Ask the Experts: How Do I Figure Out My 1-Rep Max?

Use this simple method for figuring out your one-rep max (1RM) for an exercise, courtesy of the STACK Performance Center.

Q: How do I figure out my one-rep max for weightlifting?

If I were being cheeky I'd say, "by lifting as much as you can, duh." But that's a bad answer. Sadly, many people think that's how they should go about determining their one-rep max (1RM). Using that approach, however, can get you hurt. (Read 3 Reasons Your Bench is Weak.)

Thankfully, there is a better way. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which oversees the smartest minds in training, spends all day answering questions like this. NSCA has developed a recommended method for a person to use when testing their 1RM. Their approach:

  • Warm up with light resistance for 5-10 reps
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • Add 10 to 20 pounds (if it's an upper-body lift) or 30 to 40 pounds (lower body)
  • Perform your second set, completing 3-5 reps
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Add 10-20 pounds (upper body) or 30-40 pounds (lower body)
  • Perform your third set, aiming for 2-3 reps
  • Rest for 2-4 minutes
  • Add 10-20 pounds (upper body) or 30-40 pounds (lower body)
  • Attempt to lift that weight for 1 rep

If you hit that rep, congrats! Rest for 2 to 4 more minutes, then add another 10-20 pounds (upper body) or 30-40 pounds (lower body) and try another 1-rep set. (Learn how to properly spot an exercise.)

When you fail to lift a weight for one rep, don't worry. You're pushing yourself, so failure is bound to happen. Once you miss a rep, rest for 2-4 minutes and subtract 5-10 pounds (upper body) or 15-20 pounds (lower body) from the bar. Then attempt a 1-rep set again.

Continue adjusting the load until you find your max. Ideally, you'll reach this number within 5 testing sets. Test yourself every 12 weeks between workout cycles to assess your progress, and find new ways (and weights) to challenge your now-stronger muscles.

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