If you never max out on an exercise, it’s difficult to know what 90% of your 1RM is, let alone 80%. You can estimate your max by using the table below, counting how many reps you do to muscle failure so long as you use good form without assistance from a spotter.
For example, if you can do eight and only eight reps with 225 pounds, then 8 is 80% of your 1RM. Next divide 225 by 0.8 and you’ll find that 100% of your 1RM is 281 pounds. You can also compute 90% of your 1RM from knowing that 281 is your estimated 1RM. Just multiply 0.9 x 281 and that yields 253 pounds.
Hence, if you don’t know your max lift of a given exercise but do know you can do 225 pounds for eight reps, then you’d be using 250–255 pounds on your heavy single-rep sets, and 225 pounds on your 80% sets. The magic is that by using this technique, you should therefore be able to complete 10 reps, not just eight.
The Max-Out Technique in a Nutshell
The max-out method uses a heavy, single-rep set before a lighter multi-rep set of the same exercise. The approach actually boosts your strength in the multi-rep set.
The post-activation potentiation of a heavy single rep triggers your nervous system for additional heavy singles and revs you up to be approximately 10% stronger than usual in the following set.
The max-out method is for advanced trainers with more than one year’s worth of training experience who want to boost muscle growth and strength.
Do the max-out sets first for a bodypart when your strength is greatest early in your workout. Remember that’s when your energy reserves haven’t yet been tapped.
Use the max-out method for 4–6 weeks, followed by 4–6 weeks when you focus on another method. It can also be used at any time to shock a stagnant bodypart.
The Smith machine provides a relatively safe method of going to failure on many compound lifts, especially if you don’t have a spotter. Generally, you should favor machines over free weights with this technique, especially when training alone and/or when holding the resistance above your body.
The max-out method spurs greater strength and muscle growth.
Here are some of the best exercises and their corresponding bodyparts that do well with the max-out intensity technique.
Quads/Glutes: Leg Press, Smith-Machine Squat
Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlift
Back: Smith-Machine Barbell Row (over and underhand grip)
Chest: Smith-Machine Bench Press (flat or incline bench)
Shoulders: Smith-Machine Overhead Press
Triceps: Machine Dip, Smith-Machine Close-Grip Bench Press
Constructing Your Max-Out Workout
While the schematic may seem a bit daunting, it’s actually pretty easy to use when building your own max-out bodypart workouts. For additional reference of what should constitute your 90% 1RM exercise, refer to the “Multijoint Maximizers” chart above.
Finish the remainder of your body-part workout, doing the normal number of reps for each set. Note that you should reduce the number of total sets for the bodypart to account for stress placed on your neural bed by the max-out portion of the bodypart workout.