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Test your might

Test Your Might: When and How to Take an Unscheduled PR

There are some things to consider when you are thinking about an unplanned PR in the middle of a training cycle. We will look at three different types of PR attempts: The Mock Meet, the Single-Lift PR, and an AMRAP Strength Test. Each of these will affect your training in different ways. And will require different levels of preparation. We can’t cover all possible scenarios, but there are some principles that will let you know whether you should go for it or hold off

Test Your Might

(When and How to Take an Unscheduled PR Attempt)

By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief

There are always spikes in unplanned PR attempts this time of year—when the weather changes and lifters start to emerge from their winter-time hoodies ready to show off their gains. Despite consistent and well-planned training, you may feel like you have some unfinished business with the barbell—nagging PRs left to cross off the list. It’s worse when those PRs are so close, but your carefully thought out programming has you adding incremental weights for the next who-knows-how-long.  While going off-program is taboo, and doing so haphazardly can cost you more progress than you think, you’re going to do it anyway. So, here are a few ways to test your might this season with a non-programmed PR.

Why Test

We are not saying you should take an unplanned PR attempt just because you have the itch. We are also not advocating unplanned PRs randomly or willy-nilly. All we are saying is that we understand. As coaches, we rail against the unplanned, off-program PRs; as lifters, we’ve all done it. We’ve been there and know that lifting weights is not nearly as much fun if you don’t get to kick a little bit of butt now and then.

Permission > Forgiveness

PRs come with risk. You put a lot of effort into one day or one attempt. There’s a lot of pressure, and sometimes people choke. (We all do.) The stars just do not align in your favor. Sometimes, you just don’t have the same pep on PR day that you need, or your mind comes up with a little strength-zapping tidbit just as you take your grip.

But every lifter knows the feeling of waking up ready to hit that PR. You feel good, your confidence is bursting, and you just know that you are going to make the lift that day. Those days do not always line up with a planned PR day, and there are some good arguments for taking advantage of those days when you just feel so damn good. So, should you go for it?

If you have a coach, it’s best to ask permission first. Or at least tell your coach ahead of time. While your coach cannot determine how things go on THE DAY. They will know whether you are ready. If you’ve been working toward this goal for a while, your coach has been preparing your body and may enjoy the chance for you to take advantage of having your mind right. Telling your coach that you are ready is helpful. They may put the brakes on (“Hold up! You’ve got a lifting competition coming up in 2 weeks.”) Or give you a reality check (“You’re not quite there yet. Hold off while we finish this cycle. Then we will start chipping away at that goal.”) But if you’ve been training for that PR, and you’re ready, they may also give you the green light.

Training Without a Coach

If you do not have a coach, there are some things to consider when you are thinking about an unplanned PR in the middle of a training cycle. We will look at three different types of PR attempts: The Mock Meet, the Single-Lift PR, and the AMRAP Strength Test. Each of these affect your training in different ways and require different levels of preparation. We can’t cover all possible scenarios, but some principles will let you know whether you should go for it or hold off:

(1) Whether you can afford an interruption to training (and how much?),

(2) Whether your current schedule and program are amenable to a PR attempt, and

(3) whether you are ready for a heavy PR attempt.

The following information is geared toward post novice lifters with a host of caveats. Novices, generally, shouldn’t be going off-program or scheduling random PR tests. Everyone else should take as reasoned an approach as possible when going off-plan.

The Mock Meet

The mock meet is a popular PR setup, testing multiple lifts on one day and mimicking a competition setting. Usually, the mock meet will have you attempting a one-rep PR for the squat, bench press or press, and deadlift. Because it puts multiple PR attempts on one day, it may seem like this is an efficient way to test yourself with minimal interruption to training. The mock meet, however, is one of the most disruptive types of PR tests for just about any training schedule.

The mock meet should follow some preparation in your training. At a minimum, the week leading up to your mock meet day should involve some tapering, working up to weights in the range past your last warmup but less than a conservative PR. This is analogous to an opening attempt for a competitive meet.

A simple pre-mock meet week might look something like the following:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
Squat: 1 x 1 @ opener (then 80% x 2)

Press / Bench Press: 1 x 1 @ opener (then 80% x 2)

Deadlift: 1 x 1 @ opener

Squat: 2 x 2 @ 80% of opener

Press /Bench Press: 2 x 2 @ 80% of opener


Meet Day

With this amount of preparation, a PR attempt has grown from one day to one week of training.

Also, mock meets tend to be incredibly stressful (increasing proportionally with your level of training advancement and the size of the PR attempt). Following a mock meet, you should not expect to return to regular training the following week. Take a few recovery days and program some lighter lifting the following week. With that, we have one PR day that takes up two weeks of training and progress.

So, when should you consider a mock meet that is not part of your current program? Mock meets fit nicely just before a planned but unavoidable interruption to regular training—e.g., a trip that will keep you from training for several days. In this case, a mock meet right before the trip takes advantage of forced time off. Also, if the trip is long enough that it was going to require a slight reset anyway, then a mock meet before you leave gives you a good idea of where to start when you return. The interruption was unavoidable, so the cost of the mock meet is less.

When should you NOT use a mock meet? All PR attempts come with an increased risk of injury. If you have not been training heavy, particularly in a way that has included heavy singles, then you shouldn’t plan a mock meet. Or, if you generally have a higher risk of injury or existing issue that may be exacerbated by multiple heavy single attempts in one day, then consider the AMRAP strength test below instead of a mock meet. You need to be ready, physically and mentally, for a mock meet day. It is not something to do on a whim.

How to do a Mock Meet

A mock meet day is going to mimic what you might do in competition. It helps to organize your day around three attempts just like you would for a meet: a solid opener, a modest PR as a second attempt, and an ambitious PR as a possible third attempt. On any PR day, three attempts should be enough, if you choose your attempts based on current PRs and recent training. More than three attempts come with diminishing possibilities of success and a higher risk of injury. So, stick with three attempts for each lift.

A reasonable approach for your mock meet attempts is to start by choosing a second attempt. This will be a conservative PR. If you are attempting a mock meet, presumably you have enough training under your belt that you have a current one-rep PR. Unless your current PR is far outdated, your second attempt should be a five- to ten-pound increase over your current squat or deadlift PR and a 2.5- to 5-pound increase over your bench or press PR. Keep in mind, we are talking about the mock meet as an off-program day, not the culmination of a long block training cycle or extended peak. Modest PRs are smart PRs in this case.

Once you’ve picked your second attempt, your first attempt should be around a current 3RM or 5-10% less than the second attempt. It should be a challenging weight that you know you can hit any day of the week, no matter how you feel—a confidence builder for the modest PR attempt—but don’t make it so light that you are not ready for second-attempt PR, anything more than 10% for most lifters will be on the light side.

Finally, you should warm up properly on the day of your mock meet. Use the standard pyramiding warmup procedure shown in the following video, finishing with a single at 8–10% less than your first attempt.

“But what about my third attempt?” you say. Your third attempt has three possibilities:

(1) If you crush your second attempt, then your third attempt can be an ambitious but reasonable PR attempt. How heavy will depend on how well the second attempt went and how good you feel about going for it. A good rule of thumb is to keep the increment from your second to third attempt the same or less than the increment from your first to second attempt. If you made an 8% jump from your opener to your second attempt, then a <8% increment is appropriate for your third attempt, perhaps a 2.5-5% increase. There is no bright-line rule here. We are already AWOL. The main consideration is avoiding anything that is going to come with too high a risk of failure.

(2) If you mess up your second attempt with a mental or form error and feel confident giving it another try, you can use your third attempt to repeat the same weight. But if you miss it a second time, that’s it. Time to call it a day.

(3) You do not need to take a third attempt. If you make your second attempt, and it is a slow grind (any more chalk dust on the bar and you wouldn’t have made it), then take a pass, and move on to your next lift.

Mock meets can be fun. They are better reserved for a planned PR at the end of a structured training plan, but sometimes a suboptimal schedule makes the mock meet make sense as an ad hoc PR test.

The Single-Lift PR

Much more common: one of your lifts just seems to be getting better and better, and you start to imagine your next big milestone for that lift. You’re already trying to put the lift into perspective (“it’s like lifting several average-sized people”) for your friends and family to be impressed. You even start to compose your Instagram caption, complete with a humblebrag and a #sorrynotsorry to your coach.

The nice thing about a single-lift PR is that it should be less disruptive to your training than a mock meet. Though it still may cause you some minor setbacks in other areas of your training. A clue about whether the single-lift PR is right for you is whether you are already training with some kind of intensity/volume split for your main lifts—something like the following Four Day Split or Texas Method variation:

Four Day Split Example

Example Intensity/Volume four day split

Texas Method example

Example 3-day Intensity/Volume split

If you are already training with intensity work, these would be the days to make an ad hoc PR attempt if you meet a few criteria: (1) you are not already hitting regular PRs in your training; (2) you’ve trained with heavy singles recently; (3) your PR attempt is in a reasonable range based on recent training.

If you are already hitting PRs in training, there’s really no reason to make a different kind of PR attempt, and you are likely messing up training that is already going well. Even if your PRs are coming in less-common rep ranges, keep going with what is working. A 3x2 PR is still a PR, and if it is part of your program, then it is worth taking.

That said, if you aren’t hitting PRs, but you also haven’t made any heavy singles lately, then a sudden one-rep-max PR is not on the table. The fewer the reps, the more practice necessary to make them safe and make them useful for training. If your training does not include singles currently, but you still feel the need to test your strength, consider the AMRAP test in the next section instead.

Your single-lift PR should be within the range of normal training. When you finish it, you can go on to finish your regular training day. More than that, and you will likely incur more interruptions to your regular training.

PR attempts for the single-lift can look the same as we laid out for the mock meet setup.

AMRAP Strength Test

Jim Wendler, the author of the 5/3/1 training method, has popularized an AMRAP set for testing a training max within the 5/3/1 structure. The idea is that your training loads are based on a training max (usually 90% or less than an actual or calculated 1RM). To test your training max, you attempt to hit it for three to five repetitions. If you get five reps and could hit more, your training max is on the low side. (Though Wendler notes that this does not mean you increase your training max for your next cycle.) If you get less than three reps, your training max may be too high, in which case you would decrease the training max for your next round of 5/3/1 programming.

“As a training max testing week, the 7th Week Protocol is very simple. We work up to our training max and attempt to get 3-5 reps. If you are shooting for a 90% training max, you want to get at least three reps. If you are shooting for an 85% training max, you need to get five reps. Personally, I never want these test weeks to be a true 3RM or 5RM; I want the reps to be strong and fast.” —from 5/3/1 Forever

Even if you are not running a version of 5/3/1, the AMRAP strength test can be a useful way to test your might without the risk of a one-rep max. This tends to cause less disruption to your training and tends to be a little bit safer. It is also a good option if you need to test your current strength level without heavy singles being a part of your current programming.

You can use an AMRAP strength test without having a current training max by triangulating your attempt using your current three rep max, current five rep max, and your recent best lifts in training. A 3RM is a good place to start. There is, again, no hard and fast rule, but it should be reasonable based on actual training numbers.

The AMRAP in this case is not really an AMRAP (as many reps as possible). It is an AMRAP with a cap of five repetitions. If you get five reps. Stop. This type of test, being less disruptive to your training, is something you can revisit and test again, either at the same weight or for a modest increase. This allows you for different kinds of PRs: a previous 3RM that you hit for four reps is an improvement and something you can build from.

Not a Free Pass

Do go nuts. Be smart. Take programmed PRs when they are there for the taking, and consider whether your programming is properly suited to your current needs (if you aren’t working with a coach) if they aren’t. You can check out our MED programming page here for more information.




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