When we think about fitness, we tend to think in terms of musculature.  Spend a few minutes with a casual lifter and the question is sure to come up: “how much do you bench, bro?”

If you’re talking to a more seasoned lifter, the question tends to skew toward squats instead, in part because it’s a better measure of functional strength, but primarily because, within the social media fitness sphere, it’s imperative that we accuse one another of skipping leg day.  Without that standby insult, most Instagram models wouldn’t know what to write on their memes (God help us all).  Of course, leg day is important for other reasons, but the internet has a funny way of sucking the substance out of a topic and replacing it with snarky wit.

To be fair though, this guy needs an intervention.

I’ll level with you, I’m just as excited about setting a new personal record (PR) on the bench as the next guy, but it’s important that we frame these accomplishments properly.  In most circumstances, it’s not the guy that can move the most weight ONCE that succeeds, but rather the guy with the right combination of strength, stamina, and practical experience.  As we’ve discussed in previous articles, it’s important to tailor your workouts to your fitness goals. For instance, if you compete as a power lifter, it makes sense to tune your program toward constantly increasing your single-rep max, but it honestly just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the rest of us.

When someone asks me what my max is on the bench, they’re usually disappointed when I respond, “I dunno, around 350 or so.”  It’s hard for people to swallow the fact that a guy like me (that loves to work out) doesn’t have an exact figure to offer. The truth of the matter: I only max every couple of months.  The rest of the time, my workout cycle generally consists of switching set and rep counts (week by week) while trying to gradually increase the weight I can move while still meeting my rep-goals.  I realize that sounds a bit confusing so I’ll provide an example.

During a strength building week, I’ll do four sets on the flat bench.  Each set will involve more weight and fewer repetitions than the last (10 reps, 8, 6, and finally 4).  The following week, I may switch things up and just leave 235 on the bar to do four sets of 10.  When my cycle comes back around to four sets of ten again, the intent is to maintain 235, or optimally, bump it up a few pounds.  As the cycle continues, my single rep max will undoubtedly increase–but I’m more concerned with meeting my functional goals than I am with my max, which, in any place outside of competition, is a bit of a superfluous measuring stick.

Like so many things, I liken my train of thought to a fight: sure, I hope I can hit you one time with the equivalent amount of force I put forth when benching 350. But if that doesn’t put you down, I’m going to need to rely on those sets of 10 at 235.

Ultimately, if chasing PRs motivates you to keep working, that’s great and I encourage you to maintain that outlook. However, if you find yourself demoralized by a lack of BIG numbers on max day, take heart: single rep maxes don’t win fights, and not everyone lifts with the same goals.

If you ask me, the two best ways to measure your progress in the gym are how you feel, and how your shirts fit.  As you work your ass off (perhaps literally) your clothes will sit on you differently, and you’ll feel that as you slip your favorite shirt on.  As your overall fitness levels increase so will your energy, and the day won’t be quite as tough to get through.  Using a scale to measure weight loss alone can be misleading.  If you’re developing muscle as you burn fat, the scale alone may not be a great indicator of how far you’ve come.

Actually feeling good about yourself when you throw your favorite T-shirt on to head out on a Monday morning is far more important than any one-rep max, in my book… but if you still want to go pound for pound, I’m far too competitive to say no.

I just won’t take it too personally if you win.


Image courtesy of the author