Going For Max!

Everyone at some point in their training journey gets that little tickle on the back of their neck and that burst of energy exploding from deep in their stomach, and it screams… I’M GOING TO MAX OUT! For some it only lasts a few minutes after watching a lifter give their 100% effort in an exercise and come out victorious with a big smile and loud hoorah! For others it will last long enough that they decide to do it, to go for it. To push themselves in an exercise that they have been working on long enough that they need to quantify their efforts!

This is a beginners guide on what a max effort should look like. You’ll understand the different things that need to be considered and how to plan ahead so you can achieve a true max!


There are a few factors to be considered that tend to be overlooked when hitting a max. The most common lifts to max out on are the squat, bench, and deadlift, or some sort of variation of those lifts.

Technique (Form) - Do you really understand what is happening with your body when you are putting it under load with heavy weight and what you need to do to keep it safe? At lighter weight you are able to work through reps without much risk because the body is adaptable and can handle some amount of improper positioning… but when you are pushing your body to maximum effort you need to understand which joints should be where and why. Your muscles may be strong, but you need to mentally engage them to align the body in the correct way. This doesn’t mean that you will get hurt if you aren’t completely sure of technique or if you break form on an attempt (many of us have pushed ourselves to failure without injury before fully understanding technique), but I highly recommend understanding what correct form and execution is needed for each lift.

Core Strength - Lower back pain is a common occurrence (more so with people that don’t keep their cores strong), and a scary one at that. Hurting your back can put a huge damper on your everyday life and make a simple task like getting out of bed painful. My point is that you need to have a solid core for full body lifts to protect yourself! If you haven’t done a core exercise at least once a week, you may want to consider postponing your max day until you can plank for at least 1 minute comfortably! Also, core strength will improve your ability to handle higher weight relative to your strength, especially in the squat and deadlift.

Plan Ahead (Recovery) - Take a few days off before you find out what your max is. Going for it on a Saturday after a full week of high volume workouts will not give you an accurate representation of your strength. By planning ahead you can allow your body a few days to fully recover to optimal operating levels, and you will have a more enjoyable max effort day with an even more satisfying max. You could even go as far as planning your max effort attempts 4 weeks out, train through a proper peaking cycle to adjust to some heavier loads, and amaze yourself with a number far greater than you thought you would achieve!

The Day Of

Warm your body up and prepare for 100% effort, a very exciting feeling indeed, but be patient and take the time to physically and mentally ramp up. Select an exercise similar to the one you will be working up to max with (for example, I enjoy doing the stair master before squats because I get a nice burn in my quads and glutes, and it’s also strenuous enough to raise my heart rate and body temp). You could also pick some resistance exercises as well to engage the entire body such as lunges before squats or pushups before bench press.

Weights - Your weight selection and progressions should be larger in the beginning and taper smaller as you get closer to your planned max. This is a hard thing to judge for your first time since you really have no idea what you are capable of (work around what you plan to attempt), but the goal is to perform more reps with the lighter weight and less reps as you increase the weight. Once you are getting closer to what feels like you’re working at 70% (7 out of 10 effort if you don’t have a max number in mind) you should be performing only 1 rep sets. In a perfect world you should be there by set 5 or 6, and should achieve your max attempt within 10 sets.

Spotter - Always use a responsible spotter! Selecting someone to spot you on bench press that is more worried about how their biceps look in the mirror than if you might drop the bar on your throat is a bad choice! Make sure they understand the importance of their job and that it will be taken seriously. Also, let them know that you are not to be helped unless you have failed… if you are working through, what we call, a grinder and your spotter gives you a “bump”, they have just stolen that attempt from you. And nobody cares about a lift that was 99% all you, this is 100%!

Failure - You do not need to keep adding weight until you fail. You can decide when you feel that was enough without going to the breaking point. Drilling out a tough squat and succeeding is certainly enough for a first time max… if you really struggled with 315 on squat, putting 325 on the bar may want to be pushed back to another day. There are two types of failure but they can be relative to each other, physical failure where your muscles were working to their full ability, and form failure where you lost positioning in the lift. Neither one needs to happen, but if they do, use them to learn from. It will tell you a muscle group that you have neglected or needs to be stronger, or it will help you better understand your technique.

Video - If you don’t have a video… did it really happen? Seriously though, recording your attempt to watch it afterwards is a great tool for you to study your attempt and better understand what happened. A one rep max effort attempt happens very fast and unless you have something to look over, you most likely won’t have a clear idea of what really happened during your lift and why.

Relative - This is the most important part of max attempts, power lifting, and LIFE! The number you work up to is completely relative to you and you alone. A lot of us get wrapped up in trying to be as strong as someone else or competing for the top spot… but unless that’s your life’s purpose, going for max is just setting a number to help you work towards a goal. Don’t take the fun out of it by comparing your weight with someone else’s! If you are in the right atmosphere and have the right people around you, they will be thrilled you worked up to 100% and gave everything you had more than if it was 200 pounds or 300!

Ryan Sensenig