Volt's Guide to Finding Strength Numbers
It's no secret that Volt training programs are effective at helping athletes improve their strength, power, speed, and agility. Just ask one of the 60,000+ athletes currently training on a Volt program, many of whom are setting PRs, winning games, and heading to championships for the first time ever! There's a LOT that goes into building each customized training program, but one important ingredient in any program's success is up-to-date Strength Numbers for each athlete.
Since this is one of the most important aspects of every Volt training program, we figured we'd put every question we receive regarding Strength Numbers in one spot (this blog post), and answer each one in detail.
1) WHAT ARE STRENGTH NUMBERS?
First things first—what are Strength Numbers? Simply put, they measure exactly what you'd think: your strength, expressed numerically in how much weight you can lift for a given number of reps in a given exercise. Coaches and athletes already familiar with weight training programs will likely know how to find their 1-rep maximum or 5-rep maximum in a given exercise—and that's exactly what Volt strength numbers are: your X-RM in each of our three Base Lifts (the Barbell Hang Clean, the Barbell Back Squat, and the Barbell Bench Press).
In your Volt program, most exercises have precise loading data attached (i.e., the exact weight we recommend you lift on a given day for a specific exercise, like 15-lb dumbbells for a DB Standing Press). That loading data is based off your Strength Numbers. However, finding your X-RM in every single exercise in your year-long training program would waste a lot of time, so we base the loading for all our movements off of three core lifts: the Hang Clean, Back Squat, and Bench Press. This makes deriving loading data much easier and more efficient: if you can Back Squat 250 lb, for example, you will be able to perform a DB Lunge or Barbell Split Squat at a specific percentage of that Back Squat Strength Number. (We can't give away the exact percentage off which we base our loading, as it is proprietary technology!)
Periodically, your Volt program will ask you to retest or "recalibrate" your Strength Numbers (more on this later), in order to ensure your program is based off the most accurate data possible for best results.
2) WHY ARE STRENGTH NUMBERS IMPORTANT?
As I said above, your Strength Numbers inform the loading data for your entire program. Why is this important? Because the amount of weight you lift in a given exercise (and the specific number of reps and sets completed, and the specific interval of rest between exercises) dictates precisely what training adaptation your body will undergo.
Let me unpack this. If you Back Squat 85% of your 1RM for 3 reps, it will train your muscles in a specific way. In this example it's a strength protocol, which will train your muscles to recruit a greater number of muscle fibers in order to produce greater force. But if you Back Squat 65% of your 1RM for 10 reps, it trains your muscles to produce an entirely different adaptation—in this case it's hypertrophy, which increases the cross-sectional area of the muscle fibers involved, causing the muscle to grow larger.
Training for a specific sport requires a variety of training adaptations to take place in your body, all of which require precise and unique training protocols. Your Strength Numbers help to ensure that you are lifting exactly the right weight, at exactly the right time. You will not become a better athlete by training the same way all the time—it takes an organized, planned training program that utilizes the right loading percentages (and reps, sets, and rest intervals) at specific times throughout the training calendar to truly improve athletic performance. This is why your Strength Numbers are so important: they are the data that dictates precisely how you should train.
3) WHAT HAPPENS IF I DON'T ENTER ANY STRENGTH NUMBERS?
THE WORLD WILL BURN! But, seriously, you will be just fine. Even though Strength Numbers are important (see question #2 above), there is a lot that goes into each Volt program that makes it effective. Other variables like the specific movements selected (and at which times of the year) and the rate at which those movements progress in terms of complexity guarantee that you will see results, even if you haven't entered Strength Numbers. Since Strength Numbers only pertain to the specific weights lifted in a given exercise, if you don't enter any you will simply see blanks where the loading should be.
While this isn't ideal, it's not the end of the world. Will your program be as effective if you don't have prescriptive loading data, telling you how much weight to lift in each movement? No. Will your program still work? Yes. Even if you estimate how much weight to lift in each movement, you will still see improvement. But to get the very best results, you will want to find your Strength Numbers. Frequent retesting of your Strength Numbers means that your program will dynamically adjust as you grow stronger, following the principle of progressive overload in strength and conditioning. With no Strength Numbers, you will have to progress your weights manually, which may not be as successful at progressively overloading you. Chances are the weights you choose for yourself will not be as accurate or effective as the weights prescribed based on your current strength levels.
If you have a barrier to finding your Strength Numbers—an injury, or other issue that prevents you from executing the three specific lifts—see question #8.
4) HOW DO I FIND MY STRENGTH NUMBERS?
To find your Strength Numbers you will need to perform the Hang Clean, Back Squat, and Bench Press to find out how much weight you can lift. For athletes new to lifting, we recommend using 5 reps as your ceiling (i.e., finding your 5RM)—however, you can use anywhere from 1 to 10 reps to find your Strength Numbers. Volt uses a formula to automatically calculate your projected 1RM based on the information you input, so you do not need to find your true 1RM. For example, if you can Back Squat 150 lb for 8 reps, it is estimated that the most you can squat for 1 rep is about 190 lb. The less experienced you are, the higher your rep ceiling can be—although after about 10 reps, the results are not as accurate.
So if you are new to lifting, uncomfortable/unfamiliar with the three Base Lifts, or apprehensive of maximal testing, stick to 5+ reps. We recommend true 1RM testing ONLY for athletes who are VERY experienced in weight training, are properly spotted, and have been trained to safely bail out of lifts. These loads can get very heavy, so it is up to the individual athlete and coach whether true 1RM testing is appropriate.
If you choose to find your Strength Numbers in a stand-alone workout (as opposed to waiting for your Volt program to prompt you to test), always make sure you are properly warmed up before lifting maximal loads.
5) NO, BUT SERIOUSLY: HOW DO I GO ABOUT THE ACTUAL PROCESS OF FINDING MY STRENGTH NUMBERS? LIKE, IN THE GYM?
Here is my step-by-step guide to finding your Strength Numbers.
Step 1: WARM UP.
You should ALWAYS warm up before EVERY lifting session, and ESPECIALLY before attempting any maximal lifts. Spend 3-5 minutes raising your heart rate (jogging, jumping rope, riding a stationary bike, etc.), then spend 5-10 minutes performing some light, full-body, resistance-based movements. We recommend using the same Volt Dynamic Warm-up that you use for regular workouts, but the goal of this warm-up is to make sure your muscles and joints feel good enough to lift some heavy weights.
Step 2: HANG CLEAN FIRST.
Because the Hang Clean is the most complex and metabolically demanding of the three Base Lifts, you'll want to tackle this one first for best results. This ensures that your body is at your absolute freshest when you attempt this explosive movement.
Note: YOU DO NOT NEED A SPOTTER for this lift. Spotting explosive movements is dangerous for both the lifter and the spotter, so make sure that you feel comfortable dropping the bar and stepping backward from underneath it—if your lift gets too heavy, you want to be able to bail out safely (another reason novice lifters should not attempt true 1RMs).
Step 3: WARM-UP SETS.
Before your maximal attempts, you will need to warm up in the Hang Clean before the bar gets heavy. The goal is to complete 2 to 3 "warm-up sets" before the weight begins to feel challenging for the number of reps you're aiming for. After each set, add weight to the bar (how much you add will depend on your current strength level, training experience, and comfort with the Hang Clean) until the weight starts to feel heavy.
IF YOU HAVE NEVER TESTED YOUR STRENGTH NUMBERS BEFORE: start with an empty bar (most weigh 45 lb). Complete 5 reps, then rest 1-3 mins. If the bar feels very light, add anywhere from 5 to 20 lb to the bar, then perform another set of 5 reps. If this weight feels challenging, you are ready to begin your working sets. If not, continue to add weight incrementally until 5 reps starts to become a challenge.
IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCED WITH 1RM TESTING: start with a light weight, complete 5 reps, then rest 1-3 mins. Add weight incrementally until you feel 5 reps begin to feel challenging, and then begin your working sets.
If you start your working sets at too light a weight, it will take you too many sets to get to your heaviest attempts, leaving you too tired to perform well. But if you start your working sets too heavy, you might not be warm enough to successfully execute your heaviest attempt. Finding a good starting weight for your working sets is a bit of a balance—you'll get better at it the more testing you do.
Step 4: PERFORM APPROX. 4 WORKING SETS TO FIND YOUR 5RM or 1RM.
Now that you have warmed up in the specific lift you are testing, it's time to begin your "working sets," the last set of which will become your new X-RM.
IF YOU HAVE NEVER TESTED YOUR STRENGTH NUMBERS BEFORE:
Set 1: perform 5 reps. Rest 2-4 mins. Add weight.
Repeat for Sets 2 through 4, or until you can no longer perform 5 reps with perfect form. (It may take you fewer or more sets than 4.) The highest weight at which you can execute 5 reps without breaking form is your 5RM.
IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCED WITH 1RM TESTING:
Set 1: perform 5 reps. Rest 2 to 4 mins. Add enough weight to make 3 reps a challenge.
Set 2: perform 3 reps. Rest 2 to 4 mins. Add enough weight to make 2 reps a challenge.
Set 3: perform 2 reps. Rest 2 to 4 mins. Add enough weight to make 1 rep a challenge.
Set 4: perform 1. If you can complete 1 rep with perfect form, try for 2 reps. If you can complete 1 rep, but not 2 reps, this is your 1RM.
Step 5: REPEAT FOR BACK SQUAT AND BENCH PRESS.
You will use the same protocol to find your maxes in the Back Squat and Bench Press (in that order, from most demanding movement to least demanding). IMPORTANT: we recommend that ALL athletes use a spotter when attempting heavy loads in the Squat and Bench. Work up to your working sets, then aim to max out by your 4th set, resting 2 to 4 full mins in between sets.
REMEMBER: you do not NEED to perform exactly 5 reps or exactly 1 rep to find your strength numbers. Volt's algorithm will calculate your estimated maximum based on the data you input. It is much better to perform 4 perfect reps safely than to attempt a 5th rep with broken form.
6) ARE THERE ANY PRINTOUTS I CAN USE AS RESOURCES?
Yes! Below are two printouts (one for 1RM testing and one for 5RM testing) that you can use with your athletes to help make finding Strength Numbers as easy as possible! Right-click the image to open in a new tab, then save and print to use.
7) HOW MUCH WEIGHT SHOULD I ADD TO THE BAR BETWEEN SETS TO FIND MY STRENGTH NUMBERS?
There is no right answer to this question, because it depends entirely on the athlete. A good rule of thumb to use with novice lifters is to always start with an empty bar, then add 5 to 10 lb each set until it starts to feel challenging. It also depends on the lift being tested: athletes will be usually be able to Squat much more than they can Clean or Bench, so adding 20 lb to the bar will make more of an impact in the Clean and Bench.
Also, performing lots of warm-up sets with lighter weight will not necessarily harm your heavy attempts—and once athletes have tested their numbers, they will have a better idea of what a good starting weight for their working sets should be. After athletes are experienced with testing, they should aim for 1 to 2 warm-up sets before beginning their working sets.
8) CAN I USE ANYTHING BESIDES THE CLEAN, SQUAT, AND BENCH TO TEST MY STRENGTH NUMBERS?
As of now, no. If you want prescriptive loading in your Volt training program, you will need to test your Hang Clean, Back Squat, and Bench Press. We chose these specific movements for many reasons, including: their importance in sport performance training; their ability to be performed safely among a wide range of athletes; and their capacity to inform other movements based on category (squat = lower-body push, bench = upper-body push, clean = upper-body pull and full-body explosive strength).
So, no: you cannot use other movements to inform your program's loading.
However, some athletes may be unable to safely execute these movements due to injury or other circumstances. While we do not recommend this, your coach can input "estimated" strength numbers for any of the three Base Lifts. For example: an athlete coming back from an ACL injury (who has been cleared to strength train by their doctor) may not be ready to attempt a max Back Squat, but might benefit from other loaded exercises in their Volt program that use the Back Squat to select the proper loading (like a DB Reverse Lunge). In this case, the athlete's coach can work with the athlete (and his or her doctor) to estimate a reasonable Back Squat max instead of asking them to attempt max testing.
NOTE: Volt programs are designed for athletes WITHOUT injuries. If you are injured, STOP your Volt training program and consult your doctor to see if you are ready to begin a strength training program.
9) SHOULD I TEST MY STRENGTH NUMBERS BEFORE MY VOLT PROGRAM STARTS?
If your Volt training program begins in a Foundation block (designed to develop general physical preparedness), you do NOT need to find your Strength Numbers before you being training. Foundation is a bodyweight-based block that focuses on preparing your muscles, connective tissues, and joints for more intense strength training. As such, there is little to no loading attached to any movements in Foundation.
After Foundation block, you may start in a block that attaches Strength Number-dependent loading to most movements (usually a Hypertrophy block—this depends on your sport and training calendar). If you feel ready to find your strength numbers after Foundation and before beginning your first block of Volt training, go for it! But if you are are new to lifting or do not feel ready to find your numbers at this point, we recommend you wait to test your Strength Numbers until prompted in your Volt program (usually the final week of your first Strength Capacity [STC] block).
If you choose to wait to find your Strength Numbers until prompted by your Volt program, you will see some blanks in your program. This happens when you do not have Strength Numbers inputted into the platform yet. While blank loading recommendations are not ideal, it is better than attempting to find your Strength Numbers before your body is ready.
So, to summarize: no, you do NOT need to test your Strength Numbers before your Volt program begins, as long as you can handle a few blanks in your workouts. However, if you are an experienced lifter (and are properly supervised and spotted by a coach), you can test before your program starts.
10) HOW WILL I KNOW WHEN IT'S TIME TO RETEST MY STRENGTH NUMBERS?
You will know it is time to retest your Strength Numbers when your Volt program prompts you to do so (during a Challenge Set in your workout). Let's take the Bench Press as an example. When it is time to retest your Bench Press, your workout will show a Challenge Set. To complete the Challenge Set, simply perform the lift as recommended for as many reps as you can execute safely at the given weight, and enter that number into your workout. Your Volt program will automatically update your Bench Press Strength Number from there, and adjust the loading on future movements in order to continue progressing you.
However, if your workouts feel consistently too light/easy, it may be appropriate to retest your Strength Numbers and recalibrate the loading in your program outside of Challenge Sets. And although Volt workouts are NOT designed to leave you 100% exhausted by the end, talk to your coach to see if retesting makes sense for you.
11) HOW OFTEN WILL MY VOLT PROGRAM ASK ME TO RETEST MY STRENGTH NUMBERS?
Your Volt program will prompt you to retest your Strength Numbers in the final weeks of most Strength Capacity blocks and all Strength and Max Strength blocks (during off-season training in your Preparatory Phase—Volt does not ask you to retest your numbers during your Competitive or Transitional Phases). Which is to say, often. After finding your initial Strength Numbers, you should be recalibrating every 3-6 weeks. This also depends on your sport: endurance athletes, for example, do not require high levels of maximal strength, and thus will not see Challenge Sets very often.
12) I'VE ENTERED MY STRENGTH NUMBERS, BUT I STILL SEE BLANK LOADING FOR SOME MOVEMENTS.
This is perfectly normal. While most movements depend on accurate strength numbers to determine the right amount of weight to be lifted, others do not. Band and bodyweight movements, as well as "prehab" or auxiliary movements (like a Plate Bent Row to External Rotation) do not require ultra-specific loading recommendations in order to produce the proper training adaptations.
There are other movements that either depend on equipment availability, or depend on equipment that isn't always consistent. Cable-based movements are a great example. We get a lot of questions about the Lat Pulldown and why there is no prescribed loading for it. This is simply because all cable pulley machines are different—while a 20-lb dumbbell is the same from weight room to weight room, cable pulleys differ greatly. You may be able to pull 100 lb for 5 reps on one lat pulldown machine, and 150 lb for 5 reps on another, simply because all machines are constructed differently. So, because we cannot control for equipment consistency, Volt leaves those weights blank.
I will say this, and it's REALLY important: if you have inputted your Strength Numbers into your Volt platform, your program will ALWAYS prescribe weights for the most important movements, the ones that matter. The only movements left blank are ones that are not central to your strength progressions. When you do come across a blank movement, choose a resistance level that feels challenging for the prescribed number of reps and enter it into your program. You can always look back on past workouts to see what weight you used on that movement previously.