Think of upping your one-rep max as you would building a pyramid: The wider its base, the taller its peak.
In the same way, you’ll make more progress by developing a strong foundation over time than you would by skipping ahead, says Matt Berenc, Beverly Hills-based director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute.
When lifting, rushed progress happens when you add too much weight or too many sets and reps at once. With those bigger jumps, your form breaks down as your body tries to respond to the increased intensity, notes Arlen Guerrero, complex personal training manager at Equinox locations in Miami, Florida.
Instead, both experts suggest using a stepwise program to raise your one-rep max. They created the nine-week plan below for the single-arm kettlebell or dumbbell overhead press, though you can also apply it to other main lifts such as the back squat, bent-over row, and bench press.
This training strategy is unique because the changes in workload from week to week are subtle, but effective enough to make you stronger without requiring you to add more weight, Berenc says. As a result, you’ll avoid early plateaus and maintain your technique without getting bogged down by fatigue.
“The beauty is that the benefits will carry over to your other lifts,” notes Guerrero, by building stability and strength in your core and shoulders.
Here’s how you can work the program into your regular lifting routine.
Foam roll the lats, pecs, and upper back for 30 seconds each, then do a dynamic warm-up of World’s Greatest Stretch, push-ups with overhead arm extensions, and deep squats with thoracic spine rotation (2 sets of 5 reps per side for each). Finish with kettlebell farmer’s carries (2 sets of 20 steps) and single-leg kettlebell deadlifts (2 sets of 3 reps per side).
Pressing barbells overhead can be dangerous, Guerrero says. Kettlebells and dumbbells are better options because they come with a lower risk of injury and have the unique benefit of eliminating strength imbalances.
Between each round of overhead presses, do the same number of pulls: rows, pull-ups, or deadlifts. “This balances out the work you’re doing and fleshes out the program,” Berenc says. Always do this program before other lifts and follow it with any workout that doesn’t directly tax the shoulders, Guerrero adds.
Throughout the nine weeks, use a weight that’s one bell size (or 10 pounds, if using dumbbells) lighter than your current one-rep max. Do the prescribed workout 3 times per week on non-consecutive days, taking 60 to 90 seconds rest between sets so you can start the next one fresh. At the end of the program, you can expect your one-rep max to be about 4 kilograms or 10 pounds higher than it was at the start.