Why Do We (Should We) “Max Out” in the CrossFit Training Context?

Why Do We (Should We) “Max Out” in the CrossFit Training Context?

At CrossFit Mischief, our members encounter a “max out” phase just about every three months.  The term “max out” simply refers to an athlete’s attempt at performing some specified movement at a maximal load.  In other words, maxing out reveals the heaviest load at which an athlete can perform a single repetition (“1-rep max” or “1RM”, for short) of a lifting implement, such as a classic weightlifting or powerlifting movement.  Of course, “maxing”—or, delivering maximal effort towards some end—can be done with respect to many other fitness implements, aside from lifting ones; but, the following discussion will be limited to weight training at maximal loads.

During Mischief max out blocks, athletes have four to eight class opportunities to establish maximal loads for each movement on a prescribed list of lifts.  Often, we prioritize classic compound lifting movements, like the back squat and deadlift, but we also include some weightlifting variants each cycle (e.g., the “power” clean) and other useful training lifts, like the barbell push press, which is a sort of hybrid weightlifting movement.  Because attendance and training availability vary greatly amongst Mischief Members, each has some discretion as to which lift the athlete would like to tackle on each of the max out days.  Regardless which lifts are considered by participants, coaches are there to help athletes make appropriate decisions, in light of the assigned WODs, as well as to put all participants through adequate warmups in preparation for making max attempts.  Furthermore, athletes at CrossFit Mischief typically have the daily option during our programmed max out blocks to forego maxing out, in favor of rolling/stretching out, doing other recovery or skill work, or spending time on the finer, technical aspects of a listed movement.

Although other CrossFit boxes and gyms may incorporate maxing out differently, it is a common tenant of most strength and conditioning platforms, and other GPP oriented training programs.  It is also the case, however, that many participants in these same training environments approach lifting heavy loads with skepticism and are reluctant to max out.  Much of that hesitation is related to fitness goals.  Within the CrossFit training context alone, individuals’ goals are as diverse as the movements they encounter in class.  Some participants want to get stronger, while others want to lose bodyweight, condition their aesthetic image (and with it, their self-confidence), or improve their endurance, agility, generic functionality, range of motion (mobility), overall athleticism, or coordination.  There is no right or wrong, when it comes to personal goals, and in reality, most individuals participate in CrossFit to pursue some combination of the above—which is not at all an exhaustive list.

By and large, the most common goals I see as a coach are strength development and weigh loss.  Unfortunately, misconceptions about the correlations that exist between strength and bodyweight, and timidities born of past training experiences that resulted in minor or major injury (perhaps as the result of poor instruction), leave individuals conflicted about their fitness goals and the means available for achieving them.  Nonetheless, whatever the reason(s) behind them, these aversions to getting hurt or gaining weight—because you cannot get stronger without gaining weight, right? [sarcasm]—cause many participants to ask: Why do we (should we) “max out” in the CrossFit training context?  Frankly, the quick answer to this question is that coaches cannot program intelligently, efficiently, or safely without knowing athletes’ maximum capacities.  On a deeper level, though, knowing exactly where athletes are currently at not only helps with structuring programs for strength development, but it also provides direction for technical enhancement, exposes the nature of athletes’ deficiencies, gives individuals something to feel good about, and prepares participants for challenges posed in alternative athletic contexts.  Below, I will dive into each of these points.

Discerning athletes’ capacities—by having athletes max out—is an essential component of program writing processes that are geared towards developing general and specific strength.  Assembling strength programs is no simple task, nor is it aimlessly random—at least, it should not be.  Rather, set and rep assignments, including the weights that should be used, are the product of scientific analysis and physiological theory.  Of the variables that go into the applicable formulae, an individual’s maximum threshold capacity is possibly the most important.

Overtraining, which can be caused by excessive volume (quantity of reps) and/or excessive intensity (numerical value of load), is a real concern in the modern fitness industry, especially in multidisciplinary training contexts like CrossFit classes.  Moreover, because they present gradually and subtly in relatively healthy individuals, the effects of overtraining may not become outwardly recognizable for days or weeks.  Diligent coaches cannot, in good conscience, rely solely on visual evidence of how their programming affects their clients.  And contrary to cliché and oversimplified principles of strength development, much of initial strength building comes from athletes doing a lot of work at lower and moderate loads.  (Over time, appropriately prepared athletes are subsequently exposed to heavier loads to complete the neurological and other physiological adaptations that must take place for strength development.)  Nevertheless, coaches cannot ascertain all these non-visual data and values without first knowing where each individual’s capacity lies, and even where strength “maintenance” is the goal, the same reasoning holds.

Something similar can be said regarding technical enhancement, which is no less important for overall strength improvement.  Indeed, regarding the classic compound lifts, progress with respect to strength will quickly plateau or stagnate where technique is neglected.  The following mantra is particularly relevant: Lift heavy like you lift light; lift light like you lift heavy.  The underlying constant that holds this saying together is technical consistency, and technical progress can only come with proper instruction and exposure to appropriate loads.  (There are other contributing factors.)  Even though loading for beginners should remain light, until basic mechanics have been enforced—and reinforced several (hundred) times over—there is a sweet spot within the 70-80% capacity range where technical work can be optimized.  As with the math behind strength building formulae, the values that support technical progress cannot be assigned properly (or in ways that will yield the highest utility) without knowing athletes’ 1-rep maxes.

It is not the end goals, like strength progress and technical progress, that alone justify the use of maxing out in the CrossFit training context; it is also what the physical act of lifting maximal loads reveals about athletes to observant and attentive coaches.  Making 1-rep max attempts exposes deficiencies that may otherwise go unnoticed and may be inhibiting performance.  There is nowhere to hide for athletes working at the absolute margins of their experience, and the nature of any technical deviation that manifests while making unusually heavy attempts is telling.  In fact, whether the attempt itself is a success or failure (in the training context) is almost immaterial.  Once those deviations spring up, coaches can zero in on the technical shortcuts athletes are consciously or subconsciously taking at lighter and moderate loads.  Training programs can thereafter be adjusted to address the deficiencies that have appeared.  What is more, a lack of technical deviation at maximal loads (where technique is considered “good”) suggests that the deficiency resides mostly in the strength department, which is no less useful for coaches.

Aside from all the reasons listed above, maxing out is also a litmus test for general progress, and when individuals see progress, most feel good about it.  Whether or not individuals’ capacities have changed is empirical evidence of improvement (or the lack thereof).  Small victories, like standing up a heavy front squat, or getting under a heavy snatch more gracefully than ever before, validate the training hardships of the past and pave the path for future accomplishments.  If anything, those experiences fuel the resolve of determined athletes.  Likewise, max out phases inform coaches what is and what is not working for their athletes, and programming changes can be made accordingly.

Finally, context is important, and maxing out in the CrossFit training context can prepare individuals for the challenges they may face in alternative athletic contexts, such as the competition context.  In fact, the results of some strength sports (i.e. weightlifting and powerlifting) hinge on athletes’ abilities to lift maximal loads on the competition platform.  Some CrossFit WODs even require athletes to do so.  As much as strength development and technical enhancement prior to competition depend on volume performed at sub-maximal loads, the realization of any “gains” that have begun accruing can only be completed if athletes are exposed to sufficiently heavy stimuli during training.  The science of meet/competition preparation is a little (read: a lot!) more intricate than that, but the generalization is sufficient for our discussion.  Choosing not to expose athletes to heavier loads (if not maximal ones) in the training context is to disregard the neurological aspects of adaptation—strength or technical.  If athletes have to confront maximal loads in the competition context, then, to some degree, they need to be making highly regulated max attempts in the training context.

When we discuss the practice of maxing out in the CrossFit training context, we are referring to the establishment of training thresholds that can be employed by coaches and programmers to ensure time in the gym is effective, safe, and otherwise well spent.  As alluded to above, maxing out promotes: productivity (strength development and technical enhancement); proficiency (exposes deficiencies); positivity (evidence of progress); and, preparation (for challenges that arise in other settings).  That said, certain parameters should be enforced to secure—above all else—athlete safety.  A degree of technical breakdown during max attempts is not only expected (depending on the level of athlete experience), but functional, so long as same is addressed both on the spot and throughout future training sessions, and those faults do not create an immediate and unnecessary risk of injury to athletes.  Additionally, the manner and frequency of max out blocks should reflect athletes’ fitness goals and training context.  Prudence, regarding maxing out, requires that athletes listen to their bodies and their coaches, and that coaches be responsive to the concerns expressed by those under their charge.  So long as these criteria are adhered to, maxing out can play (and should play) a valuable role in the CrossFit training context.

~Coach Brian
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