Why You’re Bad at 1 Rep Maxes

A common complain amongst lifters is they are “bad at 1 rep maxes“.

You’ll often hear this complain in the form of “My 5 rep max is X so my 1 rep max should be Y but I’m 30lbs under it. What gives!?”

Because of this you’ll hear a lot of lifters say things like “they are bad at 1 rep maxes“, “they don’t have powerlifting genetics“, “they aren’t an explosive lifter“, and a whole list of other excuses.

I don’t think this is true. Sure genetics and base athletic skill will always play a part in these things, but I think being bad at maxing out is a very fixable problem. In fact the most common reason people are bad at their 1RM attempts in the first place is they never practice the skill.

With this in mid here’s the major reasons why you’re bad at 1 rep maxes.

1. You Don’t Practice The Skill

Like it or not a 1 rep max is it’s own separate skill compared to we’ll say “normal lifting“. Just because you’ve been diligently crushing your sets of fahve does not mean you are going to be good at singles.

There is a distinct skill curve when it comes to lifting weights which are in the 90-100% 1RM territory compared to lifting in the 65-85% 1RM range which is what makes up the bulk of most lifting programs. Don’t expect things to go well if you don’t actively practice lifting in this higher intensity range.

Most modern powerlifting programs now employ “daily singles” before the actual volume work for the main lifts to combat this problem.

It’ll look something like this:

LOWBAR SQUAT: 1 Set of 1 Rep @ RPE 8 followed by 5 sets of 5 reps at -20% of single

When a lifter is deeper into their programming you may even see them performing daily singles on their variation lifts as well. So not only would they single their low bar squat early in the week, but also a pause squat or another similar squat variation later on. Point being, they are getting A LOT of practice with these high intensity singles.

I will note however that these singles are NOT MAXES. This is where a lot of novice lifters can screw up with programming singles. They are often programed around RPE 7-9, the point being for you to get solid practice in, not beat yourself into the ground by constantly trying to max out every session

2. Your Program Doesn’t Match Your Goal

I’ve seen plenty of lifters who’s idea of progress is hitting a handful of sets of 8-10 for their training each day, and whenever they quote “feel good” they’ll full send a 1RM. They’ll then be disgruntled when they notice their balance is off, the weight feels like a ton of bricks, and their form is all over the place as soon as they dip under 5 reps at a high intensity.

The golden rule of everything lifting related is your programming should be specific to your goal. Wanting to be the biggest guy in the gym and wanting to be the strongest guy in the gym are two completely different goals which require completely different training programs.

You simply aren’t going to make much in the way of strength progress if all you do is high volume 10-15 rep sets chasing that pump. Will you put on a little bit of strength? Of course. But no where near the amount of progress you could with a program which consistently had you training heavy fives, triples, doubles, and singles.

Somewhere along the line you are going to have to realize programming requires sacrifices. If you want to be really good at one rep maxes you might not be able to fit in quite as much hypertrophy work as you’d like. On the flipside, if all you want is to be a bodybuilder, understand that style of programming isn’t going to make you particularly strong. There is no perfect program out there that can give you the best of everything.

3. You Haven’t Learned the Concept of “Peaking

Peaking from a lifting viewpoint can be defined as achieving maximal preparedness for a peak performance attempt at a desired time.

An easy example of this being a powerlifter. Ideally, they will be “peaked” for the exact date of their competition not sooner, and not later.

An unfortunate truth is you simply cannot be at “max strength” year round. Your programming should have specific phases to it and regardless of which system of programming is your favorite they all follow a basic idea of building a foundation, transferring that foundation into sport specific skill work, and finally tapering down to attempt to reduce fatigue while simultaneously maintaining max performance in preparation for a max attempt.

You can’t be “ready” for the best performance of your life at any given moment so stop trying to be. A lot of the individuals I’ve seen that are disgruntled with their performance on 1RM attempts simply aren’t putting in the time to plan out their programming, and plan out exactly WHEN they want to attempt to perform. They are doing everything by “feel” and while they may be putting in hard work into their training, that’s not going to overcome a lack of planning.

The good news being, most quality powerlifting programs have peaking built into the program itself. That means even if you have no idea how to peak, all you need to do is ride out the program DON’T PROGRAM HOP and you’re going to be just fine.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.