Are You Testing or Building Strength?

I worked for four years running a High School fitness centre.  I’m going to hit you with a typical bench press workout I’d see a teenager perform.

  • Some Arm Swings and Stretching
  • Maybe 10 Push Ups (even this was rare)
  • 95×10
  • 135×5
  • 185×1 with the second rep being helped up by his buddy
  • Repeat 185×1 with the second rep being helped up by his buddy
  • Call it a day


Then this same kid would come back later that week or next and do the same thing, and get buried by 185 the same way. (Of course I’d try and explain all this to the countless kids who did this, and the odd one would listen but more often than not they wouldn’t)

The key to building strength is simple:



The problem with the above bench workout is two-fold:

  1. He basically performed > 95% of his 1RM twice.  The issue with this is it’s very taxing on the Central Nervous System, and it’s going to take a while to recover.  If you’re consistently testing your strength, rather than building it, it’s going to take longer for your CNS to bounce back.  You can train only as hard and as often as that which you can recover.
  2. He isn’t accumulating any submaximal volume to stimulate a response to create progress.  He’d be better off doing any configuration of multiple sets of anywhere between 3-8 reps between 135 and 165 pounds.



*I’d like to elaborate that “testing” your strength is NOT limited to simply doing 1 rep maxes.  If you always grind out your last reps you’re essentially testing your strength.  (Let’s say your 1RM on bench is 225 and so you heed my advice and do 3×3 @ 205.  But if each of those sets is a grind and you probably didn’t have a 4th rep, you’re testing your strength and not building it).  A really good rule of thumb is to always leave a rep or two in the tank.  By doing this you’re not going to absolutely bury your CNS, allowing you to better recover and in turn increase your training frequency.

With that said, there are still times where doing AMRAP’s (as many reps as possible), or testing your 1RM or 3RM or 5RM is a great tool.  You just don’t want to do it too often.  Personally, I max out only every 3-5 months on the big lifts.


Anatoliy Bondarchuk, the legendary Russian strength coach, has stated that really good training should be like sex without climax; just foreplay.  You’re just constantly building. A ton of progress can be made by lifting in the 8-8.5 RPE (rating of perceived exertion) range.  Every set of every exercise, you could have done another rep or two.  After every training session you leave thinking you could have done a little bit more, or gone a little bit heavier.  This mentality towards training will allow you to make much better long-term progress because it allows you to recover faster, and decreases the risk of injury (both chronically and acutely).


Bondarchuk, regarded as one of the greatest strength & hammer throw coaches of all time


In closing, don’t train like a teenager.  Be smarter than that.  Leave your ego at the door and put a little bit less weight on the bar.  Do this consistently over time and your numbers will fly up!