Michael Hulcher explains why a 1RM test matters, how to work up without burning out, and the best place possible you could test your deadlift 1RM. (Yes, it’s at HQ).


Candice Rainey is a writer, editor, and content producer based in Salt Lake City, with over 15 years of experience working for brands like Condé Nast, GQ, Details, and Elle.

Michael Hulcher

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Elle, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, Marie Claire, Glamour, Lenny, WSJ Magazine, Men’s Journal, and other national outlets.

Next week at Gym Jones HQ some of our members will be testing their 1RM for back squat, strict press, bench press, deadlift, and front squat after completing a somewhat grueling 18 week hypertrophy and strength cycle. Perhaps somewhat selfishly, we asked Gym Jones Programming Director, Michael Hulcher, to give us some tips on how to prepare for test week—as always we expect some big PRs from our athletes. Whether you’re following one of our strength programs at home or testing with us in the gym next week (god help us), read on to learn everything you want to know about testing your 1RM.

Gym Jones athlete Chris Belfiore testing his deadlift.

Why do we test our 1RM at Gym Jones? 

It’s the best measure to get the most accurate percentages you need to use for our linear strength programs, like our Beginning Strength Program or our Specificity 11 Week Strength Phase . We can use a 3RM or 5RM but it’s just not going to be as accurate as a 1RM, and the programming becomes less effective because you might not be using the optimal weight.

Gym Jones athlete August Colonna testing his bench press

What’s an ideal work up when you’re testing your 1RM? 

The short answer is as few reps as possible. A simple progression would be 10 reps at 30%, 5 at 50%, 3 at 70%, 2 at 80%, 1 at 87-90%, 1 at 95% and then absolutely go past your PR at this point. Around your 87-95% work up, you’ll base how far you go beyond your current PR by a couple of things: 1. How did it feel? Sometimes the bar feels light, sometimes it feels heavy. 2. Bar speed. If it’s moving fast don’t make a small jump. If you want to squat 420 and 390 when up like a joke put 420 on the bar. Don’t waste time and energy making small jumps.

Blake Ballard tests his back squat with Brannon Lucas spotting and other HQ athletes cheering him on

Are all work ups for each lift the same? 

No. your strict press is generally going to be different than your deadlift workup, for example. The lower your relative max, the fewer sets you’ll need for warm up. If you’re a woman testing your 1RM strict press, and I’m assuming it isn’t gigantic for the sake of the example, your work up to maximal weight might look something like this: 10 reps at the bar (a women’s bar, hopefully), 3-5 reps at 50-70%, 1-2 reps at 80-90%, and then go time. In general, the smaller the relative load, the fewer sets and reps it’ll take to get there. 

Gym Jones athletes Michael Weidner and Jake Bailey working together on their bench press

Should I test my 1RM at the beginning of a program? 

Some of our programs do require you to have a starting point or some knowledge of what you can lift. As I said, a 1RM test is the most accurate measure. But if you’re a novice lifter or say someone who is training in a home gym and doesn’t have a spotter for the back squat or bench press, there are other ways to get started other than the 1RM.  I’d recommend one of two things: either using a 3RM or, if you’re a true novice lifter, consider trying our hypertrophy program. Everything in hypertrophy is based on rep ranges as opposed to percentages. Rep ranges dictate the load, i.e. 3 sets of 12-15 but stay 3 reps shy of failure. If you’re working in  like a 10-15 rep range by definition that load is relatively light and a lot safer because we almost never go to muscular failure.

Kyle Clark tests his back squat

Do you need a 1RM for every lift we do in the gym? 

God no. The only lifts you need a 1RM for—and I’m kind of excluding Olympic lifting here— are the back squat, deadlift, strict press, bench press,and  front squat. All the supplemental moves you don’t need a 1RM for. I have no clue what my 1RM is for my upright row, nor do I want to find out.

Training partners Candice Rainey and Cate Williams celebrate after Candice achieves a 300# 1RM deadlift

Can you safely test your 1RM if you train by yourself? 

If you train by yourself, testing your 1RM is unsafe because you really do need a spotter for the bench press and back squat. The deadlift, strict press, and front squat, relatively speaking, are fairly safe because on a front squat for instance you can dump the bar. But again, if you’re training by yourself then maybe use a 3RM or a 5RM.

Michael Hulcher coaches Jake Bailey through his deadlift test

Do you test  1RM lifts at your seminars? 

We test your 1RM deadlift at the Fundamentals seminar. Since it’s  a relatively safe lift, we can teach people proper technique and test all in the same day, even if they’ve never deadlifted before. The testing environment at our seminars is really unique; it’s crazy to see people instantly bond and get more excited about other people’s lifts than they are about their own. It’s not uncommon for every single athlete to PR at a Fundamentals Seminar.