Maxing Out is a Skill
by Erik Castiglione
We tested our low bar back squats a week ago, and EVERYONE who showed up that day hit a PR. A few days later, we tested our shoulder presses. We still saw a lot of PRs, but not everyone had one. And this led to some disappointment – we’ve been working on our shoulder press for several months now, so if you didn’t PR, does this mean you didn’t get any stronger?
No! Hitting a max effort lift is more about skill than it is about strength. What do I mean by that? There are 4 ways that we can increase the weight we lift: better technique (a better bar path allows for more efficient application of force), improved intermuscular coordination (recruit more muscles to lift the weight), improved intramuscular coordination (recruit more fibers in each muscle), and greater contractile potential (making the muscle bigger). The first 3 ways are neurological, not physiological. This means that they are improved through practice.
It also means that you need to be firing on all cylinders to hit a PR. If you’re stressed out, or didn’t get enough sleep, or are dealing with some emotional issue and your nerves are fried, you’re much less likely to hit a PR. And, since the shoulder press (and deadlift) start at the bottom of the lift rather than the top of a lift like a bench press (or squat), you need to be in a perfect position to PR – there is little room for form deviation.
Why then do we bother testing at all? Most of our training is percentage based. If your max number goes up, your corresponding percentages will go up, and you’ll be training with heavier weights the next cycle. This is what we call progressive overload, and it’s how you continue to make progress. There are other ways to achieve this without maxing out, but many of them involve lifting by feel. And if we’re being honest, many of us will either slack off or try to push too much when going by feel. Percentage training, while still a proxy for effort we want, takes most of the guesswork out of it. It’s also quite easy to track and show progress.
So, if you didn’t PR on test day, what are some other ways we can check your progress? Look back at your training days leading up to test day. Did you make all your lifts? Did Wodify show a gold star on any of those days? Then that’s the most weight you’ve lifted for the prescribed number of repetitions. This, too, is evidence that you’re getting stronger.
How can you keep making progress if you didn’t hit a new max? Pretend you did. Add 5-10 lbs to your current max number (keep this to 5 for the shoulder press). You now have higher percentages. When we progress through the next cycle, use these new weights. If you don’t miss any lifts, you’re good to go. If you do miss, drop the max down a few pounds and adjust your percentages accordingly. Your training days are far more important than test days. We want you to be consistent, we want you to be successful in your lifts, and that will ensure your long-term progress. Don’t sweat a bad test day. See you in the gym.