What’s Best? A Big 1RM or High Stamina?

“Is it more beneficial to a CrossFit athlete to have a high one rep max, or to be able to do multiple reps close to their max?”

All right, I’m going to give you a short answer here and then we’ll delve into the science behind this a little bit more. The short answer is you need to work more on whichever is the weakness for you, so in a sport where we’re testing your ability to have equal competencies across rangeos of time, of modes of exercise and of load, you need to able to do both. Whichever it is that’s letting you down, whichever is your biggest weakness, that’s where you need to focus on. That’s the short answer.

That aside, what you’re basically asking about here is you’re asking about your neuromuscular efficiency, and this is a term used to describe our ability to either lift a lot of reps close to our max or not many reps close to our max. To a large degree, your neuromuscular facility efficiency is predetermined. It takes the form of things like muscle-fiber types, fast or slow, twitch and fibre colours, and also other factors in neuromuscular system. Basically, it works like this. If you have a very high one-rep max, you’re very strong, but you can’t lift 85% of that many times, then you have a high neuromuscular efficiency. It basically means you’re able to recruit a large percentage of your total muscle fibres, a large percentage of your total motor units, which are those nerves tell the muscle fibres to fire.

This means that you can lift very heavy. You have a great one-rep max, but because you’re fatiguing so many of those muscle fibres straight off the bat, you’re then not able to do a large number of reps at 85% of your max, so you’ve got a very high max, but you’re only maybe could hit two, three, four reps at 85%. However, if you have a very low rate in here, what you’re able to do is not lift as much because you can’t fire as many of those motor units. You can’t fire as many muscle fibres. However, because you’re not firing as many, you’re more able to complete a lot of reps close to your max, so you can do a lot of reps at 85%, maybe 10, 12-plus reps because you’re not fatiguing as many of those muscle fibres on each lift, so you have a greater deficit or reserve to be able to fall back on.

How do we fix this? Because again, you remember the short answer to this question was whichever you are weakest at is what you need to work at. If you have a high neuromuscular efficiency, you need to work at being able to do more reps close to your [inaudible 00:02:50]. If you have a low neuromuscular efficiency, you need to be able to work at increasing your one-rep max because you already have that stamina. How do we do this? Well, if you have high neuromuscular efficiency, if you’re very strong, but your stamina is not so good, your training is going to benefit more from you doing a lower volume at higher loads.

That is what’s going to work to your fibre type, to your genetic predisposition. However, we don’t necessarily want to work to your fibre type because you can create some changes. You can change the percentages or at least at the moment, the research is telling us you can’t change the percentages of muscle fibre type, but you can change how effective each type of fibre is. So if you’re trying to create a specific focused athlete who’s not a generalist, you would basically take advantage of that fibre type. You would take advantage of all that high neuromuscular efficiency to become really strong and you would do lower volumes, small sets at high reps, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create balance, so we’re going to flip this around and say that if this is you, then maybe you need to be training at higher volume, so you need to be doing a lot more reps at a lower load, so we can start to switch this muscle fibre type and start to take you from high to low.

Of course, if you have a lower neuromuscular efficiency, you can do a lot of reps close to your max. If you want to improve this, if you’re a generalist athlete, maybe a more endurance-based athlete, you would want to be doing higher volume at a lighter load, but again, that’s going to reinforce what you already have, so if you can do a lot of reps close to your max, what you should be doing is the opposite. You should be doing a high load or low volume and this way, you’re working on whatever your weakness is, so again, let’s circle back. Short answer to the question. You need to be working on whatever it is which is a weakness so the question was is it more important to have a high max or an ability to do a lot of reps close to your max? What’s most important for you is what’s most important for you and that is working your weakness because in the end, you’re only as strong as your weakest link and that is what’s going to determine your success as an athlete.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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