How To Build a Program Using One Rep Max

Joseph Rosi
March 17, 2021

Progressive overload is a principle based on the idea that you need to overload the body for it to change. There are some general guidelines I like to have my clients follow to make sure they are progressing, but not progressing too quickly that puts them at a higher risk of injury.  The best way to know this is to record each and every workout and build your workouts based on your one rep max. This will walk you through how to build a program using your one rep max.

What is a One Rep Max?

Your one rep max is the amount of weight that you can maximally lift one time. This is designed to test your absolute strength and every person should know how strong they are. So first determine your one rep max because we will be using a percentage of this to create the workout. If you are unfamiliar with how to test your one rep max check out this video so you know exactly how to use that information.

Strength or Hypertrophy?

Once you know your one rep max, let’s assume you already determined how many days per week you will train and the exercises that you need to do.  Next, you need to determine if the goal of the workout is for hypertrophy or strength as that will determine the number of reps.  Watch this video for more details about the goal of your workouts and choosing the right weight.

For a quick recap, strength will focus on heavier weights with lower reps, so you should stay under 6 to 8 reps.  Hypertrophy on the other hand will do well with 8 – 15 reps.  

Now I like to use this chart to give us an idea of the theoretical amount of weight you should be able to lift for the shown number of reps with good technique. 

By using this chart, if you take 95% of your 1RM you should be able to do 2 reps at that weight.  Or 3 reps at 93% and 4 reps at 90% and so on.  So if someone is looking to maximize strength we know we need to stay in the 1-8 rep range.

Volume, Intensity and Frequency

Now we also need to take into consideration volume, intensity, and frequency as they all play a role with each other. 

Volume is the total amount of load lifted.  For example, 3 sets of 10 at 100 lbs is 3000 lbs. 

The intensity is how much weight you’re lifting and using the same example above it is 100 lbs, which is 75% of the 1RM suggesting the 1RM is 133 lbs.

Lastly, frequency is how often you train.  The more frequent you train the less intense the workouts should be and the more intense you train the less frequent you should workout.  This is typically pre-determined as most people decide their training frequency based on their schedule. 

I like to use this triangle to demonstrate the balance of VIF (Volume, Intensity, and Frequency). 

How To Build A Program Using One Rep Max 

So let’s assume the frequency has already been determined as 4 days with the training days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday as this client would like to have the weekends off.  The overall goal is to get stronger with the hopes of doing a powerlifting competition so the exercises will be geared towards the powerlifting movements. 

If we use the VIF triangle, we have already determined one of the edges (frequency) as it is based on their schedule.  

The next one I would choose in this case is intensity because the goal here is to build strength with the hopes of competing one day but not in the immediate future. So with intensity, let’s start with reps. We want to stay in the strength range of 1-8 reps, but we can stay on the middle to the higher end of this range as there are no immediate plans of competing.  If there were immediate plans, we may look at moving the training routine days to Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. This would give more time to recover between training sessions as the intensity (how much weight is being lifted) would be higher and the reps would be lower for the specificity of the sport. 

So let’s continue with our example and look at leg day that we have planned for Monday. Let’s specifically look at the squat. We are going to work on sets of 6 as we are staying in the middle to upper range of the strength reps. If we use the chart from earlier, 6 reps are the equivalent to 85% of your one rep max. So simply plug in 85% of your one rep max to determine how much weight you should use in that set and you can determine the last piece which is the volume. 

Volume = Reps X Weight 

So 1RM(.85) x 6 reps = volume. Let’s say in this scenario the 1RM is 225 lbs so 85% is 191.25 lbs but that would be a little challenging to come up with in the gym so I always go slightly down in resistance to stay on the safe side.  So I would use 185 lbs or 190 lbs as this is easy to come up with in the gym. 

The volume in this scenario at 185 lbs is 1110 lbs per set.  I might have this client do 3 or 4 sets depending on where they are in their training routine which would bring the total volume to 3330 or 4440 lbs in this exercise.

Progressive overload can be simply increasing the volume OR intensity. 

2 Rules When Designing A Program

There are two GENERAL rules that I like to follow when designing a workout routine. I say generally because these are not set rules and sometimes I will go outside of them, but I have found these to be a good rule of thumb to use with athletes and help them progress towards their goals as efficiently as possible without the risk of injury.  

          1. Stay within a 10% change each week in total volume.

          2. Don’t progress more than 2-5% in intensity each week

As for 10% changes in total volume, there has been extensive research that shows greater than 10% change significantly increases the risk of injury. As for intensity, I like to progress by 2-5% each week.  This range will get you the quickest results, while significantly reducing your risk for injury. The specific intensity chosen between 2-5% varies depending on a variety of factors such as training status, training goal for that particular block, and overall volume. For example, a newer lifter or an experienced lifter at the beginning of a new training program can typically increase by upward of 5%, while later in the program the intensity is increased in smaller amounts.  You also have to keep in mind your overall volume to make sure there are not too big of jumps in intensity that your volume significantly increases and you are staying under that 10% change, so as intensity increases, reps/sets will need to go down. 


So let’s start from the top.  

  • Let’s take the VIF triangle and start with one variable. I tend to start with Frequency as most people will have their schedule and availability dictate their frequency.  
  • Next I like to look at intensity and base it off their goals.  So follow this chart to see if someone needs to focus on strength or hypertrophy and where they are in their training program relative to their overall goal.  So if they are at the start of a training block you should start on the higher end of reps within the strength or hypertrophy range to build good structural support and increase capacity.  As you get closer to either a competition or the end of your goals your number of reps will go towards the other end of the spectrum to help you focus on pure strength or endurance.  
  • After choosing the number of reps, choose an estimated weight that is based on your 1RM.  If the weight is too complicated to come up with at the gym, I like to go slightly under the estimated amount to make loading the bar as easy as possible. 
  • The number of sets will typically stay within 3 to 4 for most lifters but can vary outside of this to manipulate overall training volume.  
  • As for how much rest in between, a general rule of thumb is under a minute for hypertrophy work and greater than 90 seconds for strength.
  • Each week you can manipulate the load intensity to progressively overload the muscle to stimulate muscle growth. 

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