Maximal effort training, which is usually defined as lifting a weight that is 90 percent or above your one rep maximum in the given lift, has been weighed upon many times. It has come out on top as a superior method of increasing strength in a core barbell lift. However, it can easily be misused.

Before I go any further, I want to establish that any method you use to get stronger that is backed by 100 percent effort will never be “wrong,” though it can be somewhat inappropriate. If you conclude at the end of this article that you disagree with the advice being given and choose to incorporate the textbook maximal effort method into your training, then you’re still getting something accomplished.

The main reason why the maximal effort method should not be used by beginners is because they need something more in terms of volume and time underneath a barbell. Because of this, it’s necessary to take the maximal effort method out of its literal, scientific sense and into a more generalized sense. From this point on, maximal effort training should mean that you’ll give an all-out effort on whatever you’re doing as your maximal effort exercise.

Volume is extremely important to the beginner for a variety of reasons, but specifically, the need for muscle mass and building neural efficiency is at an all-time high. Neural efficiency is a fancy word for the ability to recruit motor units, which, in turn, recruit more muscles to be used at a given time.

The neural efficiency equation is squatting + 3 to 5 reps + 1 to 2 sets = the ability to recruit more muscles = stronger.

The same can be applied to bench pressing, overhead pressing, dead lifting, and so on. As far as building muscle mass goes, it will always be a byproduct of strength training. However, depending on where you are in your progress and what your desires are, you can specifically emphasize it or de-emphasize it. The beginner should never de-emphasize building muscle mass but should maintain strength as the main priority. Muscle will come so it’s not something that needs to be rushed.

The second part of the muscle mass equation when performing maximal effort work is that many “experts” will argue that 3–5 reps doesn’t build muscle mass. You may see some studies that come along with this and a few “types” of “muscle” that are usually “hyper” or “myo” something. It’s great to know this information but don’t drive yourself crazy. As a beginner, any stress placed on your body will be sufficient and will induce positive gains.

As far as time under the bar goes, this is where you lay out your foundation for the future. One to two reps isn’t enough mechanical work (think reps) to build a sufficient amount of time under the bar (especially when the weight is heavy). However, anything more than five reps leads to the risk of severe breakdown in form, which can lead to an improper learning curve and even injury. Form breaks down over time after the first rep so it’s essential for the beginner to stay low in reps and high in sets with a respectable load.

A respectable load is a weight that you can lift for 3–5 reps with good form. This is one of those things where having too big of an ego will leave you with some undesirable results but having too small of one will leave you with the same.

The maximal effort method also suggests the rotation of exercises every few weeks (usually three) to prevent stalling progress. This is something that should be done but not to the extent of actually changing the exercise. Instead, a much better option is to change one of the variables of the exercise and go from there.

Squat variables: Stance, box, no box

Bench press variables: Grips

Deadlift variables: Stance, hand grips

The most important factor here is that you do the core exercise and don’t jump into some of the special exercises like good mornings or board presses or use different bars, bands, or chains. A full range of motion on a complete barbell exercise utilizing proper form is the best possible option for a beginner.

You can choose to go about doing this one of two ways. The first way is to do one top set of 3–5 reps or do two or three sets of 3–5 reps. If you choose to go the second way, you should establish a set weight for the day that’s challenging enough but also won’t make you fail. You can progress from there by upping the weight each week for the given time that you’re doing the exercise. Both of these options can be used to create a strong person.

Sample max effort training program—the bench press

Week 1: Pinky on ring grip, 3 sets of 3–5 reps with 200 lbs

Week 2: Pinky on ring grip, 3 sets of 3–5 reps with 200–210 lbs

Week 3: Pinky on ring grip, 3 sets of 3–5 reps with 200–220 lbs

Week 4: close grip, one all-out set of 3–5 reps

Week 5: close grip, one all-out set of 3–5 reps (pick a rep not done last week)

Week 6: close grip, 3 sets of 5 reps

Week 7: Index on ring grip, 3 sets of 3 reps

Week 8: Index on ring grip, 3 sets of 4 reps

Week 9: Index on ring grip, 1 rep max

I suggest warming up for maximal effort training by getting the body thoroughly warm but not doing an excessive amount of reps. If your goal was to do 200 X 5, you should go empty with the bar for 10 and then 95lbs X 5, 135 lbs X 3, 185 lbs X 1, and 200 lbs X 5. The maximal effort method should be used twice per week—once for an upper body day and once for a lower body day.

Beginners need to use a modified approach in maximal effort training. Instead of lifting for a one or two rep max, it’s best to use the 3–5 rep range to build neural efficiency, get time under the bar, and increase muscle mass. The exercise performed should be a full range barbell exercise with one of its variables changed up every three weeks. Beginners should utilize both approaches of performing one, all-out set that brings them to failure (or very close) or doing up to three sets of 3–5 reps with a given weight that increases each week. They should perform maximal effort training for the upper body and lower body throughout the course of one week. As time progresses, different exercises can be used, lower rep ranges can be tapped into, and full progression into the true maximal effort method can be accomplished.

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