There are three methods of strength training – the repetition method, the dynamic effort method, and the max effort method. While all three are important and effective, most important of all for the powerlifter is without a doubt the max effort method.
What is the max effort method? The Max Effort Method focuses on teaching a lifter to strain under a heavy load, typically 90%+ of their max. By exerting maximum effort into a single, heavy rep, the lifter develops strength, muscular coordination, and neurological development without relying on or inducing muscular hypertrophy.
While repetition and dynamic effort methods are important to a lifter, we will focus this deep dive entirely on the max effort method.
Important Note: The Max Effort Method is used as part of a whole training system, which includes the Dynamic Effort Method and Repetition Effort Method. I’ve written separate articles for each of these concepts, which I encourage you to read. You must understand all of them if you’re going to understand how they all fit together into a well-designed training program.
Overview Of The Max Effort Method
The max effort method is moving a maximal load under maximal resistance. Typically, that translates to performing single reps of 90%+ of your 1-rep max (1RM).
The purpose of this method is to teach the lifter to strain; to stick with the lift and push through it, rather than yield to your body and mind’s instinct to quit when it gets difficult.
The result is a neurological improvement of the Central Nervous System (CNS) (improving your body’s ability to convert the neurological messages sent to your muscles to exert max force), resulting in an improvement of overall strength and technique under maximal load.
In simple terms – this method improves your individual muscles’ ability to exert force, coordinates your combined muscle groups to work together in a lift, and makes your existing muscles stronger, all while teaching the skill of staying cool under pressure.
In terms of powerlifting, this is the most effective way to acclimate your body for a competition, as this is the whole point of the sport – move as much weight as you can in a single rep. You can’t do that well if you never train to do it in the first place.
However, this type of training is extremely taxing on the CN), and cannot be sustained for long periods of time. For that reason, you can easily overtrain in this method, leading to potential injuries, fatigue, and other setbacks.
Because it cannot be sustained for long periods, Dynamic Effort and Repetition training are commonly blended into a program to support it.
Not enough detail for you? Perfect, we’ll break down all the details of the max effort method in the sections below.
History Of The Max Effort Method
In recent history, Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell details how he developed his training method around the maximal effort method utilized by the Soviet Union weightlifting team and the Bulgarian weightlifting team of the same era in the mid 20th century.
Relying on Soviet books translated by a friend, Louie learned that these teams found the greatest results in their weightlifters the more time they spend training with a near-max load, around 90-97% of their 1RM.
In the case of the Soviets, Simmons recorded that about 20% of their lifts were 90-100% of 1RM. For the Bulgarians, it was the majority of their lifts at that load.
Who produced the better weightlifting team? The Bulgarians. Because they spent more time under the near-max loads, they were better acclimated to perform maximal lifts in competition.
However, the Bulgarians had an extra element we can’t overlook – they hand-selected their team members based on ideal height and body weight. If a lifter couldn’t keep up with the program, they were replaced.
The Soviets had a similar grooming tactic, where their athletes had to train with general strength exercises for three years before being approved to train the competitive lifts, but ultimately the Bulgarians were more rigid in their approach to the max effort method, and therefore more successful.
In both scenarios, even great athletes were cut from the teams, unable to sustain the stresses (physical, emotional, and psychological) of consistently training under maximal loads.
Westside Barbell has been the biggest proponent of the max effort method since then, but any good powerlifting or strength program today will incorporate elements of the max effort method to train a lifter to improve their strength.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
How Is The Max Effort Method Applied In Training?
Here’s where you start to get variation in the max effort method. Remember, by definition, the max effort method is moving maximal load against maximal resistance. But that definition doesn’t define how frequently it’s used.
Given that definition, you can incorporate it as an element of training, as we’ll discuss below, or you can make that the mantra and soul of your training, as Louie Simmons has.
Consistent Application of Max Effort Training
Louie preaches that “the body will only adapt to the stimulus placed upon it.” So if you want to lift heavy things for one rep, then you have to introduce a stimulus to your body that will make you adapt to accommodate that demand.
Given that mentality, it’s no surprise that the Westside athletes have 2-3 Max Effort (ME) workouts a week, one for each of the three powerlifts, or sometimes a max effort lower body and a max effort upper body workout.
The rest of the week will incorporate a Dynamic Effort (DE) workout for each powerlift, and rep work for a total of 6-7 workouts, half of them focused on maximal effort.
Each week, the variation of the max effort lift is changed to avoid accommodation and keep variety in the program. For example, one week may be a ME safety bar squat, the next is a ME cambered bar squat to a box, rather than consistently hitting the lift in competition form.
No matter the variation of the lift, the goal is to be exerting maximal force multiple times a week so the lifter can 1) adapt to that training and get stronger, and 2) develop the skills required to perform under that heavy of a load.
For this reason, the variation does not have to carry over perfectly to the competition formats of the squat, bench, and deadlift, so long as it is making the lifter strain under a heavy load, but within reason of specificity.
In this approach, the lifter will always be applying the max effort method, but with low volume, and in a dedicated workout intended purely for training under a heavy load.
Periodic Application of Max Effort Training
In other programs, the max effort method is only used in certain blocks, or periods of training, due to the fatigue it causes to the lifter.
If you look at a standard 12-week program, it’s typically broken into three blocks. The names of the blocks vary, but the first 4 weeks are typically focused on hypertrophy and building muscle. The max effort method will not be incorporated much if at all here.
The second block is 4 weeks of strength/skill development, with loads around 75-85% of max with reps ranging from 3-5 per set. A lifter may find themselves exerting max effort by their last rep of a set, but many coaches will avoid that level of exertion during this stage of a program.
For that reason, some ME elements will appear in this block, but not intentionally.
The final block is the peak, or tapering block, when the lifter transitions to performing double and eventually single reps in the 90% range. This 3-4 week period pretty much exemplifies the max effort method as it is focused on preparing the athlete to perform a true 1RM, applying all their technique and strength training from the previous blocks into that single repetition at maximal load.
During this final block, the lifter reduces their total volume (reps x weight) to focus on just performing those single, heavy reps with very little accessory or variation work.
Once the block is completed and the lifter has tested their maxes, they go back to the beginning of a new training block, separating themselves from the max effort method for another several weeks or months.
You’ll find varying opinions on how to incorporate the max effort method. Some will support Louie’s model, where it’s utilized every week strategically, while others support only using it for 4 weeks at a time.
For the individual lifter, the biggest factor will be your own ability to adapt to that kind of load and how long you can maintain it safely and efficiently.
6 Benefits Of The Max Effort Method
However you apply the max effort method, there’s no denying some amazing benefits to using it.
The 6 benefits of the max effort method are:
- Proven method
- Improve your 1RM
- Perfect carryover
- Skill development
- No DOMS
1. Proven Method
The max effort method is tried and proven. It’s science, is gospel, it’s truth – you can’t get really good at moving a maximal weight without training really close to maximal weight.
Any great lifter you look at will have stories about grinding through lifts, and about quitting lifts they should have grinded through. Even amateurs will come across it early in their tenure and realize there’s a skill to how you react in those split seconds when a weight is heavy, slowing down, or even stopped mid-lift and they gave up, or pushed (or pulled) through.
While it’s not advisable to make yourself grind every ME rep, by strategically setting ME weights and reps, you can simulate the experience of a max effort lift and get good at straining when others will give in to the instinct to give up.
2. Improve your 1RM
If you effectively train with the max effort method, whether periodically or perpetually, your 1RM will go up.
You can look at other strength methods, where training your 5RM or 3RM over and over will predict how much you can do in a 1RM, but there’s no real way of knowing what your 1RM is until you test it.
Even more accurate than a 3RM or 5RM is taking 90% of your 1RM and doing it a few times over a few weeks before competing or testing your max.
If you effectively train with the ME method, your 1RM will go up. Period.
We reviewed the popular Jonnie Candito Powerlifting Program, check it out to learn how he implements ‘max effort method' principles.
3. Perfect Carryover
There is no more perfect carryover than the ME method. If you want to know what it’s like to squat your next max, spend a few reps squatting 90% of it and you’ll get a pretty good idea. Do it enough, and you’ll have very few surprises when you add that final 10% on to the bar and take it for a ride.
We talk a lot about carryover in powerlifting – does the close grip bench press carry over to your traditional bench? Does the good morning carry over to improve your squat and deadlift? It’s important to train in a way that will improve your ultimate goal – lifting heavy for 1 rep at a time.
Let’s admit it – if you powerlift, that’s because it’s fun to you to put ungodly weights on our bodies and move it for one glorious rep. The max effort method lets us have that fun outside of competition and testing maxes.
If we effectively incorporate the max effort method, we can enjoy that aspect of lifting we love so much – the feeling of the pressure in our heads and bodies, the “all or nothing” urgency of one rep, the burst blood vessels in our eyes afterward – without actually maxing out all the time in the way we only get to do in competition.
If you put together a solid training plan with the max effort method included, you’ll always be having fun doing the best parts of powerlifting.
5. Skill Development
The ME method will develop your skill to lift under heavy load.
I’ve hinted at this a few times previously, but here’s the breakdown.
A great powerlifter has both the strength to move the weight and the skill to move the weight for one, clean rep. Strength and skill are two different things.
I’ve seen many lifters perform 2-3 reps of a heavy-ish weight. Sometimes their first rep isn’t clean, like a squat that doesn’t go deep enough. On their second rep, they bury it and correct it. They worked off the rust with the first rep, corrected it in the second, and the third rep looks great.
But that same lifter will struggle to perform a single rep when they don’t have the opportunity to get one out of their system first and correct the mistakes. Performing one, clean rep is a skill by itself.
Secondly, you learn the ability to slow down your lift (mentally) and think while you are lifting.
Imagine the last max effort lift you attempted or watched. The lifter is red in the face, trying to finish it. Everyone is shouting something like “Push!” or “Pull!” or “Hips!” or “Up!” or some other cue they think will help the lifter get it done.
You yourself as the lifter might be thinking those same things, or maybe you go into a zone and you aren’t thinking about anything but moving the weight.
But a lift is only going to last 1-7 seconds, tops. By the time an outside voice sees your lift stall, processes what they think should be done, verbalizes it, and you hear it, it’s too late.
When you train under maximal load with maximal effort, that few seconds becomes familiar territory. You train yourself to be able to cue yourself, and those messages from your own brain can be processed in time to adjust and finish the lift.
You can tell yourself whatever cue you need – “spread the floor,” “back into the bar,” “hips forward,” and make the change, because you’ve been here before, week after week, and you know how to strain and think at the same time.
When you train with the ME method, you get good at performing single reps. Not just single reps, but single reps under near-maximal load, which is a skill in and of itself.
So use the max effort method to not only build your strength but your skill at performing 1RM’s.
6. No DOMS
This may be more of a downside of the max effort method depending on how you look at it, but a proper ME workout will not leave you with much DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) as the amount of time your muscles are under tension is very low compared to a hypertrophy exercise or bodybuilding workout where perform many reps with lighter weight, and typically short rest.
If you are one who struggles with DOMS and the discomfort that comes from it, try leaning into a workout that is closer to the ME method and you can get strong and lift without the DOMS that follows the next few days.
That being said, your CNS will be fried instead, so pick your poison.
4 Cons Of The Max Effort Method
So far, the ME method sounds pretty good. Why would a powerlifter do anything other than the ME method if it’s the best way to get strong?
Well here are the 4 downsides of the Max Effort Method:
- No muscle growth
Max Effort lifts are the most exhausting way to train, plain and simple. You cannot train with max effort for very long – not over time, and not in a single workout.
Training with maximal effort is exhausting, so it simply can’t be done full time. It sucks that we can’t do it all the time, but such is life.
Max effort lifts are risky. There’s a lot that can go wrong with all 3 competition lifts, and there are even more complexities if we are maxing out other lifts like an overhead press or a good morning.
When you’re exerting maximal effort, you open up the risk of hurting yourself or others if something goes wrong. You could simply be overreaching and attempting a weight you shouldn’t be attempting, or simply fail a lift for any other reason, and you still wind up with someone getting hurt in some cases.
This is especially true for max effort lifts beyond one rep. You significantly increase the risk of max effort training when you go beyond one rep. For this reason, you must take extra precautions when attempting more than one rep with max effort.
If you implement the ME method, then make sure to read my article on How To Avoid A Powerlifting Injury.
Attempting a max effort lift should always be done with spotters around you, but spotters may not always be available. If you don’t have them available, then it will be much harder to apply the max effort method to your program.
Similarly, if you proceed with a ME workout without the assistance of spotters, you open yourself up to a greater risk of injury by attempting it alone.
Schedules can be hard to align with others, but this is where powerlifting becomes a team sport.
4. No Muscle Growth
The max effort method will not build new muscle for a lifter. That’s not the goal of the program and that’s not the response your body will get from this kind of stimulus.
If your goals are to stack on muscle and size and you start applying the max effort method, you are spinning your wheels.
This is not a method that will make you look big or grow muscle quickly. If those are your goals, then this is not a program that will benefit you at all.
If those are part of your goals and the other part of your goals is to make that new muscle very strong, then the max effort method should be included.
Tips To Using The Max Effort Method
With the understanding you now have of the max effort method, there are a few things to keep in mind before you set out to build your next training block around it.
When making the decision to include 3 ME workouts a week, or wait until your peaking block, be strategic about it.
Consider your tenure in the sport so far – have you experienced grinders before that you pushed through? Do you always quit when the going gets tough, but you should be able to get the weight up?
If you need more experience learning how to strain, work with a coach to select weights that you can hit for singles every week without overreaching. Perhaps a little more frequency will help you develop that skill.
If you’ve been in the sport for a while and know how to grind and know how to perform max effort singles, then consider saving that energy for a 4-week period during a peak instead of spending it all the time week after week.
Need to understand your training frequency better? Check out my articles on:
- How Many Times Per Week Should You Squat?
- How Many Times Per Week Should You Bench Press?
- How Many Times Per Week Should You Deadlift?
Face it, we only have three lifts that we use as the basis of our whole sport. We have to change things up to keep it interesting and exciting.
Beyond our boredom, variations of the lift will also target weak points. Consider the close grip bench press, the deficit deadlift, the sumo deadlift vs the conventional – each of those variations requires something different from us than the lift in its standard, competition form.
As you select which lifts to apply to your ME workout, run the gamut and use as many as you can.
Need some ideas, check out my articles on:
As you select those variations, absolutely favor the ones that will carry over best to your competition lifts. If you find a 1RM of a seated good morning doesn’t do much for your squat or deadlift, then don’t do it as often.
In other words, if you find a box squat above parallel does the trick better, prioritize that one.
Think critically about where your lifts need improvement and where they have failed most recently, then apply a variation of the lift that will get that weakness stronger. Put it under a ME workout, and you’re killing two birds with one stone.
Here are some exercises that target specific areas within the range of motion:
- Improve Squat Lockout
- Improve Squat Bottom Position
- Improve Bench Press Bottom Position
- Improve Bench Press Mid Range
- Improve Bench Press Lockout
- Improve Deadlift Bottom Position
- Improve Deadlift Mid Range
- Improve Deadlift Lockout
Make yourself strain. This is the whole point of the method. If you are not selecting weights that make you strain, you are missing the point of the program.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not telling you to overreach. I am not telling you to be reckless. But I am saying that the whole point is for this lift to be hard.
Record Video/Get Help
Record video or have others watch you and give you feedback on your ME lifts and workouts. There’s often a big difference in how a lift feels versus how it looks on the outside, and we have to be aware of both.
When a weight feels heavy and slow, go back and watch the video – a lot of times it moves faster on video than we thought when it was in our hands.
Seeing it on video can increase your confidence so that you can think and cue yourself while you are under the weight of the bar, instead of letting the feeling of it get the best of you.
Should Powerlifters Use The Max Effort Method?
100% yes, there’s no question you should use it. There is no way to get maximally strong without it. The better question is “HOW should powerlifters use the max effort method?”
And unfortunately, I can’t give you a definitive answer. I can tell you that it’s very difficult to sustain the max effort method week after week. The Bulgarians proved it’s not for everyone, and they replaced any weightlifters that couldn’t keep up.
The Soviets made their weightlifters train general, unskilled strength exercises for three years before they were deemed strong enough and fit enough to start training skilled lifts (the squat, bench, deadlift, clean and jerk, and snatch) because in order to train those lifts, they had to be able to do it with maximal effort 20% of the time.
But those two teams are the best in history BECAUSE they trained with maximal effort more than any other teams, except for Louie and the guys at Westside.
So the evidence is indisputable, but you will need to look at your situation and decide if you can hit a max effort workout every week, a few times a week, or just during a 4-week period before the competition.
But no matter what you decide, you will not get very far in powerlifting without some form of the max effort method.
The Max Effort Method goes well with many training splits, including a 6-day powerlifting split. You can learn more about training 6 days per week in my other article.
Program Example: Max Effort Method
The folowing are two examples of the max effort method used for squats.
The first example you can use leading up to a competition because it priorities the competition low bar back squat.
The second example you can use during normal training, several weeks before a competition because it involves a variation of the squat.
Example #1: Max Effort Method
- Warm up
- Squat – 1 sets of 1 rep @ 90% of 1RM
- Paused Squat – 4 sets of 2 at 70% of 1RM
Example #2: Max Effort Method
- Warm Up
- Block Pull Deadlift – 5 sets of 1 rep at 90% of 1RM, off 3” blocks.
- Good Mornings – 3 sets of 3-5 at 85% of 1RM
- Bent over barbell rows – 3 sets of 5
Whether you view the max effort method as a way of life, or simply as a tool that is a part of your programming, it is crucial to improving your 1RM in any compound lift.
As Louie Simmons says, your body can only adapt to the stimulus you put on it. There’s no better way to acclimate to a heavy load than by training with a heavy load. But because of the taxing nature of training with maximal effort, we have to be thoughtful about how we apply it.
What To Read Next:
- 2 Day Powerlifting Split: How To Structure It The Right Way
- 4-Day Powerlifting Split: How to Structure It The Right Way
- 5-Day Powerlifting Split: How to Structure It The Right Way
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.