Over the course of this year (2014), I've set about 85 new personal records (PR's, also known as personal bests) in the high bar squat, low bar squat, front squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press.
In fact, my last 30+ training sessions resulted in at least 1 PR per workout.
Now, this may be typical for someone in their novice stages of training who undergo the stress, recovery and adaptation stages, getting stronger from workout-to-workout and hitting a PR every time they touch the bar. However, I am no longer at this novice stage, yet I'm still able to set a PR nearly every training session with relatively heavy weights.
Many have wondered how I do this.
It's partially summed up in this picture:
If I feel I can do it, I'll go for it.
I'll take the shot: if it's good, it's good. If I miss, then I'll try again another time.
There are people and programs out there that advocate sticking with the program and not deviating from the prescribed sets and reps. I think that this advice is suitable for a novice, or anyone who has a problem sticking with any sort of program and aren't making any progress because of their program hopping and general fuckingarounditis.
There's also an idea that's popular in some circles where people are discouraged from attempting a 1 rep max unless it's in a powerlifting meet. This is fine if you're a prolific competitor who has a meet every few months or so. But personally, I'm not this type of person and so far have done 1 meet per year, so I don't subscribe to this advice. If you don't have a competition anytime soon, or don't even compete, then what's the point of holding back?
Also, I train because I want to, and not because I was scouted and selected at a very young age so that I could train at a weightlifting facility in hopes to be a potential Gold metal Olympian in the future for the pride of communist China, so part of training (at least for me) is that it's supposed to be fun! Abstinence from 1 rep maxes every now and then would take away from the anticipation of lifting a weight I've never lifted before, the satisfaction conquering that weight, and seeing how all the hard work I've put in has paid off.
I'll let you in on my, for lack of a better term, “SECRET” on how I hit PR's all the time, and how you can use the same methods and incorporate them into your own training.
But first, let's cover some bases:
PR (AKA Personal Record, Personal Best or PB)
You probably know what a PR is, but for the sake of completion, a PR (AKA personal record AKA personal best AKA P.B) refers to a lifter's best weight lifted in an exercise and given repetition.
So, if a lifter deadlifts 500 lb for 1 rep, and can't possible do any more repetitions, then that's his or her 1 rep max (or, 1RM) PR for the deadlift.
If he or she deadlifts 505 lb for 1 repetition the following week, then the have set a new PR for the deadlift for 1 rep.
PR's aren't limited to 1 repetition. They can also be 2 reps, 3 reps...bear with me here...4 reps, 5 reps, ad infinitum. And they can be done for a variety of different exercises.
Here's how to organize your PR's:
The PR Table
The PR table is where you keep score of your best lifts, and, long story short, the trick to hitting PR's all the time is having a lot of potential personal records to choose from!
So, here's what you need to do:
Make a table:
On the top columns, write down the numbers 1RM, 2RM all the way to 10RM (or wherever you want to stop).
On the side, write down the names of the lifts, and any sort of variations/modifications of the lift.
Then, start filling out the table.
It should look something like this:
Here’s what my PR table looks like.
I've created a template in Google Drive that you can use and modify to fit your training.
This is a really simple way of organizing your personal records. The drawback of using a table like this is that you don’t know what your PR’s were in the past for a given lift and RM because you’ll be replacing the contents of the cell with new data. It would be nice to see a progression of 1 rep maxes over the course of the past year or so.
In the future, I might (or maybe someone else who’s better at spreadsheets than me) create some sort of spreadsheet/pivot table thingamajig that can make the data (personal records) more accessible and easier to visualize. Stay tuned.
How To Use The PR Table And Incorporate PR Attempts Into Your Current Training
Whenever you train, take a look at the table and see what PR you want to break that day. Sometimes, there will be empty cells, so doing that for your sessions would be an instant PR.
Once you hit the PR, you can drop back down in weight and continue with your work sets.
So, to simplify:
Warm Up => PR => Work Sets
Here's an example for the Squat:
There is an empty box under “3RM”. This is an opportunity to hit a PR that's never been done (or at least, recorded) before.
Looking at the 2RM @395 lb, and 4RM @375 lb, it would be logical to select a 3RM weight from a conservative 380 lb to a more risky 390 lb (assuming we're going by 5 lb jumps).
At 380 lb, because the load only 5 lb more than the 4RM, it's possible that the weight is light enough that you can get another rep in, breaking your 4RM @375 lb.
At 390 lb, it may be difficult to get 3 reps because it's so close to your 2RM weight at 395 lb, so the chances of missing the 3rd repetition would be greater compared to 380 lb.
At 385 lb, it may not be too hard and it may not be too easy, because it's smack dab in the middle.
Depending on how you feel that day and during your warm ups (we've all had good days and bad days, and sometimes, how you feel is a lie until you get under the bar with a weight you're forced to respect) will guide you to what the appropriate weight to choose for a 3RM.
Was the last warm up set slow and difficult? Then go for 380 lb to stay on the safe side.
Was the last warm up set explosive and easy? Then you could try for 385-390 lb.
Keep in mind that if you choose 380 lb for a 3RM, you'll have opportunities in the future to make progress with 385 lb and 390 lb. If you choose 390 lb for a 3RM, it may be best to move on to another repetition PR other than 3 before attempting a 3RM again.
PR! Now What?
Well, you could push your luck and try for another PR! This really depends on how you're feeling after you set the PR. Sometimes, it's possible to get another PR in the same rep at a higher weight. Other times, you could go for a PR at a different repetition, but at a lower weight.
Once you're done your PR attempts, drop down in weight and move onto your prescribed work sets or back off sets to get in some volume.
Generally, if I hit a PR in the 1-4 repetition max range, I'll problem do some back off sets afterwards.
If I hit something 5 reps or higher, I may end the workout right there simply because I don't want to overdo things and I want to be fresh (more or less) for the next day.
Here's a couple of example training sessions spelling it out for you, step-by-step:
Example 1: Let's say your plan for the day is to squat 5x5:
- 45 x 10
- 135 x 10
- 225 x 5
- 315 x 3
- 365 x 1
- 405 x 3 (3RM)
- 330 x 5x5
Example 2: Here's another example. In this case, let's say it's supposed to be a “light” day. Instead of going light on back squats, you're going to do front squats instead.
- 45 x 10
- 135 x 5
- 225 x 3
- 275 x 1
- 330 x 1 (1RM)
- 315 x 2 (2RM)
- 275 x 3x3
Failed On A PR Attempt! Now What?
It would be nice to never miss a rep, let alone a PR attempt, but sometimes, we fail.
If you felt you fell out of the groove and could have gotten that rep, and you have the energy left over to make that rep, you can try that PR again.
On the other hand, if you really had no chance of hitting the weight you just missed, then it’s time to go with an on-the-spot contingency plan.
Simply look at your PR table, and look for another personal record you think you have a high chance of hitting. There’s no shame in cherry picking PR’s to stay on the PR train.
Sometimes I’ll usually go into a training session with a main PR I want to set, and a “back up” PR if I happen to fail my attempt. Occasionally, I’ll hit both the main PR and back up PR attempts in one day.
What To Do If You Can't Hit PR's Anymore or...How To Avoid Stalling On PR's
Let's continue with the example from above. If you managed to get a 3RM with 380 lb, you may be able to hit 385 lb the next week, and then 390 lb the week after that. You might be able to add another 5 lb and squat 395 lb for 3 reps, which is weight listed for a 2RM. Sooner or later, there will be a point where you cannot simply add 5 lb per week and get a 3RM all the time.
So what do you do? There's a few solutions:
1. Cycle Rep Ranges for PR Attempts
This would be suitable for those who like to be super organized and want things planned out in advance.
Here's an example, assuming we're doing the big 3 lifts, and working in the 1-5 rep range:
Looking at the squat, the first week you'll attempt a 5RM. If you miss 1 rep, that may be a 4 rep max.
The week after that, increase the load and attempt a 3RM, and then a 2RM the following week.
Finally, during week 4, attempt a 1RM.
Week 5 you'll start the cycle all over again, going from breaking a 5RM to a 1RM.
This simple organization is easy to follow and is logical. If you've hit a 5RM, then you could probably hit a 3RM. If you've established a new 3RM, then a 2RM shouldn't be too far behind. If your 2RM is higher than before, then it's not a far stretch that your 1RM is higher as well.
It looks good on paper, and I'm sure there are some people who like this planned approach, but like Mike Tyson says:
The downfall with this structured cyclical PR organization is that sometimes, you'll miss. The following week will not go according to plan. You could make further plans and “If-Then” rules (for example, if miss, then attempt again next week).
Personally I prefer the following method instead:
2. Going For PRs Based On What You Think Or Feel You Can Hit That Day
This is more of a “play by ear” method of choosing what PR to attempt that day.
"You never know when it's Christmas in the gym again and when it's there you have to take it"
– Kirk Karwoski
Sometimes, and I wish all the time, it's Christmas in the gym (as Kirk Karwaski would say) and you're able to set some big PR's on core lifts from session to session.
It can be “one of THOSE days” and it's better to catch the wave and ride it hard and as long as you can instead of letting go of the opportunity, because you won't know when it'll come again.
Other times, you need to cherry pick your PR's and grab the low hanging fruit instead of trying to break PR's that's out of reach. But in the end, a PR is a PR, and if you lifted something heavier and/or for more repetitions than in the past, you're getting stronger.
Here's how to do it:
After (or before or in between) your warm up sets, look at your PR table for the exercise you're performing that day, and based on how you're feeling, how the bar is moving during warm ups, and your most recent PR for that lift, choose something that you think you can hit that day.
For example, my final warm up set on the bench press at 365 lb for 1 rep felt really difficult, so, looking at my PR table:
I probably wouldn’t have success going for a 1 rep max or 2 rep max. I can be conservative and try for a 3, 4 or 5 rep max.
The next bench press session, I'll repeat the same process and pick and choose based on how I'm feeling and what I think I have a high chance of lifting that particular day.
If I don't think I can hit a regular bench press PR in any repetition, I'll do a variation of the lift such as a paused bench press, reverse grip bench press, or paused reverse grip bench press.
This might seem unstructured, but after some trial and error and through experience, you'll develop a good sense of judgement for picking weight for a personal record.
3. Use Different Variations Of The Exercise
Another way to continue to set new PR's is to have few different variations of the main lifts to choose from, and assistance exercises that have a carry over effect to the squat, bench press and deadlift.
Which leads me to the next section…
Exercises And Rep Ranges To Measure
Let’s start off by taking a look at a couple of quotes by a couple of guys you probably haven’t heard about:
“That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.”
- Karl Pearson
"When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates."
- Thomas S. Monson
The selection of exercises you should keep track of are:
- Main lifts – if you're a powerlifter, then the big 3 (squat, bench press, deadlift) of course. If you're a weightlifter, snatch and clean & jerk would be required
- Variations of the main lifts
- Assistance exercises that support the main lifts
For example, let's take the back squat.
This “one” exercise can be expanded like this:
- Low bar squat
- High bar squat
Some will find that they'll be able to lift more with a low bar position on their back compared to a high bar squat.
Let's add some variations to each:
- Low bar squat
- Low bar squat – no belt
- Low bar squat – paused
- Low bar squat – no belt, paused
- High bar squat
- High bar squat – no belt
- High bar squat – paused
- high bar squat – no belt, paused
As you can see from above, a simple “back squat” can turn into 8 different variations of the exercise. If you are tracking up to 10 rep maxes, that would be a total of 80 different PR's you can attempt on any given day! If you want to add even MORE variations, you could track squat PR's with and without knee wraps, knee sleeves, include exercises such as pin squats, and all the possible combinations.
The reason why you want to add in harder variations like beltless squats and paused squats is that if you progress in these lifts (in other words, get stronger in these variations), it will carry over to your main lift, which in this case would be the squat. Also, these variations will force you to use a lower weight because of a mechanical disadvantage, using less supportive equipment, pausing etc., so even if you have to have a “light” day, you can still make that workout challenging and fun.
Imagine this scenario: for 12 weeks, you squatted with a belt and put on a hypothetical 40 lb to your beltless 1RM. What do you think will happen once you put on a belt and test your belted 1RM for the squat? Chances are, it will probably go up.
Examples of Assistance Exercises
By focusing on exercises that have a carry-over effect on the main lifts, you'll get stronger. The selection is based on, “does it benefit the squat, bench press and deadlift in some way”.
For the low bar squat, bar position can change the mechanics of the lift to make it harder:
- High Bar
- Front Squat
For the bench press:
- Wide grip bench press
- Close grip bench press
- Reverse grip bench press
- Partials (board presses, floor presses, pin presses etc)
- Snatch grip
- Partials (rack/mat pulls)
- Stance width (sumo/conventional)
You're going to have to experiment to find out what works for you, but the key is to keep track of the PR's for each exercise, and break them on a regular basis!
There are other things you could measure (and PR at):
- Volume (example: best squat at 5x5)
- Density (
- #of repetitions at a given weight (for example, maximum number of reps with 225 lb on the bench press)
- Training and meet PR’s
I'm sure in the future when bar speed measuring devices become commonplace, you could measure that too.
I personally only keep track of repetition maxes, because it’s simple, easy to track and it’s over and done with after 1 set.
A Note On Rep Ranges
Now, for powerlifters or anyone else who's primary goal is to improve the 1 rep max, there is a carry over effect of repetition maxes. If you focus on trying to hit a 1RM PR all the time, you're going to come to a stall sooner rather than later.
By training in and setting PR's in multiple rep ranges, you'll get stronger and your 1RM is bound to go up.
If you put on +20 lb on your 5RM, 3RM, and 2RM then it will be reasonable to assume that your 1RM would be higher as well.
Personally, even though I mostly work in the 3-5 rep range for my work sets, I track 1-10 reps for my PR's because it's simple, and fit's into my training goals of getting stronger and a little more jacked (hypertrophy). Also, “10” is a nice number.
If you're a masochist and are a fan of the 20 rep “widow maker” squats, you can add that to your PR scoreboard. But that’s too much damn cardio for me.
Additionally, when choosing what number of repetitions to hit for a PR, I generally go with 1,2,3,5,8 and 10 rep maxes.
4,6,7, and 9 are there to make the table complete, and if I happen to miss a repetition (or do more than I wanted), I can still get a PR at an unintended rep.
To explain what I mean, let's say I'm going to a 10RM on the overhead press with 210 lb. If I miss a rep and only get 9, it's still a PR at a 9 rep max.
Also, if I feel strong and want to crank out another rep, the planned 3 rep max (or whatever it is) will turn into a 4 rep max.
“Reporting” Your PR's
Let’s go back to the quote, and take a look at the second sentence:
"When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates."
- Thomas S. Monson
This is really an option thing to do, but I think there's direct and indirect value to announcing your newly set (and newly missed!) PR's to the public. The “reporting” part of the quote comes from the business world, where employees report some measurement or key performance indicator to their overseer, but, unless you're working with a coach, you probably won't be required to report your PR's to someone else.
What you could do is announce them somewhere online, to a group of like minded individuals. Or just blast it out to everyone on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or some other social media network and make them envious and fearful of your growing power levels. The feedback you get and the fact that you know someone else is looking over your training logs will motivate you to continually hit PR's.
By making progress, breaking PR's, you're inspiring others to get stronger themselves and hit their own PR's. The feedback you get will then motivate you to continue to work hard to obtain new PR's. It's like a feedback loop of getting stronger.
But that’s not all…
Another benefit of sharing your progress is that they'll be picked up by others who are on a similar journey to getting stronger.
It seems to work like this: your progress and PR's pushes them to get stronger, and in turn, their progress and PR's pushes you to get stronger. Each person want's to out lift the other, and this little friendly competition becomes a influence on your training.
I have a made a few Internet rivals since I started lifting, and it spawned some nice e-friendships. I'm ahead on the numbers on some lifters, neck and neck with others, and chasing some others who are a bit stronger than me, and others who are way stronger. In the end, I like to think that we all support each other in the quest to add more weight to the bar.
Putting it altogether in an easy-to-follow flowchart, it looks like this:
By keeping score of your personal records for multiple, meaningful exercises and rep ranges, and, attempting to break a personal record every workout:
- you look forward to breaking a PR ever workout
- get stronger because you're always adding weight to the bar
If you are keeping track of your PR's already using your brain, piece of paper or a notebook, upgrade by using this template in Google Drive.
I've made it available to the public for anyone to use, because I'm sure most people are too lazy to make one themselves.
Fill out the empty boxes with the numbers of your own PR's (you can also insert a link if you have it uploaded to Youtube). Once that’s done, look at it prior to every workout, and pick something you think you can hit. Then, set a PR!
Welcome aboard the PR train.