What's you max?
That is a question you will hear in the gym at least once a day. When describing our capabilities in the gym, particularly strength, we often use our single best attempt to define us. Not only do we use that number to impress people but we also use it as a guide for our strength training and metcon work day to day. There are different versions of your Max though some versions are more useful than others. We are going to discuss the Training Max which can be used to consistently make gains.
So what are the different types of "Max":
The Lifetime Max - For any given lift this will be the most weight you have ever moved. EVER. This will be the weight you will tell people when they ask - "What's your max?" because it will be the biggest number and we are all show offs (It's ok!!). This lift was completed on a day that you had 12 cups of coffee, got a huge raise and just watched an awesome video on snatch technique. Your gym crush may have also been watching.
Daily Max - For any given lift this will be the weight you can hit on a normal day for 1 rep. This number can vary widely based on how you are feeling that day, how many times you were asked to do something you didn't want to at work and how much coffee you had.
Current Max - I just made this one up and it has a little more explanation. For any given lift this is the weight you would complete for 1 rep if you were focused and knew you were going heavy that day. This max also takes into account your life's circumstances at that moment. Say you just had a baby or maybe you were living on an island drinking coconut based booze for a few months and now are getting back into things. Then your Current Max may be very different then your Lifetime Max. I've never had a baby but I assume these two scenarios are very similar.
Current Max is probably above your Daily Max because it was achieved with some focus and prep. It may be above or below your Lifetime Max. Current Max can also come off of an intense program designed to boost your lift but the gains may not hold (see Smolov).
The 4th Max is the one I want to spend the most time with though because it is the most useful:
The Training Max - Simply put the Training Max is 90% of your Lifetime Max or Current Max - whichever is more appropriate.
I first heard of this while learning about the 5/3/1 program created by Jim Wendler. While I don't think he "invented" the idea of a training max I do like his implementation of it and all credit for the ideas in this article really go to him. Wendler is a big dude - he has squatted over 1000 lbs and generally enjoys lifting heavy things. As he got older though his priorities changed. He still wanted to be crazy strong but also wanted to be able to run a few miles or touch his toes without falling over or hurting himself. In short he was looking to stay in the gym long term and make progress a lifetime endeavor. To that end he formulated the 5/3/1 program. The Training Max is a major component of that program and useful all on its own.
How do you figure out a training max?
For most of us a training max is defined as 90% of your lifetime max. You can also use 90% of your current max if that is more in line with what you are capable of. This might apply for the folks who fit the scenarios above or for someone who has been lifting seriously for 10-15 years. If your Lifetime Max is 300 lbs then your Training Max will be 270 lbs.
How do you use it?
Once you have that 90% number you base all of your strength training weights on that number. So if the day calls for Back Squats at 50% of your 1RM you will use 270 instead of 300 as the 1RM. That means you are squatting 135 instead of 150.
I can hear everyone objecting already. It is too light! I won't make progress! I need to lift more to get stronger!
Well I'm here to tell you that this simply isn't the case. The real key to gaining strength is consistency. Consistency with your form and range of motion. Consistency with your intensity. And most importantly consistency with simply getting in the gym and lifting. Being able to get in the gym and move some weight over and over is more important than any one day's lift. Consistency is what makes you strong. Consistency is King.
The finer points of a Training Max
The training max keeps you in the gym. Plain and simple. It lets you have awesome days and shitty ones. It gives you room to push and room to make mistakes. By using 90% of your best lift we are now operating with weights that you can handle proficiently on a regular basis. Your form will be better, reps will be better and you will get more out of your strength work day to day.
Use that to your advantage. Perfect reps at slightly less weight are better than heavy ones with crappy form - almost every time. Not only will you benefit from them because of the increased ROM but you will gain confidence and skill. That slightly lighter weight also has the added benefit of being less likely to get you injured which means you will be back in the gym the following session.
You will notice that I said "almost" up there. That is because there is still room for 90+%. Feeling great? Go for more that day and ride the lighting. No one says you can't push. Day to day though use that Training Max and you will still get stronger while still staying fresh.
Remember that you can't get stronger if you aren't in the gym - so keep an eye to the long term and remember that more than anything - Consistency is King.