Technical Max vs. Absolute Max

All too often it seems like, progress stalls. PRs stop coming. And then what do you do? Well, hilariously, we usually just try the same thing again or tell ourselves we just need to do it but do it better and try harder or get more amped up first! And we are all guilty of this. Everyone wants to hit PRs by just wanting it more and sacking up and getting jacked up to lift! But here’s my question? If you test your max and miss, then what? Or if you make it will you have to max again next time?? To me it seems like if you can make small, predictable gains and PRs whenever you train, then the likelihood of that adding up to a big PR after an extended training cycle is enormous.

So how do you go about doing this? We all know that when we train we break down the body. The body then, through nutrition, rest, and supplementation recovers afterward—ideally creating a stronger body composed of bigger and stronger muscle for the next training day. So we have to break ourselves down in such a way that we recover rapidly so we can keep training and keep creating stimuli for the body to adapt to. There’s plenty of information on nutrition, rest, supplementation and other various recovery methods. But the factor left over that I’d like to discuss then is training stress.

But this is an incomplete model.  Because there is a neural and a motor adaptation that takes place during  the workout.  Yes, you can actually become a more skillful lifter and therefore a stronger lifter while you train.  And with the goal we all have of constantly making gains, this is crucial. Technique improvements mean you lift more with less effort and accrue less stress for the joints to recover from. This is called winning.

So now we have two objectives:

  1. Recover from workouts at a faster rate than the workouts break us down, and
  2. Improve technique


But here’s what’s really interesting: When you improve your technique, the loads that you handle get spread across the involved joints and muscles more efficiently. So instead of one joint being overloaded and maybe getting tendinitis or an injury, which take longer to recover from—you can train the targeted muscle groups and motions with less stress to slow-recovering tendon tissue and more to the faster-to-recover muscle! So better technique means more lifting with faster recovery… hmmm then that means:

If you recover faster you can train more frequently, and since training is when you improve technique you can improve your technique faster.

And if you improve technique faster, well that means you can recover faster.

Since point 1 speeds up point 2 and point 2 speeds up point 1… well you can see that you’re turning yourself into a lifting machine!

But the opposite, unfortunately, is also true:

If you break yourself down by subjecting yourself to more stress then you can recover from you will be forced to lift less and less and therefore be less able to make improvements to your technique.

With poor technique you subject your body to stress inefficiently.

Now you are injured, weak, skinny and sad. Don’t be skinny and sad.

By now it may seem like I think technique is important.  It is extremely important, but it must be paired with rigorous, heavy training to get stronger. The classic SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands) tells us that if we want to get better at lifting heavy, we must train heavy. And the more we do, the better we get at lifting heavy (technique). So then how do we get the benefit of high volume of frequent heavy lifting  without getting broken down?

I’d like to introduce the idea of having two maxes. Most people are aware of what’s called the “absolute max”. This is the absolute maximum weight one can lift no matter how much their technique breaks down in the process. If you have to turn your squat into a good morning to grind out a lift or finish a deadlift with a dangerously rounded back, you’ve completed the lift but your form has abandoned you. Next you have what I call your “technical max”. Your technical max is the heaviest weight you can lift without having a breakdown in form. Why is this important? Because if you can train with good technique you can beat yourself up less. If your form degrades because your stronger muscle groups have to take over, you are only cheating your lagging muscle groups of the work they need. If you have weak quads and you always train above your technical max, and your back always takes over when your legs can’t stay under the weight and straighten out, then your legs will never get stronger. Your technique will always stay poor! This situation smacks of skinniness. Don’t be skinny. Fix your technique and get jacked. Please. Or don’t. You decide.

So now we can put together a simple model for training. Train as hard as you like, but not above your technical max. This goes for reps as well as singles. If your technical max is not a high percentage of your absolute max, then you will need to lift a greater volume and supplement your core lifts with additional exercises to give those lagging muscle groups a chance to work hard and catch up. This means several sets of reps without technique breakdown. But as discussed earlier, when you do work as hard as you can but keep good technique your technique will improve and your body will recover and adapt faster. Before you know it your technical max will be closing in on your absolute max—and then you can truly train heavy.  And your body will be conditioned to reap the rewards from doing it frequently!