Strong like bull & how to find your true 1 rep max

Bullish maistora via Compfight

There are so many ways to go about finding your 1 rep max (1RM). The following is a method I recommend and use on myself and clients. I find it to be the best way to get a true reading of your 1 rep max strength and the best way to keep you safe and avoiding any injuries so that you can get back to work towards your goals.

The details below outline what I was taught while in Rhode Island working at the Poliquin Institute. Charles is one of the more highly regarded strength coaches around and I respect his teaching methods a great deal. I’ve tweaked it a little bit to fit what I find works best with the majority of the population.

You might not feel like right now is not an appropriate time for you to test your 1RM but read on. You’ll discover some excellent tips to make sure you are performing certain lifts correctly and with proper technique. You’ll also learn cues to look for that will let you know if you might be going a little to heavy or light.

But what about those that are not weight training or don’t like to train with weights? Can you still test yourself to see if you are progressing? Of course! I’ll cover that too.

Lomo Batman

Why test your 1RM

For one it’s just fun. Plain in simple. Lifting heavy sh*t is just fun. Girls, don’t be scared to test as well. Lifting heavy weight for 1 rep is not going to make you bulky.

A few reasons it’s good idea to test your strength:

1. It’s a great way to measure progress. To often we get all wrapped up in the scale. Weighing yourself every single week. Some everyday, and some every couple of hours. To be honest a cup of water or a bowel movement can affect your weight so don’t trip chocolate chip about that. There are other ways to measure progress than just the scale. If you’re getting stronger that’s a good sign you’re doing some things right.

And for the ladies, getting stronger does not mean you need to gain weight. It just means you’re getting stronger.

You’re bodies are over compensating for the new stressors that have been introduced. Even as you body weight train, if it is done in a method that keeps challenging you from week to week your body recognizes this and in a way says to itself.

“Son of a b*itch!” What is going on here? If this is something we are going to be doing every week we better make some changes so that we can handle it.”

One of the changes that it makes is strength.

2. Testing your 1RM lets you know your weaknesses. Later in the post I’ll be going over how to tell if you might have some strength imbalances that you can improve on based upon finding your 1RM in the bench press. It’s pretty cool stuff :)

Aside from that, testing your 1RM gives you an excellent opportunity to see what areas you might need to work on. Maybe you’ve been spending too much time underneath the bar and your bench press is huge but you can barely do a couple of pull-ups, let alone a weighted one.

The most important thing here is to remember to avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. Just because your buddy can squat 350# doesn’t mean you need to. We all are unique and our strength, health, and fitness levels are no different. Comparing yourself to others here is a sure-fire way to get frustrated with your progress.

Focus on your results. Did you make a 5 pound increase in your shoulder press this month? AWESOME! That’s an improvement. Maybe you built up to your first pull-up! So sweet! Congratulate yourself.

3. It really checks your form and technique. It’s very important to maintain good form and technique when testing your 1RM. For one; to avoid injuries but also to make the lift legit. If you’ve been doing pull-ups but short arming it and not getting into a dead hang at the bottom or not getting your chin above the bar you will soon find out why this is so important.

It’s easier to back squat a heavy weight when you only come down 1/4 of the way. Proper form would have you getting nice and low. Opinions will vary here but a little past parallel at the bottom of the rep is what I consider to be good depth. And no, it’s not bad for your knees. What’s bad for your knees is squatting with bad technique. Here’s good technique.

What exercises should you test?

You can really test your 1RM in anything you desire. If you are an athlete it might be good to test exercises that are specific to your sport (JUMP DOWN to the bottom if you are interested in seeing some other tests for specific sports.)

But more importantly you should focus on the lifts you have mastered technically. If you are not familiar with the bench press, dead lift, or can not do a pull-up yet then you would not want to test them. Only test yourself if you are confident in the exercise and if you have been performing it with good form for at least a few months. You may want a professional to take a look at your form before doing so.

Large muscle groups and exercises that work them are the best to test. Exercises included would be:

For the most part these are the lifts you will see the most progress in. Usually if these lifts are going well for you the smaller lifts will do the same (think arms) simply because they are recruited and are used so much in these lifts anyhow without directly being worked.

In the case of the bench press it gives us an idea of where the rest of our upper body lifts should be (I’ll explain in a little).

Space Marines Cuusoo Poster

Who should test and when to test

Anyone that is interested in getting stronger. If you you’re trying to get your incredible hulk on it’s definitely a good way to see where you stand. As long as you are familiar with the exercises and have been performing them with good form for a few months.

If you currently have any lagging injuries that have been bugging you it might be a good time to rest those puppies for now. Get healthy first and then think about strength testing.

A good time to test your 1RM in is right before you start a new training program. This way after the program concludes you can test again to help evaluate the effectiveness of the training. Give any new training program a fair shake. At least 4 weeks before evaluating the results.

Enough already. How do I test?

Cheese and crackers…keep your pants on. We’re getting to it :)


  • Step 1: Remove all jewelry, hats, glasses, any accessories. You don’t want anything getting caught. Otherwise it could get ugly.
  • Step 2: Wear loose and comfortable clothing. But make sure it’s not to lose that clothing can get caught.
  • Step 3: Remind yourself that perfect form is expected during these 1RM testing sessions.
  • Step 4: It’s best to test your 1RM with a friend, trainer, or knowledgeable partner. If done correctly you will actually fail on your final repetition and in the case of the bench press a partner/spotter will be needed to help re-rack the weight for you.
  • Step 5: Don’t test more than two big muscle groups per day. You will also want to make sure that they are opposing muscle groups. If you test your bench press, I would wait about 10 minutes before you test your weighted pull-up, or Back Squat. If you test your back squat that day do not test your dead-lift. Both utilize the legs and lower back a little too much. Play it safe and wait for another day. The best option is to test one body part that day and move on.

Beginning the test: For this example we will use the bench press. But the guidelines below can be applied to testing any 1RM.

NOTE: Your spotter will help you lift the bar off of the rack for every set that you perform regardless of the weight. When you have control of the bar you will then let your partner know my saying “MY BAR.” Your spotter will than release the bar and you will begin your first set/rep.

Step 1, TEMPO: The movement of the lift should be 4010. If you have not read The definitive guide to reps, sets, rest, and tempo please do. But briefly, this means that you will take four (4) seconds to lower the bar all the way to the chest, you will then pause for zero (0) seconds at the chest, you will than raise the bar for one (1) second until arms are extended above you. Once you have control of the bar above you your partner will take the bar.

Why do we use a tempo? So that we have a standard every time you test. The pace at which you move the bar affects your strength. As a test try bench pressing at different tempos. This will give you a good feel for what I mean. Do you have to use 4010 as your tempo. Absolutely NOT! It’s just what I prefer to use. What ever tempo you decide on just make a note so that the next time you do the same thing.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s also very important to be consistent with your hand grip, feet stance, and hand width as well. Take notes of these so that you are as accurate as possible every time you test. A good rule of thumb for testing bench press, shoulder press, and pull-up is a slightly wider than shoulder width grip (so your hands are just outside of your shoulders). For lower body roughly the same. So your feet would be just outside the shoulders.

Step 2, First set: You will estimate your 1RM bench press. It is totally ok if you have no clue what that might be. Just estimate the best you can. For your first set you will use 40% of that estimated 1RM and perform 4 reps. You then rest 10 seconds and perform your second set.

Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .4 = 80# x 4 reps

  • Second set: Your second set is just like the first. 4 repetitions at 40% of your estimated 1RM. You will then rest 10 seconds and perform your third set.
  • Third set: You will now perform 3 repetitions using 60% of your estimated 1RM. You will then rest 30 seconds and move on to your fourth set. Remember to keep using the tempo of 4010 for every single set. (Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .6 = 120#)
  • Fourth set: Now you will perform 2 repetitions using 75% of your estimated 1RM. Resting 60 seconds after and before moving on to your fifth set. (Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .75 = 150#)
  • Fifth set: You will now take 85% of your estimated 1RM and perform 1 repetition. Rest 2 complete minute before moving on to your sixth set. (Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .85 = 170#)
  • Sixth set: You will now no longer use a percentage of your estimated 1RM. What you will now want to do is take mental notes or have your spotter make the decision for you regarding how much weight to add. It’s best to go a little lighter if you are un sure. Here are some things to look for on the previous set that will help you decide how much weight to add.

1. The speed of the bar on the way up. Was the bar moving considerably slower on the way up from the chest? If so think about adding only a small amount of weight. If the speed was pretty consistent it’s safe bet that you can add a bit more.

2. Was your form consistent. Did you feel comfortable under the bar or did you feel like you might need to start squirming around a little to help get the bar up.

3. If you have to bounce the bar off your chest, can not come down into a full squat (hip crease slightly below knees), or chin over the bar in a pull-up it is a no rep. Also if you hips come off of the bench when bench pressing. Same goes with your feet. They should remain planted on the ground at all times.

4. Is the bar staying even? The bar should move evenly throughout the rep. If it begins to lean in one direction because of dominant strength to one side it is no rep.

  • Seventh set and beyond: You want to try to find your 1RM roughly between sets 7 and 11 ideally. Beginning with your seventh set you will now want to rest 4 minutes after each attempt to allow for complete recovery. Trust me, you might feel like you are ready earlier but check the ego at the door and rest like a lump on a log.

You also might be wondering why we did so many sets and started off so light? Without getting all sciencey on ya, strength training is primarily a creatine phosphate or central nervous system workout. What we are doing by warming up this way is lightning a fire under our nervous systems a** and waking it up so that it knows what it is about to do.

Think of it like this. When your alarm goes of in the morning you usually are not quite awake right away. It takes a few minutes of moving around to get going. Same thing applies here.

What should my 1RM be?

This really will vary on your experience, training age (how long you have be training with weights), age, gender, technique, exercise performed, there are countless variables that come into play. Heck, you might get distorted by a runny nose or something and not quite perform as well.

There is no real 1RM you should have. Realize that this will change dramatically if you are new to working with weights or have not been training for very long. And if you have been training for a while these numbers almost seem like they never budge so be happy with any small changes.

However some good goals to shoot for if you are new to weight training are as follows.

Bench Press your 1.50 your bodyweight by 1 rep: 150lbs weight = 225lbs bench press
Back squat 1.75 your bodyweight for 1 rep: 150lbs weight = 262lbs back squat
Dead lift 2x your bodyweight for 1 rep: 150lbs weight = 300lbs dead-lift

Bench press your body weight
Back squat 1.25 your body weight
Dead lift 1.5 your body weight

If you can not do these don’t stress. It takes time and consistency in the gym. If you haven’t been exercising there is no way. But the above is just something to strive for if you decide to hit the weights. Get on a program that you enjoy and find effective and you’ll be there in no time.

If you are a little more advanced here are some good goals to shoot for.

Bench press 1.75 times bodyweight for 1 rep: 150 x 262.5lbs
Back squat 2.25 times bodyweight for 1 rep: 150 x 337.5lbs
Dead lift 2.75 times bodyweight for 1 rep: 150 x 412.5lbs.

Bench press 1.25 your bodyweight
Back squat 1.75 your bodyweight
Dead lift 2 times your body weight

#119/366 Push-ups

What if I don’t lift weights but I want to do some tests to evaluate my performance

There are tons of tests that you can do to measure different types of performance based on your goals. You can test aerobic performance, muscular endurance, strength, anaerobic power, agility, and body measurements. Detailing each would make this post about 3 days longer than it already is so here are a few good links you can check out if you are interested in exploring some other testing options.

Ok, this part is for the really nerdy people who like numbers… I DO :)

So long story short, I geek out on stuff like this. If you don’t like numbers please just skip down to the bottom of this post where I thank you for coming and tell you to live Limitless. No offense will be taken, I assure you that.

The best exercise to test your 1RM is the bench press. It essentially gives you and idea of where all your other strength lifts should be. This has been concluded through years and years of research by numerous strength coaches. Below is the gist of it based on a 200 pound 1RM in the bench press

Bench press 1RM: 200
Supinated chin-up (palms face you): Your goal would to be around 87% of your 1RM in the bench press

Example: 200 x .87 = 174lbs.

This includes your body weight plus any extra weight added. So if you weigh 150 pounds you would be including roughly a 25 pound dumbbell, weight plate, vest, or whatever other method you use to add extra weight.

Incline bench press: Your goal would be to be around 91% of your 1RM in the bench press

Example: 200 x .91 = 182lbs.

Dips: (Only perform dips if you have VERY healthy shoulders) Your goal is to be at 117% of your 1RM in the bench press.

Example: 200 x 1.17 = 234lbs

For dips as in pull-ups this weight includes your bodyweight.

There are some other calculations that you can take into account for smaller muscle groups. If you are at all interested in those please contact me and I will ship them out to you. And by ship I mean email.

Why are these beneficial? Well if you can bench press 2 times your body weight but can barely knock out a pull-up with a little extra weight you may need to work on that to balance out those muscles. It makes a huge difference in injury prevention.

Our muscles work together. If your chest is super strong but your back is weak it pulls on those muscles, thus risking injury.

Some final thoughts

In all honesty testing your strength and 1 rep max should be a fun learning experience. Is it my way or the highway? Absolutely not. There are other ways you can go about testing your 1 rep max and other calculations you can take into account to figure out if you have any weakness.

If any of this was at all confusing please do not hesitate to give me a call or email. I am more than happy to clarify things. There is a ton of information here.

Again, the post will be up all week for digestion and re-reading. Love it or hate it? Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.

live limitless and this week strong like BULL!


About Justin

I'm inspired by how simple changes made to your nutritional, exercise, and lifestyle choices can effect your overall well-being in such dramatic ways. More energy, improved mood, increased happiness, strength, power, and sheer enjoyment for life is what I do.

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