Base Building: Utilizing Max Effort

Base Building: Utilizing Max Effort

The max effort method is a training method intended to develop an athlete’s absolute strength. At Westside, we have used the max effort method to train all athletes, regardless of sport. While many unfortunately believe that a focus on absolute strength development only makes sense for strength athletes, Westside has long understood the importance of absolute strength development for all athletes.

Max effort training delivers results that other approaches to training cannot match. The primary benefit of max effort training is absolute strength development, which improves 1rm capabilities. Additionally, athletes will experience improvements in intra and intermuscular coordination and increased bone and soft tissue density. An athlete will become stronger, and movement control and overall durability will improve.  

Despite these tremendous athletic benefits, many strength coaches are reluctant to use max effort training regularly for their trainees. This is often due to the misled belief that high-intensity training is inherently dangerous, and despite the benefits, the risks are too significant for the average athlete. Is there some risk associated with max effort training? Yes. Is max effort training more dangerous than dynamic or repeated effort training? That has not been the case in my experience. 

Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with many athletes at different levels of sport and barbell training experience. I can confidently say that regardless of an athlete’s strength, skill, or training experience, max effort training can be implemented safely to benefit the beginner trainee significantly. All it takes is some strategy and the ability to evaluate an athlete properly during max effort workouts. 

Below, I will go over a simple and practical approach to introducing max effort training to individuals new to barbell training. 

First Month of Training

While max effort training greatly benefits the beginner, we must learn to swim before diving into the deep end of the pool. When training an athlete new to barbell training, ensuring that the athlete understands and can execute proper form in the basic barbell movements is critical. At Westside, athletes must understand how to properly squat, bench press, and deadlift.  

During the first month of training, athletes will focus on developing optimal form while gradually increasing training intensity, performing multiple sets of 1-5 reps in the basic barbell movements. 

In the first week, we will begin with a barbell and evaluate each movement. As the exercise begins, athletes will start with an empty bar. We will start adding weight once athletes can move the empty bar without issue. We can work up to but not exceed 50% of perceived absolute strength capability during the first week. 

The goal in the first week is to complete 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions, performed with strict adherence to technique guidelines. 

Most individuals typically take one week to become capable of basic movement skills in the standard barbell exercises. Remember, optimal movement patterns vary depending on the athlete; avoid using a one-size-fits-all approach to your movement evaluations. 

As week two begins, we will increase the training weight to acclimate the athlete to elevated levels of training intensity. The goal in the second week is to raise the training intensity to what the coach or athlete would perceive to be 60-70% of the athlete’s current absolute strength capacity. Once there, we will perform 4-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions. 

Since the training intensity is relatively low, movement execution should be strict. 

We will begin raising the intensity to near-max effort levels in week three. The focus of week three is to increase the training intensity to 75-80%, further acclimating the beginner athlete to the demands of high-intensity training. 

The goal of this week is to perform 3-5 sets of 1-3 repetitions in the squat, bench, and deadlift while maintaining relatively strict form throughout the exercise. However, as fatigue sets in, coaches and athletes should expect a slight deviation from strict form.

Once the athlete completes the first three weeks of training without issue, we can introduce the first training session that qualifies as max effort during week four. This week will be the week the athlete finally reaches the 90% intensity threshold, which is the point where true max effort training begins to take place. 

The goal of this week is to perform 3-5 sets of single reps starting at around 85% and gradually load the bar so that the final two sets are at a perceived 90% of the athlete’s current level of absolute strength. 

During this workout, the athlete will likely experience issues maintaining optimal form towards the last few sets. However, these breakdowns should be no more egregious than the form deviation experienced in week three. Allowing the athlete to experience slight breakdowns in form and execution only makes for a confident and strong athlete. Abandon the belief that athletes are fragile. 

The Next Few Months of Training

Now that the athlete has developed basic movement skills, experienced elevated training intensity, and has become comfortable with training, it is time to begin proper max effort training. However, just as we did in the first month of training, we will conservatively approach these next few months of max effort training. This means we will keep the exercise selection basic and the training intensity controlled. 

By doing these two simple things, we can control the risk an athlete is exposed to during the max effort training process. Throwing the entire max effort exercise library at a beginner lifter makes no sense. 

Not only does this increase the skill acquisition demand on the athlete, but it is also a waste of training stimulus to provide an athlete with an overly complicated workout when a basic workout would work just as adequately for a beginner trainee. 

We want to program basic squats, bench presses, and deadlift exercises, with specialty bars added if the athlete displays the proper skills and competency. The goal is to get the most out of the basic max effort movements first, then add in the advanced max effort movements when a new training stimulus is needed to allow training to continue progressing. 

When performing max effort exercises during the first few months of training, our primary goal is to exceed the 90% intensity threshold, performing a top set of 1-3 reps. Once that has been accomplished, we want to evaluate the workout and make a reasonable decision whether or not another set should be performed. 

For a beginner, 90% training intensity will be enough to trigger gains in absolute strength, so leaving a set or two in the tank can often make sense. Not only will this help a beginner athlete avoid recovery issues related to high-intensity training, but it also helps to lower the risk of injury. 

With max effort training, having the ability to judge an athlete and know whether or not they are capable of another set is critical. If an athlete is training alone or with an inexperienced coach, leaving a set in the tank and keeping the max effort training intensity at or just over 90% is often the most optimal approach to ensure training is productive. 

As time passes, the athlete or coach’s ability to estimate max effort capability will improve, and max effort training can be managed accordingly. 

Going Forward with Max Effort Training

Once an athlete has completed a solid six months of training using the max effort method, we can further escalate the training to include advanced exercise selections, true max effort lifts, and a focus on surpassing former PR lifts. Considering the first few months of training were spent using quality training methodology, there is no doubt the athlete will be capable of handling these training demands without issue. 

Regarding PRs, athletes should expect to PR in at least two max effort lifts every 4-6 weeks. The number of PRs an athlete can produce will always depend on the athlete and where they are currently at in their training.

If an athlete fails to meet this mark, it is crucial to reevaluate the training approach and make the necessary adjustments to allow PR lifts to be possible again. 

Remember, even if athletes are strong after six months of training, they are still beginners. Keep both expectations and exercise selection reasonable and manage training accordingly. We want to get the most out of the basic movements before moving on to advanced movements or drastically changing the training stimulus. We don’t need to use a chainsaw for a job that a handsaw can handle. 

Max Effort Advice

Tempering expectations is essential when performing max effort training. Max effort training requires an athlete to produce the maximum amount of force possible for that training day, not all-time. This means that while we intend to attempt a PR lift whenever possible, we do not expect to hit a PR lift every time we perform a max effort workout. We must remain reasonable and train in a sustainable manner. 

The true goal of max effort training is recruiting large-largest motor units. This is possible provided an athlete trains at or above 90% intensity. So, while a lift may not be an all-time personal record, as long as an athlete is consistently capable of training at intensities of 90% or above, absolute strength will improve.  

Another piece of advice is to constantly monitor barbell velocity during dynamic effort training days to evaluate the quality of your max effort programming. A consistent decline in barbell velocity during a dynamic effort training wave is often a key warning sign that your max effort training or recovery protocol needs adjustment. 

If your dynamic effort has slowed after changing your training weights to match a new PR, perform the next wave using the former PR as your max to find the working weight. Often, one more wave using a former max to figure working weights allows an athlete to recover and become prepared for the escalation in dynamic effort working weights during the next wave. 

The final piece of advice is to use your brain during max effort training. Too many folks believe max effort training is the time to push the limits and walk around yelling and screaming like dorks. Just because the training intensity is elevated does not mean you have to lose your mind and pretend to be a Viking. Always follow a rational thought process and make smartly planned jumps in weight when working above 90%.

As a beginner, if you have to convince yourself you have this next lift, you likely should leave it in the tank. There is no benefit to rolling the dice with max effort training, and if you are already partially convinced you can’t complete the next jump in weight, then you’ve already lost half the battle. Play it safe and live to train another day. 

A mediocre training day is much better than an injury and no training days for the foreseeable future. With max effort, you’re in control of your destiny; make decisions in your best interest. 


Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.

Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics

Burley Hawk

Burley Hawk

Burley Hawk is the Digital Content Manager at Westside Barbell and a Conjugate Method strength coach. Training and studying under Louie Simmons over the past decade, Burley has attained the experience, knowledge and understanding necessary to master the Conjugate Method.

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