If your goal is maximal strength and muscle mass, odds are you have tried maxing out.
While this is a common practice (and a beneficial one) to test strength, it is not an effective means to develop strength and hypertrophy for a variety of reasons. Yes, you should know how to lift heavy, however maxing out and lifting loads heavier than 90% of your max lifts is not a sustainable way to train (and can lead to injury and performance decreases).
So how often should you max out lifting weights? If you are building to a 1 rep max you should only max out every 3-4 months. However, there are different ways to “max out”, each with their own recommendations. Maxing out, in any capacity, on a regular basis will often lead to injury and decreased performance.
In this article we will discuss the benefits and risks associated with maxing out too often, look at the various ways you can max out, and offer guidelines on how frequently you should max out using various protocols.
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Benefits Of Maxing Out
There are three main benefits of regularly training your body to lift near maximal loads: (1) Increased neural drive, (2) set personal records, and (3) validate a strength training program.
It is important to note that by no means am I advising people to do this on a long-term basis, however it is beneficial and a necessary aspect of a competitive strength training program (Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman) to prep the neural systems for maximal output leading up to a meet.
This process is called a peak and taper cycle.
1. INCREASED NEURAL DRIVE
Increasing neural drive and efficiency is one of the most important aspects of learning to lift near maximal and maximal loads.
The nervous system has a regulatory system that will either allow you to load and lift heavy bars, or simply will shut your body (nervous system) down from attempting (or committing).
Many coaches and athletes think a lack of this ability is because someone isn’t trying hard enough or not “hyped” enough, but in reality it is a neural response to training, and must be developed.
2. SET PERSONAL RECORDS
If you are trying to max out on a regular basis, odds are you are driven by simply wanting to set a personal record. While this is commendable, many lifters fail to realize that the more advanced you become, the less frequent those become (and learn to cherish them even more).
3. VALIDATE A STRENGTH PROGRAM (THIS IS NOT THE ONLY WAY THOUGH)
Objective measurements of performance indicators (like 1-rep maxes, rep maxes, and other means of validation) are all necessary components to validate the effectiveness of a program.
It is also key to note that 1-rep maximum is not the only metric to measure, with other things like injury rates (hopefully low), longevity, and other testing metrics (discussed below) also being used as objective measures of validation.
Risks of Maxing Out Too Often
The risks of maxing out too often clearly outweigh the benefits and that’s EXACTLY why you should NOT be trying to max out repeatedly on an everyday basis.
The main risks associated with maxing out too often are: (1) overuse/chronic injury, (2) serious injury, (3) neural fatigue, (4) over training, (5) hormonal disturbances, (6) decreased immune function, (7) muscle atrophy, and (8) increased body fat percentages.
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1. OVERUSE / CHRONIC INJURY
Maxing out means you are lifting heavy weights relative to your body’s maximal abilities.
When we max out, we not only use loads that elicit a stress response from muscles, but also surrounding tendons, joints, and ligaments.
Unlike muscles, connective tissues and bones receive poor blood flow, which means recovery takes a very long time for them to heal from microtrauma of training.
Without allowing for proper recovery time and acclimating the body to be able to train to near maximum or maximum, you are sure to create overuse injuries that could debilitate your training for weeks, if not months.
This is especially true for non-beginners and advanced lifters.
2. SERIOUS INJURY (TRAUMA)
Serious injury can often happen one of two ways when someone is maxing out too frequently.
The first, is a direct traumatic event, like a pectoral tear while maxing out a bench press, or dislocating a shoulder maxing out heavy jerks, or herniating a disc when repeatedly maxing your deadlift out every session.
The other way can come from a chronic, overuse injury that one day decided to snap. This may be an Achilles tendon fully rupturing after weeks of an athlete ignoring the warning signs. It may also mean a shoulder impingement that results in someone not being able to bench press for months after they ignored shoulder discomfort from maxing out bench press three times a week.
Whatever the cause of serious injury was, maxing out too often will certainly result in it one way or another.
3. NEURAL FATIGUE
Tapping into the neural drive too often and for too long will result in neural fatigue.
When this occurs, adrenals drop, loads feel ungodly heavy, and the nervous system will shut down any relatively heavy lifting.
Furthermore, neural fatigue is one of the slowest aspects of training to recover. This is why entire weeks are often dedicated to deload on well-written workout programs.
Lifters who max out too often may experience neural fatigue for weeks or even longer if they continue to neglect basic training principles and periodization.
Related Article: Jeff Nippard’s Full-Body Program Review
Overtraining is a very real issue for individuals who ignore acute signs of hard training and poor recovery.
If prolonged periods of overreaching (a systematic approach to stressing the body to then allow it to overcome stress through recovery) occur, overtraining can happen.
This includes many of the symptoms below and can take weeks to reset.
Related Article: Learn the 9 ways top powerlifters recover from heavy workouts
5. HORMONAL DISTURBANCES
Increased cortisol, decreased testosterone and growth hormone,and even sleep disturbances are all outcomes of overtraining.
Individuals who frequently max out their lifts are more susceptible to this due to poor recovery and programming.
Related Article: How Much Cardio Is Too Much? 8 Ways To Quickly Know
6. DECREASED IMMUNE FUNCTION
In addition to the plethora of risks that come along with maxing out too often, decreased immune function can also occur as a result of poor recovery, sleep disturbances, and fatigue.
During hard training cycles, it is important that lifters be aware that they may actually be more susceptible to illness and injury.
Related Article: Can HIIT Training Make You Sick?
7. MUSCLE ATROPHY
Muscle atrophy (muscle wasting / loss) occurs when the body turns catabolic.
This can happen during periods of overtraining, under eating and poor nutrition, or due to lack of training stimulus.
If someone maxes out too often and gets injured or overtrained, they will most likely lack the motivation and desire to train hard, eat properly, and get through the recovery process.
This is why it is so important to understand how to max out, when to do it, and when to NOT do it.
8. INCREASED BODY FAT PERCENTAGE
This goes hand in hand with muscle loss, as the more muscle you lose your overall body composition will increase, leaving you with less muscle, more fat, and a vicious cycle or feeling broken.
Related Article: Calories & Macros For Bulking (Step-by-Step Guide)
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Different Types of ‘Maxing Out”
While many lifters think performing a heavy 1-rep set is a max out (which it certainly is), there are also other common maxing out methods that can be used within a program.
Below are four of the main styles of maxing out, which are discussed in more detail below.
1. 1-REP MAX TESTING
This is a pure maximal strength or performance objective test. This is something that should be reserved for competitions or every 3-4 months. It is important to note that performing a heavy single with the intention of leaving some in the tank is different from going all out maximum.
Many weightlifters and powerlifters will program “heavy singles” in their where they try to lift a heavy load that FEELS challenging, but not to the point of complete annihilation. This is called RPE-based rep training (see below).
Ultimately, maxing out to a 1-rep max set does little to actually develop strength in the long term. It is best to train in slightly higher rep ranges (2-5) with slightly lower intensities (80-89% max) for prolonged periods to develop neural adaptations, strength skill, and strength.
Most lifters should use the 1-rep max out as a test, not as a training protocol.
2. MULTIPLE REP MAX TESTING
Another common way to test strength and performance is to have an athlete perform a 2-5 rep max set, instead of a true 1-rep. This offers a great snapshot at what their overall strength is, and can be less risky than testing a true 1-rep max as some lifters may just have a bad lift.
I personally prefer a 2-3 rep max for most strength lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) and use those to project training and real max loads.
The exception is during meet prep or Olympic weightlifting, where the sport specific skill is to lift something once, which means the lifters should get good at doing such as they are near competition.
This is the type of max testing that Fitbod uses to help gauge a person’s progress.
3. RPE (RATE OF PERCEIVED EXERTION) – BASED REP MAX OUT
RPE is a great tool to use in conjunction with a max out of any number or reps. In some programs, you will see a lifter state that they lifted “x” weight for “y” reps at an RPE of 8. This means that if they lifted 405lbs for a 3 rep hard set, that was an 8 out of 10 on the difficulty scale. This allows the lifter to push hard during the lift using an objective (sets and reps) and subjective (RPE) test.
This style of lifting is something that I personally use a lot, as it allows lifters to train hard and compete against themselves without crushing their bodies. This also allows me to then progress them for a few weeks before we swap training programs.
4. TAKING SETS TO FAILURE (MAXING OUT)
This can occur on a more regular basis, such as taking your last set of squats to near failure with a load that you just did three sets of five reps with, for example. This can be a good way to push the intensity in a workout, increase muscle hypertrophy, and allow an athlete to push hard mentally.
Note, that this is NOT a way to test maximal strength, however it is a good way to stimulate muscle growth.
Watch this chest and arms workout video to see how I use this principle in bodybuilding-based workouts.
How Often Should You 1-Rep Max
Testing your true 1-rep maximum should be done a few times a year, at best. This is something that a program should progress you towards, and should not be something done one a whim because you feel like it.
Generally speaking, it is recommended that you either reserve 1-rep max testing for a competition (like a meet) OR to conclude a 3-4 month training cycle, one that progresses you towards the ability to lift a heavy 1-rep max safely and successfully.
How Often Should You Multiple Rep Max Test
This can be done on a more regular basis, maybe once every month or so to a true hard effort. For example, in some of my programs, I will progress a lifter to work towards a multiple rep max set (let’s say a 5-rep max) back squat in the program. The first two weeks I may have them work near max, but only in the third week do I let them truly push to the max without failing.
How Often Should You RPE-Based Max Out
This can be done on a weekly basis in a well-written program. In the above example, let’s say in week one I have a lifter perform a hard set of 5 reps at an RPE of 8. In week two, I let them push the RPE to a level 9 for five reps, which means they most likely should have lifters 5-10% more weight than the previous week. Then, in week three, I let them lift 5 reps to a true max effort (without failing), followed by a week four deload period. From there, I can progress them to work with lower rep ranges, stay the same, or higher rep ranges in the next cycle.
Related Article: Missing A Day Of Lifting: Will You Lose Your Gains?
How Often Should You Take a Set to Failure (Maxing Out)
This can happen multiple times per week depending on the exercise. For more compound movements like squats, bench press, and deadlifts, it may be best to not do this as often as say bicep curls, leg press, and other single joint or unilateral exercises. This is a great way to have a lifter take a set to failure (usually not below five reps if you are doing this to build muscle) with the goal of muscle hypertrophy. I do not recommend doing this for lower rep or for strength testing.
Maxing out on a regular basis is not something that should be done, no matter the level. That said, with proper understanding of the various ways you can max out (1-rep max vs rep-based vs RPE-based vs taking sets to failure) a lifter with have more flexibility to train hard and push themselves on a regular basis.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.