There are a few exercises in strength training that can be considered a test of human strength. These include squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. These lifts are called the “Big 3” because they allow people to perform maximal or near-maximal loads.
The first question that comes up is: what is a maximal or near-maximal load? A quick answer to this question might be something like “the weight that you can lift only once.” However, while this definition is true, it doesn’t seem satisfactory. After all, there are always people who have lifted weights that other people could not. This has led some people to say that maximal or near-maximal loads are defined as the 1-repetition maximum (1RM), which means the maximum weight/resistance one can lift for exactly one repetition.
Put, the 1RM is the heaviest weight you can lift for exactly one rep before your muscles give out on you because they cannot contract anymore against gravity. The 1RM does not account for the speed of movement, which is another factor determining maximal loads.
Using this definition, it might appear as if people who deadlift heavyweights are using steroids. After all, right? How else can you deadlift 3x or 4x BW without using artificial help? However, it turns out that two factors contribute to how much weight someone can lift for one repetition. These are muscle force and muscle velocity.
It’s pretty easy to understand that the maximum amount of weight/resistance one can lift for one repetition depends on both muscle force AND muscle velocity. If this were not true, almost everyone would be able “to throw up” huge numbers by simply moving their arms quickly during a curl or doing another fast exercise.
However, it is essential to realize that maximal or near-maximal loads are attained when the lifter gains momentum at the beginning of repetition and uses this momentum plus their maximum amount of muscle force to complete the lift. Thus, these lifts are not done by trying to lift weights as quickly as possible – these lifts are all about moving them SLOWLY but with maximal intent!
If you still don’t believe that people who deadlift heavily use steroids, consider this: according to one study, steroids could bench press around 20% more than nonsteroid users (without any difference in training experience). If 20% more weight on the bench press doesn’t make most steroid users “all-time world record holders,” what will?
Practical Applications: The take-home message here is to focus on your training, not your number. If you are not sure if you are lifting near maximal loads, get someone to spot you or video record one of your sets so that you can review it and see how close each repetition came to failure.
If you want increased strength and muscle mass in the long term, make sure that all of your repetitions (or at least most of them) do come very close to failure. Your body adapts in a way that allows it to perform these movements with enough resistance when it does this regularly over time – even if the weight used was much lighter when you first started!