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Preparing for a max effort

Here’s what you need to know

  1. Warming up and mobility work go a long way in letting you push at 100% effort with less risk of injury and more efficiency due to better proprioception.

  2. Ramping up starts with the empty bar and goes up to a significant portion of your objective.

  3. You should hit your max effort within 4–5 sets of your first try for it. Your nervous system is optimized for that.


There comes a time in every gym-goer’s life when they need to lift heavy. I’m talking heavy, the heaviest load they can manage. Either it’s a test you want to go through yourself, or in the case of CrossFitters, it just popped up on the board. Either way, here’s how to prepare, manage and lift the heaviest you’ve ever lifted.


After a general warm-up, it’s important to proceed to a movement-specific warm-up. For example, you don’t go on to do heavy squats by warming-up with push-ups and then jumping into the squat rack. After your general warm-up, you have to go on and make sure every joint that will be utilized in the movement will be perfectly, or at least optimally, mobile. In the case of the squat, we’re talking ankles, knees, hips, back and core. If you’re lifting weight overhead, we’re talking wrists, elbows, shoulders, and core. If you’re going to lift something, you have to make sure everything is going to be moving according to what you want it to do. Or else two things can happen, 1) you certainly won’t be optimal in your lift, thus lift less than what you should, and 2) you’re at risk of injury. While those two options are certainly not equivalent, both are easy ways to not reach your goals, whatever they are. As to what exactly to mobilize, this changes according to the movement you are planning to do and is the subject of subsequent posts.


Ok, so you’re nice and limber, now what? Just jump to your work set weights and have fun there? Nope. Here’s how to plan your next few sets.

The empty or very light bar

The empty bar is your friend. And by empty I mean anything that’s roughly 20%–25% of the weight you intend to lift, depending on what movement you’re doing. Basically just enough weight to make sure you don’t have to change anything while moving it. In a front squat for example, anything too light will be an actual problem for some peeps as they will have to modify their form to accommodate their tight shoulders. Then when they start their work sets, they will have to modify their movement compared to their warm-up sets.

This part should be obviously focused on form and proper neuromuscular activation. Mainly, voluntarily activate the muscles you will need during the heavier sets. Let’s take the back squat, an old favourite, as an example. If you plan on doing 3 reps at 405lbs for that day, then you’ll want to load the bar at roughly 95–105lbs for your warm-up sets. You’ll rack the bar on your shoulders, and pretend its 1000lbs. You’ll simulate it being super heavy, and you’ll start moving up and down, making sure that at the top portion, your core is tight, butt is clenched, and traps are a rock solid shelf for the bar to rest on. Then as you go down, focus on keeping the weight on your mid foot to heel, really forcing that posterior chain into action. Light weight will not make you need those strong muscles, so you need to wake them up yourself. As you get to the very bottom of your squat, make sure that even if your butt and core are at a mechanical disadvantage, you still contract them as much as you can. Come back up with the same voluntary activation and neurological patterns. This will prep you for anything heavier and make sure that you have proper form throughout your sets.

Now you won’t go too slow or too fast. You’ll go at a bit of a faster speed than if you were to lift the heaviest set. You don’t want to screw up form in order to go much faster. You’ll go faster and more explosive, but only to wake everything up. No need to do jumping squats with a 100lbs bar on your back if you’ll go for a 3 rep max later. Slightly faster is fine to start the engine.

You’ll do a set of about 3–5 times the amount of reps you’ll want to do in your final set. For example, if you’re going to work on a 3 rep max, you’ll do a light set of 15 reps. If you’re going for a 1 rep max, you’ll do a few (1–3) sets of 5 reps. Don’t over do the size of the sets, but don’t skip that part either. It’s important.

Weight goes up

So your light bar sets are done, next up comes the actual ramping up to your max load. For this you need to know where you’re going somewhat. If you have no clue, you probably have no business doing a max effort. Just stick with heavy loads until experience kicks in and lets you enjoy a nice solid 3 rep max.

One way to approach this is to do 2–4 sets at 2–3 times the amount of reps you’ll work to. So if you’re working on a 3 rep max, you’ll do 2–3 sets of 6 reps. If you’re going to work on a 1 rep max, you’ll want to do maybe 3–4 sets of 2–3 reps.

The weight will go up gradually. You’ll want to work up to at least 70% of your max in those 2–4 sets. So if you’re aiming at that 405lbs back squat, and you did a set of 15 at 105lbs, then next up should be a set of 6 reps at 185lbs, then another 6 reps at 235lbs, and then another set at 285lbs. Obviously those are examples, but you should be in that realm. Those sets should be separated by about 1–2 minutes of rest.

It gets tricky once those 2–3 sets of 2–3 times the amount of reps are completed. You don’t want to go too fast and overload your nervous system. But you also don’t want to go so slow that you end up too tired to keep going.

Max effort

You’ll want to start your sets of the specific rep scheme you’re working for. And you’ll want to hit your projected maximum at set number 4–5. All that while taking longer breaks, in the vicinity of 3–5 minutes, depending on your level of comfort and the amount of experience you have. Going back to our 405lbs back squat 3 rep max, you may start by doing a 3 rep set at 335lbs. Rest 3 minutes. Then another set at 375lbs. Rest 3 minutes. Then 395lbs. Rest 5 minutes. Then one set at 405lbs. Done.

What then?

Now you’re at set number 4 with your objective in your back pocket. What do you do? Celebrate of course. High-five your buddies. Good job! But then take a good 5 minutes of break and go again for yet another PR. It may not work, and you have to be ready for that, but you also may get it, so be prepared to leave it all on the training floor. This overload is where the gravy is, but you also have to be intelligent and know that there’s a very good possibility that you will not get it. It’s fine, you hit your objective already, so that’s that. Now push harder, but stay away from potential injuries.


At the end of the day, you’re in control of your progress. But always know that you will only reap what you sow, so anything less than 100% effort will give you less than 100% in return. See that max effort as a standard of your integrity in training and you’ll be on the road to conquering your objectives.

Now go lift.


Would you like me to help you with your fitness goals? Consider a live or online consultation! Kick start your progress with no-nonsense advice.

Email me at

#weightlifting #crossfit #heavy #maxeffort

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