Remember back in high school when your buddies would say “screw it, let’s just max out,” and you’d all just have a good laugh and go for it? So much for strength and conditioning.
Well those days are GONE. You’re a real powerlifter now, and this ain’t the world championships. You can’t hit your 1 rep max whenever you feel like it.
When you max too often, you’re basically trying to sprint a marathon. The best case scenario is you stop making progress, and the far more likely outcome is you’ll just get injured. But why, exactly?
Most people think it’s about fatigue, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Yes, fatigue management is a major component, but you also wind up neglecting hypertrophy and neurological adaptation. Without those, say goodbye to your gains.
Unfortunately, you can’t just keep adding weight to the bar for a new max every week. Intensity and volume are the yin and yang of any good powerlifting program, and when all you do is max, you’re putting all your focus on a single repetition.
You need more muscle to lift more weight. There’s just no way around it. You’ve heard the saying “mass moves mass,” after all. What that means scientifically is that larger muscles have more contractile tissue, which means the higher the maximum amount of weight they can move.
Reminder: Volume is the number of reps. Intensity is the difficulty per rep, usually measured in RPE, RIR, or a percentage of your 1RM.
So not only does hypertrophy increase how much weight you can lift, but it also means less stress on the joints. The muscle tissue takes on the load instead of all the weight going directly to your skeleton. Of course, the skeletal system is still loaded, but the more muscle you have, the more it shares the burden.
Now that you understand how having bigger muscles helps a lifter, let’s talk about the neurological adaptations needed to use that muscle against a barbell. Those neurological adaptations are the result of deliberate and submaximal strength training.
For example, starting a block with a 315lbs set of 5 on squat when your best squat is 425lbs seems pretty reasonable right? After that week you may go up to 335 for 5 and eventually get up to 385lbs for a reasonably hard set of 5. You have added 70lbs over the last few weeks to your weekly set of 5 and more than likely your 1RM isn’t 425lbs anymore.
What if you maxed out every week instead?
You may have found that you were able to do a 435lbs squat after weeks of just maxing out, which is a 10lb PR. But where do you go from there? Do you just keep maxing out until you are so fatigued that you can’t work up to a max?
Why not take advantage of the neurological adaptations you probably haven’t fully made and be able to add weight to the bar with the abovementioned method without having to spend a needless amount of time just building muscle.
Of course, this isn’t lighting fast either. It takes a few weeks but it is the fastest way to safely and consistently add weight to the bar (but at some point you will need to just add more muscle)
Now you might be asking “Well won’t neurological adaptations happen if I just max out all the time?” Partly yes, those adaptations will come but so will fatigue. Fatigue is the number one reason for plateaus in the gym for powerlifters which will leave you spinning your wheels with the big three, as you won’t be able to recover.
This is where a well designed program comes into play, a program that can drive the stimulus to create hypertrophy and neurological adaptations without creating too much fatigue. Yes this is possible, tricky but possible.
You can see now how building up to a significant new max can take months of smart, deliberate training. This doesn’t leave too much room for maxing out apart from a few times a year (the stronger you get the rarer these opportunities are). If you are really trying to get stronger as a serious powerlifter you’ll need to make this realization early in your training or accept minimal strength improvements over your career.
It's one thing to read it; it's another to do it. And when you're training without a coach, you need to make sure you know what you're doing.