Hitting a new PB - the heroin of the lifting world, without the ghoulish makeover.
It’s hard to describe the first time lifting weight you thought would crush you, but once you break through that barrier you’ll be hooked. New goals set, eyes on the extra plates, and ravenous googling of the “best program for X”.
The reps start to tumble: one day hitting sets of 10, the next hitting sets of 5 or less. Regarding anything more as cardio - which everyone knows has no place in the realm of heavy ass weights. Just look at the gym memes.
If you find you relate to any of the above, then you have ascended past the regular gym goer, and into athlete territory. If someone was to ask for you number, and your reply is “squat, bench or dead?” with a straight face, or any other event/gym exercise for that matter, then it is time for an intervention.
It is my duty as your friend, to sit down with you here and talk to you about the dangers of your maxing out habits and aspirations. First off, the sheer weight will start to break down your form and put your body at a greater risk of injury, when you least expect it that elbow wobble or rounded back can quickly turn sour and potentially put you out of commission for a long time. Secondly, the toll on your nervous system can leave you fatigued for the rest of the week, your joints will ache and your muscles will be raging in whatever else you try to do. Thirdly, the cost of failing a rep, even if your safe and not injured, can play havoc with your mind - it could just be one of those days where you miss the rep, but if you let it get to you it can be a slippery slope to claw your way out of.
Do you still think we should max out? Throw it all on the line for that one big lift?
You’re Goddamn right we should - and we’re going to do it right.
***Joking aside, hitting a big weight does have its risks - many of the professionals and legends of the strength sports believe your body only has so many true slow-grinding, muscle-tearing maxes in its lifetime before it gets worn out - and so recommend to hit the tough singles only when it counts - a handful of times a year at most, and only at competitions if you compete. I’ve been there, trying to max out with a new heavy single rep PB every week, and it will eventually take its toll one way or another.
First port of call is to make safety is a priority. Safety equipment should be in place, whether it’s safety bars, catches, or even a spotter to help you out of a tricky situation if you get stuck. The second port would be to know when you’re in a tricky spot and how to get out of it - this is listening to feedback from your body (lower back is awfully rounded, bar isn’t moving, that’s a new pain), and knowing the safest way to dump the weight to stop yourself getting hurt (spotter is the best option here, or have safety pins set up a hair lower than you need to go so you can drop down and leave the weight on them if needed).
Safety taken care of, let's get ready to rock and roll***
The first part of your warm up should be whatever you normally do to get the blood flowing and get the joints moving. Dynamic stretching, a bit of light cardio or aerobics, mini movement screens are all valid here. If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can check out my Go-To Warm-up (find it here) that I do for each workout before getting into the warm up sets.
Warm up sets
Whatever exercise it is you’re doing, start as light as possible. This could be just the bar, (or using some dumbbells), to practice the movement, getting the blood moving and starting to wake up the nerves for the movement we’re ultimately maxing out on. Eddie Hall (500kg deadlift World Record holder and 2017’s World’s Strongest Man), Kirill Sarychev (335kg Raw Bench Press World Record holder) and Eddy Coan (one of the greatest powerlifters of all time, multiple World Records) all begin their warm up sets with just the bar. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you.
From here, it’s up to you how much you add weight and reps you perform. For me, I typically like to get in at least 4 - 6 warm up sets in before a max attempt (or even just a heavy set) to properly warm up the muscles and get the nerves firing. I’ll add weight each time while reducing the reps, and taking 2-5 minutes between each set (more rest the heavier the weight gets).
For example: Just the bar (20kg) x 12 reps
60kg x 8 reps
80kg x 5 reps
100kg x 3 reps
110kg x 1 rep
120kg x 1 rep
130kg x 1 (New Bench PB - wooo!)
Personally, I use the last warm up set to judge if max attempt is a go or not. I feel that as long as 10kg less than the target moves well (reasonably fast - not a grinder or painful), it’s a good indicator the body is feeling strong. I think that if you do too close to the max, then you’re wasting energy on that almost-max rep, and will be too fatigued to give the final rep a good shot.
Having said that, the weight jumps and last warm up is proportionate to the weights your lifting. So someone lifting heavier than me in the example above might use bigger weight jumps (30-40kg) and the last warm up set might be 20kg less than the max attempt. Conversely, someone using lighter weights may use smaller weight jumps (5-10kg) to get in the same number of warm up sets, with the penultimate set being maybe only 5kg less than the max attempt. I still recommend getting 4-6 warm up sets in before the big lift, just use weights that are appropriate to what you’re building up to.
Once that last warm up is in the bag, and everything’s feeling good, it’s time to get your war face on.
Pre-Lift War Face
If you go into this lift with even an ounce of doubt about you, you’ll fail it. 100% of the time. You need to believe, and have faith in yourself to power through and finish it. To help us get rid of any trace of disbelief, there are two distinct approaches we can take.
Heard of Ronnie Coleman? If not, search for his signature workouts on Youtube, my personal favourite is “Ronnie Coleman Best Pre Workout Ever”, a video by Makaveli Motivation. Headphone users beware - Ronnie gets loud.
And for good reason, releasing big noise gives you a hell of an adrenaline and testosterone rush, supercharging the muscles; coupled with some swagger and chest-out posture and you’ll feel like an absolute juggernaut.
Try it, unleash an almighty “YEEEAAAAHHHH BUUUDDDDYYYYYY!!!” and feel the thunder crackling within.
If that’s not to your taste, we have the other, more socially acceptable approach.
A.k.a. the loud silence. Headphones on, mind closed to the world, focused purely on the task at hand. This isn’t being rude - this is getting in the zone. We’re not worried about what people are going to think of our taste of music or who’s staring at us, we’re just getting mentally ready to launch this weight through the roof. For the majority of people this isn’t a happy place, with nice thoughts and chocolate sprinkles - it’s delving into the dungeon of your mind to pull out any extra rage and energy to blast out doubt and take the bar with it.
On the other hand, if you prefer to think happy thoughts, that’s totally fine - if it works, it works - just make sure you’re keeping your thoughts strong.
Everyone will develop their own unique rituals and processes - pacing, chalk slamming, breathing patterns - but the Noise and the Quiet are good places to start finding what works for you. From there, there's only one thing left to do.
Set up for the lift like you’ve done many times before, crush the bar beneath your fingers and take that new PB. It’s yours.