1 rep max PR's, are they always necessary?
Since beginning my Highland Games training and programming for the Weightlfting Club, it has reminded me of some training concepts I have known, but often forget about:
Training at sub-maximal weights is much more important in most athletic endeavors and performances, specifically in CrossFitters
I love getting a PR, I really do. But many times improving a 1rm PR does not produce the strength gains we think! While I believe in practicing patience with my training, every now and again I still succumb to anxiety and make too big of jumps or try to return too quickly to where I was prior to an extended time off.
I read an interview by Jim Wendler and he made a statement which was eye opening for me. Wendler is famous for his 5/3/1 method, which is one of the most widely used programs today. The statement Wendler made was how he came to a point in his life when he realized that any progress at all was something to be proud of and worth busting tail for. He stated,(I’m paraphrasing his words here), how if he could Shoulder Press 200 for 5 today and a few months later, Shoulder Press 200 for 6 or 205 for 5, he would be satisfied because he had made progress. By taking on this mindset, Wendler eventually Shoulder Pressed 300 pounds!
Having long term goals in training is great and something everyone should have, but you must remember that they are what they are, LONG TERM goals. Your need to have goals that can be easily achieved week after week. If you have a goal of increasing your Squat 50 pounds, you would be wiser and better served to focus on increasing your squat by 5 pounds every week as opposed to trying to reach that goal by the next workout.
Another aspect that Wendler touched on was the need to take one step back in order to take two steps forward. In direct relation to how his 5/3/1 system works, training with maximal efforts week after week will leave you stuck, unable to budge your numbers in a positive direction. Earlier in my training days, I was victim of this and was stuck at around the same weight year after year, without any substantial progress. The combination of high mental anxiety levels and central nervous system stress that comes with maximal efforts is a recipe for disaster, that effects you both in and out of the gym.
Sub-maximal training is a tried and true method for enhancing and increasing strength, power, and all other aspects of athletic performance. One easy way to implement this into your training today is to make sure you leave 1-3 reps in the tank on all lifts. Don’t think in terms of training with a 5 rep max but rather with a HEAVY 5 (or what we call a "5rm for the day"). Do enough to stimulate a positive reaction and move on. Your body is not as intelligent as many would like to think. A max effort attempt in the Squat with 300# is not perceived much differently than a heavy 1 at 285#, however, the max effort attempt will leave you mentally and physically drained, requiring a greater amount of recovery.
To put into perspective how I train, my weightlifting cycles are sub-maximal weights working up to a PR over several weeks. My Highland Games training, I'll often practice with a 14# Hammer to work on speed and form and not even tough the competition Hammers (22# and 16#'s) until a week before competition.
Finally, sub-maximal training leads to technical improvements. Using higher rep sets with moderate load can help embed consistency of technique through multiple repetitions. In CrossFit terms, this can lead to an increased ability to hold form with fatigue – enhancing the ability to deliver more reps faster towards the end of a WOD. For novice and intermediates whose form deviates from rep to rep, allowing a large amount of practice without having to deal with a heavy load would be very beneficial.
Lifting weights is a skill, and admittedly lifting heavy weights is a different skill than lifting light weights although there is obviously some crossover. Training sub-maximally in the Back Squat for example involves the same muscle groups, positioning, and sequence of movement as performing heavy sets in the same movement.
Keep in mind that I am not suggesting continually training at sub-max effort for months at a time, as that would necessitate too long a departure from heavy load adaptations. What I am suggesting is that sub-maximal weight training can have several benefits that will enhance strength development, more effectively than only lifting heavy.