The goal of strength training is to improve your performance. Training to increase your 1 rep max is the fastest road to achieving that goal.
A lot of programs focus on the strength endurance side of strength training or hypertrophy, but if that’s all you’re doing, then your missing out on some golden gains in your speed and power output that will put you in the top of your sport. Even if your goal is hypertrophy, you would still benefit from having a higher 1 rep max. If you need to be strong or fast, then you need to start using low rep ranges in your strength training now. Low rep ranges are the only good way to increase your 1 rep max.
The different kinds of muscle and strength. What kind of strength will increase your 1 rep max?
There are studies, such as this one, that show the disadvantage of high rep range training when it comes to building strength and power. High rep ranges work the wrong type of muscle fibers. So let’s look at these fibers and understand how they work.
There are two main types of skeletal muscle fibers, type I and type II. Basically, type I fibers have better endurance and type II fibers have more power.
Some people only focus on higher rep ranges that work the type I fibers because they want better endurance, but there’s a big drawback. Higher rep ranges are terrible at getting you to increase your 1 rep max. That means you won’t be able to move faster, jump higher or hit harder. Type 1 fibers are also smaller by comparison than the type II fibers. The type II’s have more potential for hypertrophy. It’s not that training the type II’s will make you bulky, but if hypertrophy is your goal, then adding more type II fibers is advantageous.
High rep sets are seen a lot in sports that have a large cardio component. Athletes train for more endurance so they can go longer. While this is an essential attribute for most athletes, this training is misplaced in your weight lifting routine. Endurance is better trained with sport specific activities. So if you’re a wrestler, then wrestling will improve your endurance. If you’re a runner, then you have to run.
To be clear, I’m talking about sets of around 15-20 or even 40-50 reps per set. These loads are too low to stimulate any noticeable neurological adaptations. You’ll be able to increase the reps over time, but the impact will be negligible if you want to increase your 1 rep max.
At the other end of the rep spectrum, we have sets of 1-5 reps. These give us the best improvements in the muscle’s ability to generate stronger and faster contractions because they train the type II fibers and the central nervous system. The surprise benefit is that when you increase your 1 rep max, you will also increase your 10 rep max. The reverse is not true.
Getting more specific with the muscle fibers
Of the type II fibers, there are two sub-types. There’s type IIa and type IIx. As an athlete, strengthening both fiber types has the most benefit for most sports. The main difference between these two is the IIx is more of a one-and-done fiber, where the IIa has a little more endurance before it craps out.
For a sport like arm wrestling, you might focus more on the IIx fibers with heavy singles and doubles since you typically pull for just a few seconds before you get a long break. If you need more of a strength endurance component, having some more of the IIa fibers and using sets of 4-6 reps could help you out. It’s important to follow a periodized program that will focus on the specific types of strength you need.
So to summarize, don’t waste time doing these long sets of 20 reps in your resistance training. Use sport specific training to improve your endurance. Weight training is for power and speed. That is accomplished with lower reps per set. A good long term plan is to rotate through strength training programs with higher and lower rep ranges. Depending on your specific needs and how you react to training, you may go as high as 10 reps per set in your high volume program, though most will do best not going above 6 reps.
A good strength coach will do a great job with designing a program just for you.
Train the nervous system to increase your 1 rep max
Neurological adaptations is the name of the game. When it comes to increasing your 1 rep max, you’re really training the central nervous system. You want it to tell the muscles to contract harder. We all have more strength in us then we know. We get to use some of our hidden strength on rare occasions. When we’re in extreme situations where the adrenaline gets flowing, we find out we are stronger and faster than we thought.
In my experience, training the CNS to get stronger involves some mental training on your part. This is the brain’s connection to the muscles. Like I mentioned, we can tap into our hidden strength in extreme situations. That means the strength is already there. We just need to teach ourselves to bring it out. For that, you should read my post on “How to Crush Your Weight Lifting Sets” next.
Thanks for reading,