ll be less likely to get injured and will be able to move more efficiently from first to last swim stroke, pedal stroke, and run stride.

RELATED: How Lifting Heavy Can Help You Unlock Your Endurance Potential

What does “one rep max” mean?

I’m going to first define what a “true” one rep max means and why you really only need to be in the ball park to reap the majority of the benefits. At its simplest: It represents a load that requires every iota of mental and physical energy, massive warm-up prep, and probably a few people shouting in your ear to perform just one lift. Often this lift slows down and gets grind-y. You will probably fail in your attempts (we’ll talk about safely failing a little later), because if you can lift this weight twice, it’s too light. If you can’t lift it once, it’s too heavy.

As you can imagine, true one rep maxes require a lot of experience under a heavy barbell, a deep understanding on how to move safely at your limits, and a practiced “exit strategy” if you do need to bail mid-lift, whether that’s a spot from an experienced partner or the ability to safely drop the bar. Done right, athletes approach these heavy days just like they do races or major tests: with a mix of confidence in their preparation, excitement about what might happen, and some nerves about the effort required.

But because finding a one rep max is inherently a higher risk endeavor, I only recommend doing this after you have the experience, the confidence, and the support from more experienced training partners (or a coach) on hand to help you with these attempts.

Rather than throw out numbers of what a triathlete should be lifting (i.e. some percentage of their bodyweight), I find it much more productive to build an athlete’s confidence with time under the bar, progressively loading them until they feel like it’s getting heavy enough while also making sure they’re maintaining good mechanics and range of motion. What’s “heavy enough”? It’s the weight that requires your full attention and focus. You stop thinking about that e-mail you need to send or you stop gabbing away with your workout partner while lifting. Every shift in movement becomes more important, because the weight is now heavy enough to pull you around if you’re not perfectly balanced and centered throughout the entire lift.

This period of 4-8 weeks of lifting in the 40-70% range provides immediate feedback to make quick corrections on your form, because if you’re not moving well, a heavy enough barbell is going to tell you very quickly. This is also a crucial time to practice receiving a spot from another athlete or learning how to bail the bar by safely dropping it or shedding it off your shoulders. This period also primes the nervous system, adapting your body to progressively heavier loads, so that when you do approach your heavy day you’re ready.

For athletes experienced in the gym, or who simply like it more, their “heavy enough” lift will get pretty darn close to their true one rep max. For those newer to lifting weights, or for those who just don’t like it but reluctantly come anyway, their heavy enough lift will look closer to a weight they could probably lift for five reps or more if pressed. And seeing how a heavy five reps gets this athlete to the 80-85+% threshold, you’re still getting the vast majority of benefits while also minimizing the risks of lifting right at your limit.

How often should you test?

Testing every six to eight weeks is a good enough time to see real changes, although new athletes only really need to step into the gym and start squatting or deadlifting to get stronger. Because, let’s be real, any squatting is better than zero squatting. And why test it at all? While I cannot promise you a direct, immediate correlation between a heavier squat and a faster mile time, here’s what I can promise you. The preparation and volume needed will improve your mobility, improve your movement patterns to make you a more resilient, more aware, better moving athlete in general. In my experience, athletes who move better in the gym, also move better in everything they do. Regularly heavy lifting, while risky on the surface, will actually make you a safer athlete too. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the vast majority of injuries we experience are of the “overuse” variety. Overuse to me is a misnomer, because it really means you’re moving with poor mechanics, heaping on more volume than you cannot handle. Doing anything that breaks this cycle, builds your awareness and understanding of how you move, how your body breaks down when it gets tired, and gives you opportunities to actually move better really is the win.

What lifts should triathletes be doing?

I’m going to specifically focus on functional, skill-based movements here rather than on machine-based movements. Why? Whatever you do, you want it to teach you how to move better so that it will actually translate to the sports you care about. Apologies, but leg press and hamstring curl machines just don’t cut it. What I’m saying is this: You’ll get more long-term benefits lifting functionally and sub-maximally than you will maxing out on machines. At least that is this coach’s opinion.

Front Squat

While I do recommend learning how to back squat first, the front squat is going to serve the triathlete better. It will challenge you with a greater mobility demand in the shoulders, thoracic spine, hips, and ankles. It’s inherently a lighter lift (though not that much lighter). Plus, it’s infinitely easier to shrug a heavy barbell off the front of your shoulders if you get stuck, rather than off your back (which can be a little scarier).

Start by squaring your feet under the bar. Get your hands on the bar so they sit outside your shoulders (versus on top). And make sure that this weight is racked on your shoulders versus in your wrists. Let me say that again, you are not holding this weight in your wrists. To initiate this movement, think about actively pulling yourself down into the bottom of your squat. Externally rotate your hips by pushing the floor apart and pushing your knees out so you can drop straight down. This will get your femurs out of the way of your pelvis so you can safely squat lower while also fully activating your glutes while staying balanced on your feet. Keep those elbows up and that chest up, but only to a point. There’s a fine line between staying upright as possible and over-arching and extending the lower back to do it. Stand up tall by pressing through the floor and returning to a fully locked-out position. This lockout of the knees and hips ensures you’ve returned to a good neutral position.

RELATED: You’re Probably Squatting Wrong

Deadlifts

These admittedly can take athletes more time to master, especially when you struggle to feel the difference between a straight and rounded back. But once again, it’s this struggle that’s the whole point. Because if you suck at these, you are not complete as an athlete and will struggle to stabilize your spine while also creating power through your posterior chain. But nail deadlifts and you’ll be more balanced and powerful than ever.

I like to start in a standing position and “deadlift” myself down to the bar. This ensures a good setup once you grab that bar because if you just bend over, nine times out of 10 you’re rounded through the back and you’ve already lost. So practice hinging at the hips by pushing those hips backs with slightly soft knees. The shins remain vertical until the hands pass your knees to load up your posterior chain. Think about keeping a long spine and neutral chin, meaning at this point you’re looking at your feet. You are not craning your chin upwards looking in the mirror or the wall. Grab the bar at a shoulder width stance so your hands are just outside your knees. Tension that midline, drive those knees out a bit, and load your hips by slowly tilting those hips up until you feel tension in the hamstrings. Pull against the bar to load your shoulders and get your lats firing. From here lift the bar by pressing through the feet and standing straight up to a fully locked out positions in the hips and knees. On the way down, be very patient by first hinging at the hips by pushing your hips back. Do not bend the knees first on the way down as this will turn this into an awkward squat that will only put more load into your knees and lower back.

RELATED: 5 Reasons Deadlifts Will Make You a Better Runner

Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are a different and, dare I say, better beast than the lat pull down machine (in case you’re wondering). Hanging from a bar challenges your grip strength, improves your shoulder and thoracic range of motion, and even decompresses your spine. And we haven’t even started doing the dang pull-up yet. It also teaches you very quickly that pulling is a full body endeavor, not just a shoulder exercise, and that it requires some skill as well to stabilize the spine, create a whole heap of tension in the body, while pulling back and up to get that bar under your chin. The pull-up can be scaled to remove your body weight or it can be scaled the other way to add additional load. Either way, you’ll be seeing improvements with your reach and pulling strength in the pool, grip strength and maneuverability on the bike, as well as run posture and arm swing.

The best way to modify a pull-up to make it easier is with a band. Start with the “goldilocks” medium thick band that usually can provide up to 50-75 pounds assistance and works for most people. Stand on a box, loop around the bar (or get a tall friend to help you), and make sure that you step into that band with some force. Lock out that leg and squeeze your legs together so that band doesn’t boss you around and hang from a shoulder-width stance so that band is smack dab in the middle of your hands (and yes, right in front of your face). With the legs squeezed and your midline fully engaged, start by pulling back and away from the bar and then up. To create further shoulder stability and power, imagine squeezing your elbows together, and to finish think about pulling the bar under your chin. Thinking about tilting your chin over the bar will only lead to an ugly unfinished pull-up.

If the band rockets you up and past the pull-up bar, go for a thinner band that provides 10-30 pounds assistance. Conversely, if you’re not budging at all, opt for a thicker one that provides additional assistance. Now, if pull-ups are in your wheelhouse and you want to add load, you can do so by either wearing an adjustable weight vest, hang a dumbbell or kettle bell from a weight belt, or stick one between your ankles. A little weight goes a long way, so start with a 10 to 15 pound dumbbell and work your way up in small increments.

RELATED: Build Your Own Custom Strength Workout

Trainer tips and tricks:

  • Don’t rush this process. Take the time over four to eight weeks to get familiar with these movements, move under load, and develop that confidence. The goal is for the lifts to be heavy, but to always feel good. If it doesn’t feel good, or you don’t feel ready, you’re not ready to lift that weight yet and that’s OK.
  • Remember, 80% of the benefits of these heavy sessions lies in the extended warmup, the mobility prep, and the muscle activation. If you stopped there and didn’t even attempt any heavy lifts, you’d be that much more mobile, recovered, and “switched on” for your next triathlon training session. Mission accomplished! If you do feel good, then keep the party going with increasingly heavy lifts.
  • When lifting lighter loads, you can focus on inhaling on the down phase of the lift, and exhale on the up. But when it gets really really heavy, take in a big breath and hold it for the entire rep. You’ll do this naturally and it’s a good thing, as this held breath increases pressure in your body to maintain tension and position.
  • Remember, triathletes are by trade high repping catabolic machines! Continuing to lay it on thick in the gym with only a focus on high reps misses out on the significant opportunity to add precision to your movement that will better translate to precision in your swim, bike, and run. Heavy lifting will also help you recover more quickly between hard endurance sessions as the massive amount of human growth hormone and testosterone that’s released helps you stay hormonally balanced. Plus, you’ll have the added strength, resilience, and power to boot. So go forth and lift safely and reap the rewards!

RELATED: You Need to Fuel Strength Training Differently. Here’s How to Do It Right

San Francisco-based Nate Helming co-founded The Run Experience with the goal of reaching a broader audience of runners and outdoor enthusiasts who want to be able to run and enjoy the outdoors and avoid injury. He has helped athletes finish their first races, conquer new distances, overcome pre-existing injuries, set new PRs, reach the podium, and qualify for national and world level events.