Written by Dave Thomas

Nothing feels better than seeing the past few months of hard work pay off and to move the previously immovable. Lifting heavy weight, aside from the myriad of benefits, is just a plain damn awesome feeling and one of the more direct form of feedback and positive stimulus we can get.

One area in which I dedicate a lot of thought and theory towards, as both a coach and as responsible for programming at Performance360, is the one rep (1R) maximum PR attempt. The 1R PR is kind of like the deep sea, we know very little about it but there are a ton of theories pertaining to what goes on there. Traditional strict percentage programming only takes you there a few times per year whereas as our style at P360 is more liberal.

I’ve been in seminars and workshops where the claim is hitting a PR is as easy as following a percentage schedule. Well, it isn’t. What no certification or textbook ever goes near is the mental aspect of the one rep. You know, the part that actually matters. If you are attempting a lift, chances are good you have the ability to hit it physically (unless you are carelessly piling on weight), so it all comes down to state of mind at that exact moment.

Regardless of training methodology, there exists a certain psyche that one must have in order to be successful at hitting 1R PRs.  It comes down to mind over matter.  Sword in the stone kinda stuff.  Either mind or matter wins each time. There are no draws, and I have found the best recipe for consistently putting wins in the mind column to be short and simple.

  1. Attempt them infrequently.
  2. When you do, it should be when your mind is locked into what you are doing.


Here is how to get better at the sharpening your PR psyche.

If You’re a Beginner.  Stop It.

The ability to attempt maximal lifting takes time.  A lot of time.  You must build up your stabilizers, motor paths, primary movers, mental toughness and dozens of other things.  If you are new to weight lifting as defined by six months and newer, you should not be lifting close to your 100% max.  You should be in the range of 60 – 80% and focusing on always hitting smooth, challenging reps.

For example, if you are loading up 315# on deadlift and trying to lift it three times when you’ve never done so at 305#, 295#, 285#, 275# and 265#; multiple times for each, than you are essentially just using bad technique and brute force.  Not technique and definitely not your hamstrings.  You will likely jump right over your hamstrings and send it straight to your lower back.

Be patient.

I cannot stress to you the importance of this.

Jump this process of gradual development and you will either get hurt or get crappy results.  Likely both.

“The Less You Do…The More You Do”

You know I am g’all darn sucker for Kunu quotes from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the entire “do less” philosophy.  All he is trying to say in stoner speak is, “simplify that shit”. Don’t spend sixty seconds over analyzing your grip or making three trips for chalk. Your hands are good. Find a moment of quick focus, and lock in on it. For everyone, how you find this focus is different. I prefer to be left the hell alone while others find success in talking through it, pacing, etc.  However your style, find it, light the wick and set yourself off the moment you feel it.

Here is a rather detailed explanation of what I mean.

Be purposeful and concise. Every second you spend thinking about it is another second your body gets convinced by your mind it can’t do it.

Focus on the Road

There is a saying in stock car racing, “focus on the road, not the wall”. When you are rounding a curve at 200 miles per hour, the second you take your eyes off the road and focus on the wall, that’s exactly where you go. When you think of the thing you aren’t supposed to do, you always do it. You get tense. You deviate and now all of the sudden you don’t where the hell you’re at mentally.

Proper psychology is paramount when you’re riding giants.

When I coach lifters, I take a “do less” approach and never try and overwhelm with cues, and I never under any circumstance tell someone a don’t. It’s always a do. Renown USA Weightlifting coach Pat Cullen-Carroll is famous for this and a technique I picked up while in one of their workshops.

Instead of thinking, “Don’t round my back”, you would think or say, “Keep your back flat and your core tight.”

Instead of thinking, “Don’t leave my head back”, you think or say, “Drive that head through aggressively!”

As a coach, always direct what you want the athlete to do.  As an athlete, you must think about the positive cues, the doing. The road. Not the negative do nots. Or you’re going into the wall every time.

Don’t Attempt Them Every Time You Lift

This one is simple mathematics, folks. Your brain enjoys success and remembers it. It also remembers the failures, and we are hard wired to naturally point out our own flaws more than our attributes.

If you attempt a PR every time you lift, you are going to miss. A lot. Those misses add up and create a negative debt in your brain that your body will never be able to repay. If you are strategic in your PR attempts, you keep out of the failure debt and your brain only has positive reinforcement to your body when you step up to the barbell.

The more defeat, the more your brain is programmed to predetermine the outcome of failure. You know those PR hot streaks you have probably been on before at some point? That’s your brain pimp walkin’ and your body is just following the marching orders because it is so used to success. You don’t even get nervous for a PR attempt because you know you are going to hit it. The goal is to keep that state of mind on reserve whenever you attempt 1R maxes.

Robert De Niro has one of my favorite quotes of all time in the movie Ronin. “If there is any doubt, there is no doubt”.  Meaning, if there is even a glimmer of doubt in your mind, it ain’t gonna happen.

Simplify your thought process to more do’s. Never wander into the land of don’ts. Focus on the road. Decrease your attempts. See more PRs.

Dave Thomas is an owner and coach at Performance360 in San Diego.

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