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Should Elderly People Engage in 1 Rep Maxes?

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

by Dr. Dennis Nguyen, PT, DPT


What is the 1 rep max?


A 1 rep max is performing a lift with enough resistance that you can only do 1 repetition of it. For example, if you’re measuring your 1 rep max for bench press, then you would choose a weight where you can only manage to bench press once; this would be your 1 rep max. Basically, the 1 rep max is a measure to see how much maximum effort your muscles can exert at a certain movement. The concept was created by Dr. Thomas L. De Lorme in 1946. The idea behind his thinking, is that by establishing a 1 rep max, you can base your exercise program around it. For example, you can perform an exercise at 80% of your 1 rep max one week, then the week later perform it at 85%. Over time, this would help you develop more strength. Furthermore, you can repeatedly measure your 1 rep max throughout your program to get an objective measure of how much stronger you are becoming. The great thing about 1 rep maxes is that you can do them for most lifts whether it is bench press, squats, and deadlifts.


So, should elderly people perform 1 rep maxes?


A 1 rep max may sound inherently dangerous. I mean, you are trying to perform a lift at your maximum effort with so much weight you can only perform it once. All that sounds like a recipe for injury if an elderly person tries it. Well, the 1 rep max is not as dangerous as it seems. If an elderly person wants to attempt then they should do so as long as they have the proper set up, such as safety bars or a spotter. According to an editorial by Richard P. Di Fabio, PHD, PT in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, multitudes of research studies show that there is no danger to elderly adults performing 1 rep maxes. In fact, in the study performed by Rooks et al, it was found that out of the 100 elderly people that partook in the study, none of them sustained any injury during the 1 rep max testing or training periods. The same goes for older adults. As we age, we naturally lose our strength. If older adults do not do something to address this, they can become deconditioned, leading to difficulty with everyday movements. For example, if your leg muscles become weak, it will be hard to sit up from a chair. If it is hard to get up from a chair, then that increases the chance for a fall or injury. Older adults should be aware of this and continue to strength train in order to prevent any future injuries they might sustain by being weak. In my personal ex


perience, I see older adults have a habit of performing high repetitions with lower weights while they strength train. They will do sets of 8-12 repetitions at a weight that they can do confidently. While this is beneficial for increasing muscular endurance and staying healthy overall; this does not contribute to increased strength. Instead older adults should perform exercises with higher weights with less repetition in order to enhance strength. In order to know exactly how much weight to use, a 1 rep max should be established. For older adults, the 1 rep max is safe to perform. However, a proper screen should be performed first. Firstly, anybody performing a 1 rep max should be familiar with the movement they are about to perform. You should have experience with the lift prior to attempting to max out at it. In addition, you have to make sure you’re not experiencing any joint pain during the full range of motion of the movement. It is best to not attempt a 1 rep max by yourself, you should have a spotter just in case. Also if an older adult does not have much experiencing with strength training, they may want to try a few training sessions with a trainer in order to familiarize themselves and know they are performing the movements and lifts safely. In conclusion though, older adults should engage in 1 rep maxes in order to get a true assessment of their strength. They can use this information to build a good exercise program in order to maintain their strength. This will help prevent injuries in the future.