Base Building: Max Effort Training Explained

Base Building: Max Effort Training Explained
Related Topics: Athletes, Beginners, Conjugate Method

It is often considered reckless, if not crazy, to utilize the maximal effort method with athletes new to barbell training. This fear of the maximal effort method is derived from the old and incorrect belief that beginners will experience catastrophic injury if they train at higher intensity levels. These individuals fail to realize that for a beginner, many exercises end up reaching max effort levels of intensity regardless. 

When a beginner-level trainee begins a strength training program, they frequently reach high levels of training intensity right off the bat. While first learning how to squat, bench, and deadlift, athletes will often fail between the first and third rep, indicating that they have exceeded 90% training intensity. As this occurs, absolute strength begins to develop, inter- and intramuscular coordination improves, and progress is made. 

Max effort training occurs organically during the initial training process. Why not create a programming structure that allows athletes to rapidly improve their absolute strength and build the capacity to meet max effort training demands regularly?

By intelligently utilizing the maximal effort method, athletes of any experience level can make strength gains at a faster rate than traditional beginner or linear-based programming. 

Typically, once the athlete builds a baseline level of absolute strength that allows repeated efforts in the main lifts, coaches move beginners into a constant rotation of volume-focused training cycles. However, with the Conjugate Method, we can easily include max effort training within the training while simultaneously addressing volume-dependent strengths and athletic traits. 

All a coach or athlete needs is baseline competency in barbell training and a few critical pieces of advice regarding maximal effort training. Below, we will discuss the basics of max effort training to help beginner-level athletes accelerate absolute strength gains using the maximal effort method. 

The Intent of Max Effort Training

The most important thing a beginner-level trainee must understand is the intent of a max effort training day. The intent of the max effort method is to improve absolute strength by training at or above 90% intensity for top sets of 1-3 repetitions. Ideally, we want to achieve max effort singles most often, but the 1-3 repetition range ensures athletes exceed 90% training intensity to improve absolute strength.

It is also essential to understand that we do not always expect to hit a PR during a max effort training day. The ultimate goal of the training day is to lift the most weight for that specific training day. Often, it will be a 5-10 PR, but if not, it is not a big deal. We want to PR frequently, but a lack of weekly PR lifts does not automatically mean strength is regressing. 

Current levels of fatigue will affect max effort training day performance. Depending on the athlete’s lifestyle or sports practice schedule, fatigue can cause max effort PR lifts to become less frequent. If PR frequency drops noticeably and dynamic effort barbell velocity begins to slow, we will evaluate the athlete’s training and recovery plan to get things back on track. 

For beginners, the max effort-limiting aspect is the athlete’s training capacity. It will not take beginner-level athletes much time to work up to a max effort top set of 1-3 reps. This keeps the exposure to high levels of intensity regulated so that the beginner improves absolute strength without accruing excess volume at high-intensity levels.  

Compare that to the high-level strength athlete performing up to 3-5 “heavy” work-up sets every max effort workout. The expected rate of recovery is much different when you go from athletes squatting 225-315 lbs to strength athletes squatting well over 800 lbs.

Because the beginner-level athlete has a reduced exposure to high-intensity training volume, we can use the training method without worrying too much about fatigue issues caused by max effort training. 

When training beginners, most of the training volume will be repeated effort accessory work. The intent of the max effort training day is to attain the training stimulus necessary to most rapidly improve absolute strength. We focus on safely lifting the heaviest weight of the day and then move on to accessory exercises. 

It’s a Game of Motor Unit Recruitment

During max effort training, our primary goal is recruiting the largest motor units. We can recruit the largest motor units by training at specific intensity levels, leading to rapid absolute strength improvement. This is the primary reason why structured max effort training accelerates strength gains compared to linear-based volume-focused approaches.

Instead of specifically training at high intensity to target the largest motor units, these training plans achieve absolute strength development via intra-set fatigue. As an athlete performs multiple reps during a set, fatigue sets in, and the level of motor unit recruitment increases during the final few reps. This stimulus will help improve absolute strength, but not at a rate that compares to properly structured max effort training. 

Aside from the relationship between training intensity and motor unit recruitment, max effort training also benefits the musculoskeletal system, improving bone and tissue density. Not only can we develop strength, but we can also enhance the rigidity and durability of the physical structure.

The benefits of this training method cannot be mimicked by any other method. 

Learn How to Judge Max Effort

The coach or athlete’s ability to judge the exercise is the key to successful max effort training. As repeatedly mentioned, max effort training calls for an athlete to perform a top set of 1-3 reps exceeding 90% training intensity. For max effort training to remain safe and productive, coaches and athletes must develop an eye for knowing when to cut the exercise off and move on to accessory training. 

While strength training is rooted in science, applying training methods is an art. Properly judging an athlete’s capabilities and limitations during training is a large part of developing the “art” side of the strength training equation. To ensure max effort training is successful, we want to allow athletes to reach specific limits before ending the exercise. 

For example, during the squat, we will end a max effort main exercise once we notice excessive spinal flexion or irregular knee and hip behavior. With the bench press, we will end a max effort exercise once we see excessive elbow flaring or a lack of posture control (back flattens).

As long as coaches or training partners can make these simple judgments, the risk of injury during max effort training is lowered significantly. 

This is one reason we are adamant about the importance of good training partners. Having experienced athletes judge an individual’s ability to execute the following set properly helps to prevent inexperienced athletes from making the wrong choice and risking injury. Also, good training partners will ensure you don’t get snapped in half in case you make a poor choice and take a set you shouldn’t have. 

The Fear of Max Effort

If you want to make training gains efficiently, you must choose training methods that best target specific special strengths. Absolute strength development is critical for all athletes, regardless of experience level. It makes sense that beginners should regularly train at higher levels of main exercise intensity. 

By doing so, athletes will accelerate their gains and reap the benefits of improved absolute strength. Instead of spending unnecessary time spinning tires with volume-focused plans, the maximal effort method offers a way for athletes to make gains more efficiently. With the limited time most athletes have to spend in the gym, it only makes sense to use the most effective methods. 

The fear of max effort is based on the old training belief that “maxing out” should only be done once every so often to test strength gained over the course of a training block; otherwise, injury is guaranteed. This belief treats max effort training as a testing method, not a training method. 

This shows a lack of understanding, considering the failure to realize that the most effective means of improving absolute strength is by training at higher levels of intensity. As long as the beginner-level trainee has had a 3–6-week period of learning the lifts and building basic levels of competency, max effort training can begin to be utilized regularly. 

Check out our Base Building Training Template for more information about using max effort training for beginners.


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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