Complete guide to the maximum effort method 

The Maximum Effort Method is one of the three main methods that make up the Conjugate System made famous by Coach Louie Simmons, owner of the Westside Barbell Club. Unlike the Dynamic Effort Method that focused on rate of force development, the max effort method focused solely on producing the maximum amount of force in a particular movement for 1-3 repetitions. We are going to take a deep dive into this very method taking a look at the potential advantages and possible risks.

By Travis Mash

guide to the max effort method

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What is the Max Effort Method?

Louie Simmons had a fascination with the Russian and Bulgarian weightlifting programs. He realized that the Russians were dominating the sport of weightlifting until the Bulgarians came on the scene under the infamous Coach Ivan Abadjiev. The Russians focused on the dynamic effort method keeping the squat and pull percentages close enough to the max snatch and cleans to be performed at a more specific rate. They used a variety of movements and accessory work to strengthen weaknesses. You can learn all about the Dynamic Effort Method here.

The Bulgarians focused on specificity in terms of the movements they performed. They were limited to snatch, clean, jerk, front squat, and power clean. They trained 2-3 sessions per day working to a maximum single in each movement within each session. This was specificity at its finest. The sport of weightlifting is lifting a maximum weight for one repetition. If an athlete wants to get better at lifting a maximum weight in competition, they will need to work on that skill.

In developing the Conjugate System, Louie Simmons realized that most systems were missing this major key that the Bulgarians were capitalizing on. That’s when Louie developed the Maximum Effort Method. With this method, athletes would maximize their absolute strength using 90% and above of their 1RM for 1-3 repetitions. Louie also realized that the max effort method would teach his athletes how to master the skill of lifting a maximum load. Later I will lay out the benefits both physiologically and psychologically.

Louie used hundreds of movements that rotated weekly for the Westside athletes to consistently try to break through barriers on a weekly basis. Some of these movements were more specific than others, but rarely did anyone perform a maximum effort day with the competition lifts in the way that they are performed in competition. 

For Lower Body, they might use:

  • Box Squat with a specialty bar to a low box
  • Deadlift from the rack at various heights
  • Chain Suspended Goodmornings
  • Deadlift from a deficit against bands
  • Box Squat against bands

For Upper Body, they might use:

  • Floor Press
  • Board Press from various heights
  • Seated Military Press from pins
  • Reverse Band Bench Press
  • Closegrip Bench Press 
  • Cambered Bar Bench Press

The exercises used were specific to the athlete based on their strengths and weaknesses. When the athlete is closer to competition, those movements probably changed based on their ways of peaking in the past. I would like to add that there are many ways to avoid the negatives of the law of accommodation. The law of accommodation states that the body will adapt to a stimulus performed over and over to a point where no more adaptation is possible. 

My only criticism of the conjugate system is that some of the athletes appeared to ignore the principle of specificity. To perfect a particular movement, there must be time spent performing that movement to maximize neuromuscular coordination. With my own athletes and in my own training, I discovered countless ways to introduce a new stimulus avoiding accommodation. Other than a completely different exercise, here are some ways to introduce a constantly new stimulus:

  • Rep Max 1-5
  • 1-5 sec Pause somewhere in the movements ROM (I normally choose the athlete’s weakest point. 
  • Bands
  • Chains
  • Weight Releasers
  • Post Activation Potentiation examples:
    – Use Bands and then no bands (I will explain more in the program)
    – Squat and Bench with Weight Releasers lowering 112% and standing up with 103%
    – SlingShot Bench up to 110%, and then performing a max bench
    – Deadlift (eccentric portion 110% and concentric portion 103%)
    – Deadlift from a Deficit of 2-4”

I did a lot of dumb things in my own training, but one of the things that I still use with my athletes is this type of max effort method application. I used to write out over 100 personal records of different max effort variations every six months, and would consistently break 75% of those records. Also, I would leave in the same exercise for three weeks, but I’d make small changes weekly. For example:

  • Deadlift from a 4” Deficit
    – Week 1 paused 3 sec at knee
    – Week 2 paused 2 sec at knee
    – Week 3 no pause

I would add that the complexity of the movement dictates the amount of specificity. The sport of weightlifting is a bit more complex than powerlifting, so every athlete needs quality time performing the snatch and clean and jerk from the floor to perfect coordination. However, based on the latest research, after the first 3-5 years of training, athletes probably need less technique work, but instead a more specific approach to force application (Suchomel TJ, et al., 2020). I will give some specific examples later in the programming section.

Max Effort Method Percentage of 1RM (load/intensity)

Absolute strength takes place at 80% and above. However, 90% and above is required to maximize improvement in an athlete’s 1RM, which was recognized by AS Prilepin way back in 1975. However, Prilepin realized that 90% and above required the most risk of injury. That’s the reason he developed his famous Prilepin’s Chart, so that athletes could have a solid starting place for optimal volume at specific loads. 

Preplin's Chart

With Velocity Based Training, we can spend time around this load with a bit more precision. Realistically, only powerlifters and weightlifters have to spend time at the actual loads of 90% and above. Absolute strength and even 1RMs can be improved spending time with loads between 75-85% especially with younger athletes. For athletes, there are several ways to modify the max effort method to monitor absolute strength progress with VBT, and we will go over those a bit later. 

Even for powerlifters and weightlifters, VBT can be used to avoid missing even at above 90%. With image 2 below, you can see the average velocities at specific loads. Working up to a 1RM squat at 0.37m/s is a safe way to max. Continued improvements at that same rate will demonstrate improvements for athletes in their absolute strength. However, there is definitely a time and place for true maximum efforts, and that amount of time is up to you as a coach.

Max Effort Method Percentage of 1RM

Max Effort Method Sets and Reps

Louie normally prescribed between 1 and 3 repetitions, but that doesn’t mean that a 5RM can’t be used. A true 5RM requires an even greater effort from the athlete due to the volume, and will elicit most of the same adaptations. The only missing adaptations would be the coordination and synchronization of motor unit recruitment specific to a 1RM. 

The work sets on the day run between 2 and 3 depending on the daily performance and readiness. Velocity Based Training can make this process less subjective. Here’s what it should look like:

  • Set 1 93-95% of the 1-3RM
  • Set 2 100% + 5-10lb extra for PR
  • Set 3 if set 2 was easy, a second PR can be attempted.
  • An example of a second set being too easy would be an elite powerlifter performing a back squat 1RM at 0.32m/s 

Who is the Maximal Effort Method for?

It’s for powerlifters during their entire career. They might spend time being more cautious with VBT, but their sport is the max effort method. For weightlifters, absolute strength is an absolute requirement. However, just like sprinters, for some weightlifters, there will come a time that a true max effort isn’t needed in movements like the back squat. You can test athletes with the Dynamic Strength Index to find out if they need more absolute strength or not. 

Repetition Method for Beginners

Let me be clear, for beginners especially prepubescent and pubescent, Max Effort is not an option. The Repetition Method is the Conjugate System’s answer for work capacity, hypertrophy, and skill development. The primary concern, for youth, is perfecting movement patterns and skill development. For newbies in the first six months of training, the 1×20 Program is a great way to perfect those movements. Later, the repetition method is used for hypertrophy in joints, muscle groups, and range of motions that are lagging. 

Louie prescribed loads between 30% to 75% working to a max load for a designated amount of time ranging from 40 seconds to as high as 10 minutes. I use it for hypertrophy in areas where my athletes need to strengthen. The Repetition Method can be used on the dynamic effort and max effort days as a compliment. I will add that I have always loved the notion of focusing on hypertrophy all year long versus only in a few mesocycles. 

Max Effort for Elite Powerlifters

To minimize risk for my elite powerlifters in their competition prep, I am only going to turn them loose once per month. That doesn’t mean they won’t set personal records. My athlete Tank Lunsford just won the Best Lifter Award at the Powerlifting America University National setting multiple personal records. He only missed one bench press and one back squat the entire Macrocycle. 

However, he set personal records almost weekly. If I tell him to work up to a bench press paused 3 seconds on his chest with a velocity minimum of 0.23m/s (almost a full tenth above the velocity that he’s capable of), he might very well still hit a personal record while minimizing risk and still gaining confidence. Normally, I will program like the following:

  • Week 1 Bench Press 1RM paused 3-seconds on chest (Velocity ≥0.23m/s)
  • Week 2 Bench Press 1RM paused 2-seconds (Velocity ≥0.19m/s *Tank can hit around .13-.15m/s)
  • Week 3 Bench Press 1RM Competiton Pause (Max Effort tracking velocity for new trends)

Max Effort for Elite Weightlifters

First, we will use some form of the max effort method for the competition lifts almost year round. I try to find joint angles where athletes are struggling to either hold position or produce peak force. For example, we will use snatch and clean off blocks at various heights that need focus. We use heavy snatch and clean pulls from the floor, blocks, and the hang to overload force production at specific joint angles. I love using the snatch and clean pulls from the hang to overload the eccentric contraction and strengthen those pulling patterns at all joint range of motions. 

As far as utilizing the max effort method for squats and deadlift, it will depend. For Ryan Grimsland, we focused on utilizing the max effort method for his pulls multiple times per week. It all depends on the needs of the athlete. If their squat is strong with a lagging pull, a focus will be placed on the pull focusing on position and desired rate of force production

The dynamic strength index is a great test that we utilize with our GymAware RS and FLEX units to decide whether our weightlifters should continue to go heavy on squats. If a weightlifter is utilizing very little of their maximum force capabilities while producing explosive movements, there isn’t a real big reason to keep adding more on the bar. It would probably be more important to increase the load they are capable of at a velocity of 0.5m/s or faster. Both the snatch and clean take place at incredibly high velocities. Producing force with a slow rate of force development is fairly worthless for advanced weightlifters.

Max Effort for Athletes

If you are a post-pubescent athlete playing a team sport or individual sport outside of the barbell sports, absolute strength is still a major concern for the first 2-3 years of training. After those first 2-3 years pushing an athlete’s absolute strength, a sport team athlete like a weightlifting athlete above should shift their focus to a specialized approach. 

Once again, it would be a good idea to use the Dynamic Strength Index to understand which quality of strength and athletic traits need focus. ]

Creating a Force Velocity Profile would be a good idea as well.

A Modified Max Effort Method

Burley Hawk is writing some amazing articles for Westside Barbell lately. I read one of his latest on modifying the max effort method for athletes that are experiencing either busy, stressful, or a bit of both seasons in their life. Personally, I love what he says in the article about added fatigue not allowing athletes to hit true 1RMs every week. 

I have written several articles about the added stress from school, social media, relationships, new careers, and basically life. Coaches program for athletes based on them having the perfect environment, and that simply isn’t the case. Slower velocity contractions of muscle fibers is a direct measurement of fatigue. 

One thing that I would add to Burley’s article is a bit more objective quantifying of fatigue versus a subjective feeling. There is a point where an athlete is so fatigued that they should simply go home and recover. We monitor our athletes in various ways, and you can read more about the process in our article “Monitoring Daily Readiness”.

The other thing is that his response is changing the max effort repetition maximum from a single to a 3RM or 5RM. A maximum effort of 3RM normally happens at around 92.5%, and then the three repetitions equal almost triple the volume. A 5RM happens at 87%, and I can say from experience that a true 5RM crushes me way more than a 1RM. Additionally, three and five rep maximums can lead to less than perfect technique in those final reps. That increases the athlete’s risk of reaching their biological tipping point leading to a potential injury.

We modify max effort days as well. However, we alter the minimum velocity allowed to protect the athlete as well as modifying the accessory volume as well. I give my recommendations in the “Monitoring Daily Readiness” article. If I have a 3RM programmed for the day, I will make the same adjustments to avoid injury and further fatigue. 

Benefits and risks of the Max Effort Method

Physiological Benefits of the Max Effort Method

To maximize force production, an athlete must learn to recruit the maximum amount of high threshold motor units. To improve this ability, an athlete must practice lifting with maximum intent to recruit those larger and more explosive muscle fibers. For the first 2-3 years of an athlete’s strength training, all qualities of strength are driven by absolute strength. After those beginning years, an athlete must focus on the velocity zone/quality of strength most specific to their sport or the zone needed to move their velocity profile closer to the desired trait. 

The max effort method improves an athlete’s ability to not only recruit the maximum number of high threshold motor units, but also improves the rate, coordination, and synchronization of that recruitment. I explained these adaptations in detail Muscle Hypertrophy: From Theory to Application. All of this allows the athlete to produce force at the highest possible rate

Psychological Benefits of the Max Effort Method

To understand this section, it helps to have spent a solid amount of time under the bar. A book can’t really teach you what I am about to explain, at least not as well as putting a heavy barbell on your back or in your hands. The maximal effort method benefitted me the most while working to become the best powerlifter in the world. I would go as far as to say that Louie’s max effort method provides a psychological benefit to becoming a great athlete that nothing else in the weight room can provide. 

Whether an athlete is trying to back squat 365kg/805lb, snatch 182kg/400lb, or make the NFL, their view of reality will have to shift. Their paradigm of what’s possible will have to make periodic shifts until that paradigm is one where their ultimate goal exists. My training partners used to ask me how I could put a thousand pounds on my back without any doubts or fear. I set a world record in the bench press, which was my worst lift early in my career. To overcome these obstacles along the way, you have to practice overcoming your current boundaries on a regular basis.

The risks are always going to be some sort of soft tissue injury. Weight training in general comes with one of the lowest risks of injury of all athletic endeavors. However, if an athlete uses a few parameters to guide their max effort day, the risk of injury will be minimized. Here are some parameters:

  • A breakdown in technique ends the session immediately
  • Focus on skill development over load at all times.
  • Using Velocity Based Training to set minimum velocity parameters
  • Maintain equipment at all times
  • Maintain a safe area around the entire platform where an athlete is testing. 
  • Always utilize safety measures like safety pins for the face in the bench press 
  • Either teach athletes how to miss squats safely, or implement trained spotters
  • When it comes to how frequently athletes should train to complete failure, check out this article “How Often to Train Close to Failure”

How Often Should You Max Out

If you have read this article, you know that the answer to that question depends on multiple variables. Early in a powerlifter’s career, a weekly max effort day to failure for the upper and lower body can be programmed weekly. For athletes outside of strength sports and even for weightlifters, the frequency is going to be much less. 

Weightlifters can take things to a true max out in the strength movements (squat and deadlift) about once every three weeks. When they are closer to a meet, that frequency goes down, but increases for high velocity movements. Understanding the daily readiness of your athletes is crucial in preventing overtraining. I lay out a solid plan at the end of this article.

For athletes, I recommend not allowing a true max out to failure or near failure more than once per macrocycle

How to Prepare for a Max Effort Day

I want all of you adrenaline junkies to read this section. If you think that max effort day means the entire day is spent thinking about a perfect lift, you are wrong. When an athlete learns to control their anticipation, they have taken a major step towards becoming great. I remember the days of working up to a maximum squat with my powerlifting teammates. We would normally squat on a Saturday morning, and we would go absolutely nuts trying to hit new all-time personal records. All that led to was added fatigue, overtraining, and a terrible next few days.

This is the very reason that I only allow my athletes one day per month to really turn loose. Plus, anticipation control is a necessary tool to ensure big totals at a meet where it counts. I teach my athletes to keep their cool and monitor their breathing throughout each lift. Of course a third attempt record squat in a meet requires more fire than the opening attempt, but a loss of concentration simply leads to a technical mistake. Lastly, over celebrating early in the day leads to some terrible deadlifts later in the day. For the weightlifter, overly celebrating a snatch leads to some heavy clean and jerks with cement legs. 

Instead of obsessing over a certain number that you want to hit, I recommend focusing on one particular aspect of the movement to perfect. This is teaching an athlete to be process driven versus performance driven. Technical aspects of an exercise are in our control to a certain degree, but the amount that we are about to lift relies on factors out of our control. This controlled approach will lead to more personal records than you could ever hit with a performance obsession. This is the way an athlete hits a 50 pound personal record. Sometimes when an athlete is obsessed with some arbitrary personal record they want to hit, they can’t perceive hitting anything heavier regardless if they could or not. 

Here are a few more recommendations:

  • Make sure that your gym bag is completely packed with equipment and your GymAware RS or FLEX unit
  • Definitely make sure to pack your intra-workout nutrition.
  • Make sure the gym is organized
  • Weights are put up for safety
  • Platforms are free of anything that doesn’t belong.

Max Effort Method in Practice

This is always my favorite part because I get to put this whole thing into action. I am going to break it down between powerlifters, weightlifters, and athletic performance. Let’s look:

Max Effort in Practice for Powerlifters

Max Effort in Practice for Powerlifters

Some things you might notice are the way I trend to specificity the closer it gets to peak week. Remember, just because I added minimum velocity thresholds doesn’t mean the athlete won’t set a personal record. It just ensures that they will only potentially miss once every three weeks keeping them safe and progressing. Feel free to be more aggressive especially if you are within your first five years of training. 

Accentuated eccentric loading (AEL) is a great way to progress athletes’ strength stimulating several advantageous adaptations such as improved elasticity, strengthened connective tissue, improved neuromuscular efficiency, Type II Hypertrophy, and overall strength. Personally, I love the post-activation potentiation weight releasers provide, and the increased need for stability improves technique in the competition movements. That’s why I recommend six weeks of weight-releaser use for all three major movements. Suchomel TJ, et al., 2019 dives much deeper into the many ways of using AEL.

As you can see, my use of the max effort method is more specific in nature than Westside Barbell’s. Feel free to use various goodmorning derivatives, box squats of varying heights, and specialty bars. However, I believe that a lot of modern day powerlifters are demonstrating the importance of specificity. Another variable that you might choose to use is down sets. If my athlete is in need of improved technique or hypertrophy, I will prescribe 1-2 down sets at minus 10%.

Max Effort in Practice for Athletic Performance

Max Effort in Practice for athletic performance

For athletes, I keep things way more specific. However, the use of specialty bars is fine, but most high schools and colleges lack enough specialty bars for all athletes to have access. You will also notice that for the first six weeks in each movement the intention is for the athlete to peak their absolute strength. In the final six weeks, the athlete shifts their focus to maximizing force production at higher rates of velocity. Like I said earlier, if the athlete is in their first 2-3 years of training, absolute strength is the primary focus. I simply wanted to demonstrate both ways of programming for max effort. 

Max Effort in Practice for Weightlifters

Max Effort in Practice for Weightlifters
Max Effort in Practice for Weightlifters - 2

Typical Weightlifting Week

Typical Weightlifting Week

Weightlifting is a bit more complicated. An elite weightlifter requires absolute strength, massive amounts of speed and mobility, and most importantly incredible amounts of power production at high rates of velocity. Max effort strength days are very similar to a sports athlete. When they are tapering for a competition, it’s more important that their rate of force development is the primary concern. I use a lot of weight releasers with weight lifters as well, and I individualize each athlete’s program. However, this program will give you a solid idea on how to apply. 

Max effort snatch pulls, clean pulls, and the Olympic competition lifts are expressed at higher rates of velocity. There is less muscle damage requiring less recovery. We only express max effort to near failure levels once per week. We are not going to max out every lift on every day, but we spend quality time applying force at specific rates and at specific joint angles. 

I will add that velocity based training is crucial in carrying out our plan, monitoring improvement, and keeping our athletes safe. Programming for the sport of Olympic weightlifting is like putting together a puzzle. However, I recommend taking subjectivity out of the equation as much as possible. 

Conclusion

This concludes our series on the conjugate system. Yes, I went deeper than most on the dynamic effort method and now the max effort method. Louie Simmons dedicated his very life to the development of the conjugate system. There are surface level articles all over the Internet, but I simply couldn’t do that. 

Louie did so much for so many people, and he impacted the world of strength unlike anyone has ever. I wanted to capture his life’s work in as complete a way as possible. He deserved this effort, and I would like to think that he would be proud.

Coach Travis Mash ( travis@gymaware.com)

References

  1. Suchomel TJ, McKeever SM, Comfort P. Training With Weightlifting Derivatives: The Effects of Force and Velocity Overload Stimuli. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jul;34(7):1808-1818. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003639. PMID: 32398635.
  2. Fry AC, Kraemer WJ. Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Neuroendocrine responses. Sports Med. 1997 Feb;23(2):106-29. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199723020-00004. PMID: 9068095.
  3. Pierce KC, Hornsby WG, Stone MH. Weightlifting for Children and Adolescents: A Narrative Review. Sports Health. 2022;14(1):45-56. doi:10.1177/19417381211056094
  4. Suchomel TJ, Wagle JP, Douglas J, Taber CB, Harden M, Haff GG, Stone MH. Implementing Eccentric Resistance Training—Part 2: Practical Recommendations. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2019; 4(3):55. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk4030055
  5. Weakley, Jonathon & Mann, Bryan & Banyard, Harry & McLaren, Shaun & Scott, Tannath & García Ramos, Amador. (2021). Velocity-Based Training: From Theory to Application. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 43. 31-49. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000560. 
Coach Travis Mash

Travis Mash

Being a World Champion in powerlifting, Travis competed at a world-class level in Olympic weightlifting and has coached professional Olympic weightlifters alongside Don McCauley and Glenn Pendlay at Team MDUSA. Now Travis coaches the most successful weightlifting team in the USA.