Max Effort Advice for Athletes

Max Effort Advice for Athletes

The maximal effort method is a strength training method used to improve absolute strength. At Westside Barbell, we utilize the max effort method twice weekly, focusing on enhancing the absolute strength of both the upper and lower body. This allows our athletes to become physically stronger, more durable, and more resistant to injury. 

Absolute strength is the King of all special strengths. As absolute strength improves, the capacity for all other special strengths improves. This means an athlete has the potential to improve explosive strength, jump higher, and run faster. Max effort training is essentially the hammer that breaks the glass ceilings that limit athletic performance. 

Unfortunately, many modern strength coaches have maligned max effort training. Some will say it increases the likelihood of injury, while others will say it is simply unnecessary, considering athletes aren’t concerned with winning powerlifting competitions. What these coaches fail to realize is that max effort training is the horse that pulls the athletic ability and physical resilience cart. 

However, we understand why some coaches may be reluctant to engage their athletes in high-intensity barbell training. Often, if an athlete experiences fatigue or injury during athletic competition, the strength coach and training plan are the prime suspects to catch the blame. This pressure causes many strength coaches to keep training intensity limited, instead focusing more on speed-focused training methods.

Undoubtedly, the maximal effort method has a place in an athlete’s training regimen. Want an athlete to run faster? Make them stronger. Want an athlete to jump higher and change direction faster? Make them stronger. Want an athlete to be physically dominant and resistant to injury? Make them stronger. 

Below, we will review a few pieces of advice to help coaches and athletes successfully utilize the maximal effort method to improve absolute strength

Use a Variety of Exercise Variations

Using the max effort method to train powerlifters requires the exercise selection to regularly include competition-relevant variations to ensure a powerlifter develops skills that transfer directly to sport. However, we do not have to worry about specificity as much with athletes, considering we are using max effort training simply to improve absolute strength. A powerlifter has to become accustomed to executing the squat, bench press, and deadlift at high-intensity levels to competition standard; an athlete does not. 

This opens up the door to an incredible number of exercise variations. Of course, we do not want to select movements just for the fun of it; we still want to remain focused on developing strength and durability at sport-relevant joint angles and positions. This could mean we program a squat variation below 90 degrees, a squat variation above 90 degrees, a rack pull, a high pin press, or many other joint-angle-specific exercises. 

Here is an example of lower body max effort exercise selections that would be great for football:

Week 1: SSB Box Squat, slightly below parallel. 

Week 2: Rack Pull w/ 100 lbs chain. 

Week 3: Zercher Pin Squat, pins set at the half-squat position. 

Week 4: Sumo Deadlift w/ 100 lbs band. 

We start week one with an SSB box squat performed slightly below parallel. The SSB will challenge the mid and upper back and the torso, placing a bit more load on the anterior chain. We also squat below parallel to ensure we develop strength throughout the full range of motion. 

Next week is the rack pull against chains. This will emphasize the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. The chains are added to reverse the resistance curve, giving the athlete a bit of a break off the pins and challenging the athlete as joint angle advantage is gained. 

In week three, we perform the Zercher pin squat from a half-squat position. This positioning is more relevant to sport, considering football players spend most of their time in positions where the joint angle of the knee is above 90 degrees. 

During week four, we go with the sumo deadlift versus bands. Again, we use accommodating resistance to change the resistance curve and increase resistance as the athlete achieves joint angle advantage. The sumo deadlift is used considering the movement’s ability to develop the hip strength of athletes. 

Remember that these exercise selections only begin to scratch the surface of what is possible when putting together a schedule of max effort exercises for an athlete. There are many options and exercises to choose from. Which exercise a coach should choose will depend on the demands of the sport, the common positions an athlete is in when playing the sport, the level of fatigue an athlete is currently experiencing, and the weaknesses of the athlete

Build or Destroy

The maximal effort method gets a bad rap when it comes to injury risk. Many coaches seem to think that as soon as you begin training max effort, you are on a runaway train with no control, just hoping it doesn’t go off the rails. As a coach, you are always in control when using any training method. The results you produce directly reflect your understanding of the training method.

When training max effort we want to focus on building an athlete, not making max effort work a torture chamber leading to destruction. Many think we at Westside risk life and limb every week during our max effort training. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We focus on reaching meaningful levels of training intensity to bring about the training adaptations we seek. 

Max effort training calls for an athlete to work above 90% intensity based on the variation, executing 1-3 reps for a top set. At Westside, we often work up to a top set single, leaving a set in the tank. 

Leaving a set in the tank is one of the most effective ways to limit accrued fatigue and help prevent injury. We look for a set that is above 90% intensity, with a slight breakdown in technical efficiency. Once we see this, we shut the exercise down and move on to our accessory work. 

We do not use max effort training as a gut check; it is a training method to enhance absolute strength. If we want to use exercise as a gut check, we will challenge our athletes during conditioning work when the risk of bone and soft tissue injury is low. We do not want to expose our athletes to excess risk to see who is willing to go pedal to the metal. 

Training must always remain sensible and productive. When executing max effort training, we strictly focus on building absolute strength, not destroying the athlete. 

Use Supportive Equipment

Limiting the amount of stress and strain placed on the joints is another key aspect of keeping max effort training productive. Too often, you see athletes around the country training without a proper weight belt, let alone wrist wraps or knee sleeves. However, using these pieces of supportive equipment can make a big difference in lowering the risk of injury. 

A proper weight belt will allow an athlete to establish a solid trunk brace, stabilize the spine, and be less exposed to shearing force. Wrist wraps help to protect and stabilize the wrists, protecting the tendons and ligaments from unnecessary wear and tear. Similarly, a good pair of knee sleeves will help to keep the knees supported and healthy. 

Sure, these items cost a few dollars, but the price paid is worth the support these pieces of equipment provide. At Westside, we keep belts and wrist wraps on hand to ensure our athletes have access when needed. Knee sleeves require specific sizing, so that is up to the athlete to purchase. Fortunately, a good set of knee sleeves can be purchased for less than $100, which isn’t much considering the mileage you can get out of them. 

Between sports practice and competition, athletes put their joints under much stress and strain. When in the gym, it only makes sense to use basic supportive equipment to limit any additional demand on the joints. The cost paid for these items is well worth the support and protection they provide. If the strongest strength athletes in the world need supportive equipment to perform at their best, there is no doubt conventional sports athletes can benefit from the use of supportive equipment as well. 

Never Strong Enough

The avoidance of max effort training has no doubt limited the performance of athletes for many years. Even the best athletes in the world imagine how much better they could be if they enhanced their absolute strength. Unfortunately, training to improve absolute strength has been demonized by coaches who call themselves strength coaches but are just speed coaches. 

For some reason, these coaches believe that if athletes use the maximal effort method, they will either become paralyzed or gain 100 lbs of body weight and compete for the World’s Strongest Man. Truthfully, what will happen is athletes may gain 5-10 lbs of necessary body weight, improve their absolute strength, become more physically resilient, and improve their physical composition. 

We surmise that many of these coaches fear max effort training because they have never trained max effort themselves. They stick to what they know, which is plyometric and speed training. Of course, plyometric and speed training are essential, but they are only part of the equation for total athletic development. 

Every year, the same injuries occur - hamstring tears, pec tears, quad tears, and more. How do you make soft tissue more durable? By loading it and making it stronger. Max effort training is proven to enhance absolute strength and bone and soft tissue density. 

All coaches want their athletes to run faster, jump higher, and avoid injuries. The secret is max effort training. No matter how strong an athlete is, they are never strong enough. Maximal effort training is always necessary. 


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

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

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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