Training for Rep Strength vs. Max Strength?

Today we’ve got a question on rep strength vs. max strength, from Miss Blue:

“What are your tips for people like me, that have a high rep strength relative to their max strength. I’m having a hard time increasing my 1RM in the bench press, but I can still do 11 reps at 85% of my 1RM. I’ve been doing your program Bench Press Boogie 2 days/week, and I am now finishing up the three-day version.”

I answer this question in the video below, but if you’d rather read, you can skip to the transcript below the video.

Okay, so 11 reps at 85% of your 1RM is pretty much. Most lifters are usually able to do around five reps with 85% of their true one rep max. So, Miss Blue is quite a bit above this. What can explain this difference, and what can she do about it?

There are three major factors influencing how many reps you can do at a given percentage of your 1RM, and they are 1) your muscle fiber distribution, 2) the nature of the exercise, 3) your previous training. Of these three, your training is the one major factor that you can influence. How? Well, by following the principle of specificity, which means that you will get better at what you practice.

If you mostly train sets of 10 reps, then your performance at 10 rep weights will increase. If you train mostly singles or low-reps, then your performance at 1RM increases. If you get stronger in general, then the whole curve rises.

The reason for this difference in results between low and high reps is because they lead to slightly different adaptations in your musculature and your nervous system, and they are also slightly different skills, in terms of psychology or technique.

On the muscular side, training with lower reps might cause greater increases in force transmission via stiffer tendons and non-contractile tissue in the muscle. On the technical or psychological side, lifting a maximally heavy weight is simply a different beast than doing high rep sets. If you haven’t practiced keeping your “shit” together – and by shit I mean your technique and your mental determination that you can actually do this – then you will fold under that weight.

So – if you want to get better at lifting heavy weights, then you will have to devote some of your training to practice at lifting heavy weight. You say that you’re currently training Bench Press Boogie, and that is a good program for increasing your 1RM. However, if you’ve been doing two cycles of it now, and you don’t see great gains by the end of this cycle, then I would do something else for some time. Specifically, I’d look into doing lots of singles, doubles and triples at weights that are heavy, but where you are still in control of the technique, and stay a few reps away from failure. And then just practice the crap out of that.

I hope that is helpful to you, Miss Blue, and I wish you good luck with your training!

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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.