How to Prepare for a One Rep Max Strength Test: What to do 3 Days Prior and the Day of Your Strength Test and the Best Strength Testing Protocol For Determining Your One Rep Max (1RM)

posted in: Q+A, Strength Training | 6

one rep max strength testNote: I’m not big on using belts, gloves, wraps, and straps for regular training. But if you’re going for a legit one rep max, you may want one of these.

The one rep max strength test has been a benchmark measurement of raw strength testing for a long time. The term one rep max (1RM) refers to the maximum weight that an athlete can lift in a controlled strength test for a single repetition.

The most popular form of strength testing the one rep max is in the sport powerlifting. Powerlifting strength testing involves three exercises: the barbell back squat, the barbell bench press, and the barbell deadlift. Of course, this is not the only means of strength testing. A one rep max strength test is traditionally performed with a barbell or dumbbell, but other tools such as kettlebells and strongman lifting equipment can also be used.

There is a lot that can be done to prepare for a one rep max strength test. Ultimately, your performance will be determined by the work you do in the months and years beforehand, and there are a few things you can do beforehand to maximize that performance.  This article will focus on the three days prior to the day of the strength test, as well as the day of.

How to Prepare for a One Rep Max Strength Test

Day 1 – No intensity day.

Today, you will focus on active recovery.  The strength test is in three days, and you will need to ensure that your body is fully rested in the days leading up to it.  The best way to make the most of this day is to perform some light exercise to stimulate recovery.  A full body joint mobility session is the ideal way to prepare on a no intensity day (see Intu-Flow).  Focus on spending quality time on each joint to eliminate any “kinks” in your movement.  You want to restore full range of motion and help your body relax and remain able to move freely.  Going for a light walk is also another good way to spend this day.

Starting today, you will need to stay laser-focused on your nutrition intake, hydration levels, and quality of sleep.  Get as much sleep as you can, 8+ hours is ideal.  You will also want to ensure you get a balance of healthy food, with a good share of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and plenty of fiber.  Prior to a strength test, you don’t want to exclude any of these macronutrients, even if you are on a diet.  If you can, eliminate all stimulants from your pre-strength test diet as well – no caffeinated drinks, sugar, or processed/refined foods.  That means no…

  • coffee
  • soda (diet or regular)
  • energy drinks (you should stop drinking that garbage anyways)
  • candy
  • white breads and pastas made with refined white flour
  • packaged snack foods, like chips and cheese snacks
  • packaged cookies and cakes
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • processed meats

The foods you should be eating prior to your strength test include: lean meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and legumes.  You will want to stay fully hydrated starting today as well.  Drink only water and tea (no milk or sugar, please).

*Understandably, some people need to drink their coffee, which is fine.  If you are addicted, even only mildly, don’t restrict yourself if you know it will compete with your ability to perform – use your intuition and don’t overindulge.

Day 2 – Low Intensity Day

*Use the same nutritional and sleep recommendations as above.

Today is likely the most important day of the 4, in terms of preparation.  The goal today is perform some low intensity activity and further solidify the recovery from yesterdays session by going deeper into recovery mode, but also to prepare you for tomorrow which is a moderate intensity day.

I recommend two things on a low intensity day, either:

1) Practice Prasara Yoga to address strength imbalances and groove proper movement patterns (Prasara Instructional DVD here)

2) or, follow along with the Ageless Mobility DVD Program (more information here)

If you don’t have access to either of these programs, then there are still some things you can do.  Practice some bodyweight exercise variations of the ones you will be testing.  If you’re going to test the barbell back squat, practice bodyweight squats.  If it’s the bench press, practice pushups.  If the deadlift, practice lunges or single-leg deadlifts without resistance.  I will emphasize my instructions to PRACTICE, not train.  You are not to push into exertion.  Keep your effort low, between 20-40% of your maximum ability.  Your goal should be to groove the skill, and stimulate the movement patterns.

Another thing you can do today is stimulate the antagonist muscles of the primary movers you will be using during the strength test. So, if you are planning to test your one rep max in the bench press exercise, which uses the pectorals, shoulders, and triceps as the primary movers, it would be a good idea to stimulate the antagonist muscles of the back and arms. Remember, to keep your effort low.

Don’t make a low intensity day another “off day” or “rest day.” It’s very important to your strength test performance that you slightly increase your intensity from the day prior in order to build momentum that will ultimately escalate and reach its maximum on the day of the strength test – now only two days away.

Day 3 – Moderate Intensity Day

*Use the same nutritional and sleep recommendations as above with one exception.  Fuel up for the big day, and drink a LOT of water. You want to be fully hydrated and fully fueled.  DO NOT eat any food after your evening meal.  If you have dinner at 6pm, that is your last meal of the day.

View today as the final launch pad until your strength test.  To an extent, what you do today will determine tomorrow’s results.

It is today that you should choose exercises that resemble the ones you’ll be performing tomorrow.  Use the same training tool as the one you’ll use during the strength test.  Use a barbell if you’ll be testing with a barbell.  The key today is to PRACTICE the exercises, and keep your effort between 40-60% of your maximum.  In no way are you going to push your limits today, but you do want to offer yourself a slight challenge.

Your training block can be structured many different ways.

5X5 with a load you can lift 10 times would suffice.

Alternatively, you could do 5X3 with a load you can lift 6 times.  How you structure this training block will largely depend on how you’ve been training up until this point.  Use a set/rep scheme that you’re familiar with, just keep the effort moderate. Your rest times should be generous, but not excessive.  Two minutes maximum for rest between sets.

Schedule some time in the evening to relax.  You’ve got a big day tomorrow.

Day 4, “D-Day” – One Rep Max Strength Test (High Intensity)

*Use the same nutritional and sleep recommendations as above with one exception. Do not eat anything 2 hours prior to your 1RM strength test.  Plan out your meals accordingly.

First, take a deep breath and know that you’ve done everything you can to prepare for this day.

The best time for a one rep max strength test is late afternoon.  Between 3 and 5pm is the golden time.  If you cannot fit this into your schedule, don’t worry about it.  Any other time of day is fine, just do not attempt a strength test within 4 hours of waking because your spine may still be releasing fluid buildup from the night before – and nobody wants a spinal injury.

Prior to beginning the strength test, perform a full body joint mobility routine to decompress your joints and prime the body for movement under extreme stress. Once finished, begin your warmup sets – first with a bodyweight only set to groove the movement.  You want to awaken the tissues, and feed them bloodflow, not stress them out.

1) Then add the training tool (ie barbell) for a set.
2) Then add enough weight to allow 5-10 comfortable repetitions. Rest for 1 minute.
3) Estimate a warmup load that will allow 3-5 repetitions, without coming close to maximum failure. Rest for 2 minutes.
4) The next set will be 2-3 repetitions with a weight that you can lift 3-4 times. Rest for 2-4 minutes.
5) Make a 5-10% load increase for upper body exercises, or a 10-20% load increase for lower body exercises and try for your one rep max. If you succeed, increase the weight again slightly and retry after 2-4 minutes of rest. If you fail, decrease the load by 5-10% and retry after 2-4 minutes. Once you get to step 5, you get five tries for the 1RM test, in which you can adjust the load up or down.

Final Notes:

Use a stopwatch or clock to ensure you are resting the correct amount of time.  Do not rest longer than 4 minutes, as the body will begin to get tight.

Do some quick vibrations between each set to restore bloodflow, awaken the nervous system, and decompress the joints.  Shake out your arms and legs, and do some full body “chugs” by rapidly driving the floor away from you with your feet flat.  (see RESET: Vibration Training Instructional DVD for more information)

Log each and every step of your training up until this point in a training journal, including the strength test itself.  This is the only way to know if what you did actually worked or not, and will give you a resource to go back to next time.

Get plenty of good nutrition following the one rep max strength test.  A post-training drink comprised of fast-digesting protein and carbs in a 1:2 ratio is adequate. Then, eat a full meal with plenty of protein and starchy carbohydrates 1 hour later.

If your strength test was at the conclusion of a training cycle that lasted between 6 and 12 weeks, it’s time to take an extended rest from training.  3-7 days should be enough.

Good luck.

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional and Strength Coach

P.S. For a much more refined version of the above recommendations, check out the ultimate system to reach peak performance levels every 28 days using the the 4X7 Wave Series DVD Program. I’ve heard of athletes setting new personal records as often as every 4 days using this protocol:

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6 Responses

  1. Andrew

    on day three what is the benefit of not eating after dinner. i assumed it was the opposite, where as i want to eat as much as i can so I’m bigger before the big lift.

  2. JP

    Discouraging the use of caffeine? Fluid in the spine?!? You know its not a synovial joint right? And fatiguing the muscles involved the very day before? This seems pretty poor advice.

  3. Dominick

    Have you ever prepared for anything heavier than 400 lbs on squat or deadlift? You’re advice sounds like someone who’s just starting out and maybe maxing a deadlift at 315. Doing 6 triples with something you could do 6 reps with… Hmmm! I compete in strongman, and on a good day I could hit 6 reps at 475 lbs. So you’d say I do 6 x 3 the day right before maxing out!? Six triples above 80% of max!!?? Doing 5 x 5 with a 10-rep max… In my case, that would be about 425! 5 x 5 using 425 would be a pretty grueling workout even for me; it’s about what I do when preparing a deadlift for max reps!

    I have a hard time believing this would be better than plain rest 3-4 days before testing.

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