ABC “Ask Bret Contreras” – Rep Calculators

Hey Bret, I can deadlift 200 pounds for 10 reps but my 1-rep max is only 225 lbs. Using various “rep-calculator formulas” you would think I’d be able to deadlift somewhere close to 300 pounds for one rep. What gives? – Gordon

Hey Gordon, don’t worry. You are not an alien, and your situation is quite common. Here are some things that you need to consider:

Fiber Type Proportions

Humans vary considerably in fiber type proportions. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 20% fast-twitch muscle fibers in marathon runners to 90% fast-twitch muscle fibers in elite sprinters. On average, most humans possess a 50/50 split between fast and slow twitch fibers, but if you stray far from the norm, it will definitely influence your lifting and the rep-calculators won’t be very reliable. I’ve trained guys that are so fast-twitch that they can only get 3-reps with 80% of their 1RM. I’ve trained a couple of girls who were so slow twitch that they could get 30 reps with 80% of their 1RM.

Starting Strength

In the deadlift, many people have a lot of trouble initiating the lift and getting the bar off the ground. I see this happen a lot with individuals who have performed RDL’s for years or have always performed deadlifts by unracking the bar and starting from the top position. People in this situation need to pull from the floor for several months in order for their starting strength to increase to the point where they feel strong from the bottom position. Deficit deadlifts help out in this regard too.

If you have terrible starting strength, you’ll suck at maxing out. However, you may be very good at repping out due to elastic strength and rebounding, which I’ll discuss below.

Elastic Strength

Some individuals possess great “reactive strength” or “elasticity,” which gives them an advantage when repping out in a deadlift. These individuals typically store a lot of energy in their hamstrings and recycle a higher proportion of their energy from one rep to the next. I know a lot of guys who pull 2 reps with their 1RM, meaning that whatever they can get for one rep, they can get for two reps because the second rep is so much easier due to elastic recoil in the muscles and tendons.

Rebound off the Floor

Coordinated lifters are able to lift with such symmetry that the plates on both sides of the bar hit the floor at the exact same time, thereby bouncing off the floor and providing some rebound. The type of surface factors in here, but I suspect that I get a 30 lb “rebound” off my platform at the bottom of the lift when I deadlift 405 lbs, which makes it much easier to get the bar going when repping out. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

If you do nothing but heavy singles for an entire year, you’ll get much better at maxing out. But you might not get that much better at repping out. Conversely, if you do nothing but all-0ut sets in the 8-20 rep range for an entire year, you’ll get much better at repping out, but you probably won’t get much better at maxing out. Specificity definitely applies here, unless of course you’re a beginner in which case everything makes you stronger.

For example, in the video above I pulled 405 for 12 reps. I haven’t done high reps in a really long time, and I bet that in a month of training specifically with 405 I could get up to 20 reps. However, once I reached 405 x 20 I bet that it would have no effect on my 1-RM, meaning that the extra strength-endurance wouldn’t benefit my limit strength in the deadlift.

Connective Tissue Strength

Some people seem to have a limit or a “governor” that shuts their bodies down in order to prevent pain and/or injury. For example, every time I get up to 565-ish in the deadlift my body has a very hard time gettting stronger. While I strive to reach 600 one day, and I believe that I’ll get there, I suspect that the reason why my body has trouble getting there has something to do with my soft-tissue strength. My body doesn’t let me lift more weight because doing so would injure the musculature, ligaments, tendons, and/or discs of my lower back.

Genetics are a bitch, and there definitely appears to be a “genetic ceiling” for many people on certain lifts. For me it’s very hard to exceed 405 on the squat, 565 on the deadlift, and 315 on the bench press. I can do it with specialization, but it ain’t easy!

Gender

Having trained hundreds of women in the past several years, it’s quite apparent to me that a higher percentage of women are better at repping out than they are at maxing out. I’ve trained women who could deadlift 155 x 20 reps but their 1RM was only 175 lbs. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. There are certain men in this position too.

Conclusion

I could definitely think of more factors, such as anthropometry/somatotypes, technique, style of deadlift, etc., but I think you get the point.

For these reasons, I don’t like rep-calculators. In fact, in my entire lifting and training career, I’ve never given them much thought. They simply are not very accurate. A more important question is this:

Should I train primarily according to my strengths or my weaknesses in this regard. In other words, since I suck at maxing out should I train heavy more often or should I go lighter and rep out most of the time?

On the one hand, you won’t get much better at maxing out unless you practice heavy lifting over 95% of your 1RM. So if you want to get good at maxing, spend most of your time doing mutiple sets of heavy singles.

On the other hand, you get a much better training stimulus from going lighter, so if your goal is hypertrophy and body composition changes, then it may behoove you to focus more on multiple sets in the 8-12 rep range. Alternatively, you can focus on doing one all-out set in the 8-12 rep range too.

However, you also have to factor in recovery. Since you’re not very good at heavy lifting then it won’t drain you very much. For example, singles with 225 right now probably don’t tax your system too much, whereas sets of 200 x 10 probably take a lot out of you.

For this reason, I believe that the best approach is to practice a mixed approach and deadlift twice per week. Both sessions should involve 3-5 heavy singles followed by one higher rep set of 8-12 reps.

Rotate deadift variations frequently to prevent habituation – conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, hex bar deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts, etc.

Last, most powerlifters believe that “dead-start” deadlifts are best for building maximal deadlift strength, so touch-and-go bouncy reps aren’t advised if that’s the goal.

Best of luck!

Bret Contreras

12 Comments

  • yudi says:

    This is hands down in my top 5 training articles I have ever read. So much quality information and thought process put into this. You are the man Bret – thanks for sharing this!

  • Smitty says:

    I see this happen a lot with individuals who have performed RDL’s for years or have always performed deadlifts by unracking the bar and starting from the top position.

    You nailed it. Reactivity plays a huge role.

    Pulling from a deficit and band resisted are huge too for accelerating through that “off the floor” ROM.

    • Bret says:

      Thanks Smitty! Very interesting. I think I’ve heard Cressey and maybe Robertson suggest pulling against bands for starting strength too. Based on my knowledge of biomechanics, I would think that pulling against bands would help more with mid-range and lockout strength, but I can see how it would play a role as long as you had tension on the bands while the bar was resting on the floor. Thanks bud!

  • allie says:

    Wow, amazing info here- you have so much knowledge in your brain and your willingness to share it to help others is really incredible.

  • Matt says:

    Hey Bret, would u ever recommend deadlifting with a rebound whenever repping out? Or should you reset after each rep?

    Thanks for the blog man, its awesome.

    • Bret says:

      Hey Matt,

      Both scenarios have their place. If aiming for muscle mass then constant tension is best – so bounce. If aiming for 1RM strength then reset. If aiming for maximum neural stimulus then it’s okay to do rest-pause.

      Hope that helps buddy!

      Bret

  • Matt says:

    Hey Bret,

    Would you recommend deadlifting with a rebound at the bottom only when repping out? I always thought you should reset every rep, is this just the case when lifting heavier weights and less reps? Thanks dude!

  • brandon says:

    Sir,
    Am I suffering from exercise addiction?. I need to gain muscle, as I am 6’2.5″ and around 140lbs/ and my doctor proclaims 3-4% BF maybe. I have an 8 pack and when i flex it is all muscle and striations, but i know i am under weight for my height. I eat completely clean/ only veggies, lots of protein (meat, eggs,whey etc.., fruit and some oats. I am 28years old and have been training non-stop for 9 years. I have been hospitalized three times once for a ruptured bowel, then a year later i got hit by a car on my bike, then another year later i was a victim of a hit and run on the bike again. this has left me with a titanium hip and collar bone, but i am clear to train with no limitations. It has been a hard way back. I could use any advise to a routine to gain muscle and not loose my conditioning or definition . please help below is my current routine which i have reduced. In addition to the following routine I also bike 40-1hr each day for commuting and enjoyment. thank you so much for any help. Should I do split routines more full body sessions?

    Brandon

    Day one:
    Squat 6x 10,8,8,8,6,6
    dbBench 6x 10,8,8,6,6,5
    RomanianDeads 5x 6-8
    BB Rows 5×6-9
    Milpress 5×6
    Upright rows 5×6-8
    BBcurls 5×6-8
    Calf raises 5×8
    AB Circuit
    5 sets leg raises supersetted w. 5 sets decline sit-ups 10-20 reps each
    Then 5-10 sets push-ups(20reps) into mountain climbers(60reps) into burpies (12burpies)w/ sets of decline sit-ups 10 reps in between each set of the pushup/climbers/burpies.
    Day two:
    30 min run w/ten sets sprint intervals 30 seec each while running.
    3 sets 12 box jumps supersetted w/ decline situps 10 reps each set
    Then 5 sets leg raises w. 5 sets decline situps 10 reps
    Then 4 sets plank 60sec and 3 sets bicycle crunches 60 reps.
    5 sets of pushup/burpie routine
    Total time 1hr- 1.5hr
    Day three
    Deads 6×5-10
    Bench 6×6-8
    Front squats 5×6-80
    Dips 5×8
    Chin-ups 5×6
    Mil press DB 5×8
    Db curls 5×6-8
    Incline db press 5×6-8
    Tricep ext 5×6-8
    Calve raises 4×6
    Hammer curls 3×8
    Shrugs 3×10
    Same ab circuit and burpies as day one
    Day four
    Same as day two
    Day five
    Similar to day one but diff exercises and reps same volume 60 sets or more
    Day six
    1hr of 10 sets sprints 30sec on 30sec off-then 10- 15 sets push ups (20reps)into mountain climbers(60reps) into burpies(12), in between each of these circuits I do a set of decline situps- 10 sets then 5 sets leg raises, then 3×12 box jumps, 3×12 reps each leg lunge jumps, 3 sets 12 squat jumps, then 4 sets planks, 3 sets bicycle crunch 30 each side.
    Day seven
    Bike 45-1hr then ab work 20 min

    =

  • Myrmidon says:

    Dear Gordon. From our experience current rep-calculators suck.

    Lets say that your bodyweight is 165 lb.. From my calculations I can predict that your 10RM lies in the 90%-92% range of your 1RM.

    For validation:If this is true, then i think you can deadlift a 90 lb weight for 20 times.

  • andrew says:

    I am doing an easy strength inspired version of power to the people by Pavel.

    Staying primarily in 60-80% of my 1RM gor 5,3,2 set/reps.

    Googled why I seem to be struggling so much with 80% of my 1RM this seems to answer my question.

    Even after resetting after every rep & resting for 5 mins between sets I struggle sometimes, I can make the reps they just feel harder than I think they should. All these calculators say I should be getting 10 reps in one set with 80% of my max.

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