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The Mentality of the Max

By Aaron Mehl
Contributor, Sports+Fitness NetworkArmy Fitness

Like most coaches, I travel to as many conferences and networking opportunities as I can afford. The strength and conditioning industry, like most, is about who you know more than what you know. Talking with and learning from other coaches is paramount, and there are some topics that every coach seems to agree on. One of those topics is most certainly NOT the testing of athletes or clients and whether they should complete a one rep maximal lift (1RM). Everyone has an opinion on how testing should be done in regards to their athletes. If you ask ten coaches how they test their athletes you could very well get ten different answers. Which method is the safest? Which method best relates to athletic performance? The answer may be much more complex than you think.

Testing Methodologies

Many coaches do not believe in testing athletes or clients with just a maximal effort single rep to see how much they can lift. With the increase in technology over the last decade or so, there are now racks that have cable attachments to measure power output, tendo units can be used to measure velocity in meters per second, Nike has a system called SPARQ to test younger athletes, and coaches will sometimes devise their own tests that they deem safer such as a three rep max. Even the different branches of the military each have their own testing protocol. They are body weight based, but nevertheless, are regarded as a good measure of combat readiness by the powers that be (although I disagree). The point is there are many different ways to test athletes or clients. Perhaps the most important factor in testing is consistency. A test should involve the same standards and procedures every time to make sure the results are always accurate.

When choosing a methodology for testing, one of the biggest factors to determine how you test is what type of athlete you are working with. A professional athlete that has been in the league for a number of years and has established themself may not be worth putting a barbell on their back for a max effort squat from an injury prevention stand point. If a football player making $4 million a year gets injured on a max hang clean, often times before he gets to the team doctor, the strength coach is out of work! Conversely, a high school athlete may not be technically proficient enough in lifting technique and basic strength to give very accurate results during testing either. Often times a medicine ball throw or a rep test may work better for younger athletes. Every situation should be handled on a case by case basis to find the most optimal testing protocol for the population you are working with.

With all that said, I should explain the reason behind this article and my personal philosophy on testing. Maybe I’m a little old school, but I wholeheartedly believe in a one rep max test for ALMOST everyone. I have had experience using some of the fancy toys that colleges sometimes have access to and I love tendo units, but unfortunately most of us do not have regular access to such technology. I would encourage using a tendo testing protocol for collegiate athletes because power output is so crucial for athletic performance and the tendo max is much safer, but despite the limited technological access, most of us are also not fortunate enough to work with that population on a regular basis. Planning must be done for strength coaches that work with tactical athletes recreational lifters, high school athletes, etc.

Mental Toughness

In the last few years, mental toughness development has been added to the strength and conditioning professional’s growing list of job duties. Coaches are leaning heavily on their strength staffs to make sure athletes are mentally prepared for competition as well as they are physically prepared. I have taken this methodology and used it with many populations and I have been very happy with the results. I think we can all recall a time where a certain amount of weight loaded on a bench or squat rack intimidated us. One thing I have learned in my travels as a coach and my under-the-bar experience is that conquering an intimidating weight can help bleed tenacity, toughness, and confidence into other areas of a person’s life. Part of coaching is preparing anyone you work with to be tougher and more confident in the long term to deal with the curve balls that life can throw at a person. No matter how good an athlete is they will inevitably graduate or retire. This is where mental toughness and the years of preparing for competition become so important.  Financial stress, job interviews, family problems, etc. can seem much less burdensome when you know you have successfully had a weight you never thought possible on your back or in your hands. As I mentioned above, if power output is the most crucial aspect of the training cycle, as if often is with certain collegiate populations, a 1RM may not be the best testing protocol. However, most of us work in a field that demands immediate results, and nothing proves to a person how much they are progressing than safely lifting a weight they have never touched before.

Key Coaching Points

Before you use the “couch to max” method, here are some important points to remember for both lifters, coaches, and personal trainers regarding when and how someone should handle a max effort test.

  • NEVER max in the beginning phases of a lifting program, regardless of the athlete’s age or ability. I will typically work on technique and sub maximal lifting for about 6 weeks before I even think about when to max (pending athlete ability). This also applies to collegiate and professional athletes who have taken a break from training. Safety first!
  • Space your testing out evenly. Don’t be one of those box gym “performance specialists” who tests high school athletes every Friday to try and sell their parents on buying more sessions for better results. Remember if you work with athletes, they have other commitments as well. Don’t expect your coaches to let you run them into the ground with testing and risk injuries during two-a-days.
  • The comfort of the athlete/client is the most important thing. I do not think a back spot during squatting is useful or necessary for a max, and I prefer side spots. Some lifters may want both. Make sure care is given to what makes the lifter the most prepared and do not give them an excuse to fail.
  • Positivity is key. I don’t typically give any coaching points during a test when an athlete gets over about 80%. I don’t want to get into their head and make them over-think the lift. I remain positive, tell them how strong everything looks, let the training and muscle memory (hopefully) take over, and remain positive.
  • Don’t sacrifice safety for numbers. As a caveat to the last point, I will also say that most of my athletes and clients do not actually go to failure, but to where their technique breaks down in a significant manner. For example, if a dead lift max is smooth but grinded out while a lifters back rounds off, that’s about it for our testing day. If they really want to keep going and feel they have a lot in the tank,  I may green light a 5-10 pound try after a significant rest period, but there is no sense in letting someone grind out 4 or 5 near maximal single reps while they’re back looks like a camel’s. Work on the posterior chain strength and re-test in 6 weeks. Testing, when done properly, should also expose weaknesses to the seasoned strength and conditioning professional.
  • Keep accurate records to not only prove to the client or athletes their hard work is paying off, but to also constantly analyze and evolve your programming. If you program for yourself, feel free to use yourself as a guinea pig. No one knows how you feel better than you do!
  • NEVER compare testing numbers or expectations to anyone else. This is the fastest way to allow self-doubt and disappointment to creep into a training regimen. For the right personality, comparing people CAN be motivational, but as a coach you had better make sure that you know the lifter as well as you think you do or you may never see them again when you start telling them the last 17 year old you trained beat their squat by 80 pounds. Competitive nature and ego will develop… give it time. The younger a lifter is, usually the more fragile and insecure they are. I would hate to have a high school athlete retreat to a world of Xbox competition for 10 years because of something I said.
  • Emphasize preparation. Much like the old adage that games are won in the off season, a personal record is not just gained on testing day. A lifter needs proper rest, mental preparation (visualization, etc.), proper nutrition, and an aggressive encouraging environment to have a good test.

I hope this has given you a clear understanding of how maximal effort testing can be done for almost any population and why I prefer to use an “old school” approach to how I test my athletes. There are always many factors that go into a 1RM testing program, but when all the logistics are worked out correctly, a maximal lift can help a person build confidence, fix weaknesses (both mental and physical), validate the effectiveness of programming, and give them an edge over others who are afraid to see what their mind and body can achieve.

Train safe, train smart, and train hard.

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