Whether it's fluctuations in outside stress, sleep, nutrition, training environment, soreness or a variety of other factors, we can't assume or predict exactly what we'll be capable of each day.
As much as athletes like to think of themselves as machines, we do not live in a little bubble of eating, sleeping & training. Even professional athletes must concentrate on their families, traveling and endorsements. All of this considered, there are days we won't PR or hit our expected numbers, this is why having minimums are important.
But we can't use this as an excuse not to be great. Autoregulation is not "Hey, I'm a little tired today, guess I'll just take it off." Good luck achieving anything but mediocrity with that attitude. To keep us hungry and always pushing for more we must have maximums to shoot for.
The art comes into play as we must balance the minimums and maximums.
How I use Minimums and Maximums
Currently my training is focused on powerlifting. As you would assume, majority of training entails the powerlifts and their variations, such as pause squats and deficit deadlifts.
Here are examples of the tables that I use.
The first number is the minimum for that rep range and the second is the max. Notice how majority of my mins/maxs are in the 5 and below rep range, since that's where majority of my training is done. If you're an Olympic lifter you may predominantly use 1-3 reps. If you're a bodybuilder you may use mostly 6-10. Remember the principle of specificity.
Having these tables available makes it easier to autoregulate. Most of us already track are PR's and your aim is to always break those, but minimums are equally important for long-term success.
Say I have programed a 5 rep max for bench press on that day. I now know that my minimum number to hit is 230. I could be traveling, stressed out with work or had shitty nutrition the past few days, I should still be able to hit 230. My maximum for the day is 260 (this is 5 lbs above my 5 rep PR) if I feel fresh and warmups are feeling faster than normal, this is what I should aim to hit.
Without the use of minimums we might overestimate our ability for that day. This often leads to a psychologically unhealthy response to training. We feel like a failure because we didn't meet expectations based on a program that doesn't factor in lifestyle factors.
From a competitor standpoint it's crucial to understand your minimums. If you're at a meet and already have your attempts selected for all three of the lifts then you aren't doing a very good job at autoregulating. More often than not, an athlete will overestimate their performance on that day and end up with a subpar total from missing lifts. Learning to train with minimums will better prepare you to salvage a good performance on meet day, even if you're not feeling great.
Let's not forget that we train because we love it. If you're regularly feeling worse mentally after a workout that's a sign for change.
Autoregulation is hard and foggy - with minimums & maximums we can clear up the noise.
How To start
Take your rep PR's for the main lifts and set minimums at 90 percent and maximums at 105 percent. This is not a perfect system, but it's somewhere to start.
Back Squat 5RM Best = 125 kg
Minimum - 125 x 0.90 = 112 kg
Maximum = 125 x 1.05 = 131 kg
This isn't exclusive to powerlifting. This concept can also be applied to Olympic weightlifting (this is actually where I heard it from) bodybuilding or sport performance.
After using 90 and 105 percent as starting places you can start to customize your min/maxes.
It's important to pay attention during training. Concentrated effort, not just going through the motions.
As you pay attention you'll learn that some lifts have a smaller difference between min and max. For me this is the bench press. Other lifts have a bigger difference, for me this is the deadlift.
You'll also find where you land on the muscular strength to muscular endurance spectrum. More appropriately for weight training this can be referred to as maximal effort vs. multiple effort.
Based on your training background, psychology or even gender - you may thrive in a certain rep range. For example, my squat multiple effort strength is solid. If I calculate my estimated 1 rep max based on my best 5, 6 and 7 rep maxes it is always higher than my actual 1 rep max. This is likely due to my background in sports and a stint in bodybuilding where squatting in the 10-20 rep range was common place.
My deadlift training is quite the opposite. My rep strength always underestimates my actual ability for a 1 rep max. Contributing factors: limited time performing the lift (only about 2 years, vs 5+ for squatting), rarely pull over 5 reps, my short-arm build is not ideal for pulling and the high physiological arousal with a deadlift 1 rep max.
As you may see, what makes me naturally good at squatting and benching hurts my natural ability to deadlift. To learn more about this check out my article "The Myth of Disabilities: The Story of Steve Jobs."
My example of being a good multiple effort squatter and maximum effort deadlifter cannot be applied to everyone. You must pay attention to your own training and adjust training minimums and maximums accordingly.
Just like we always want our training maxes to increase over time, we want the same for minimums.
As you become stronger it's harder to become stronger. It's not as simple as showing up and trying hard to catch PR's. Intermediate and advanced athletes can't only chase the maximum. They must also push the minimum.
Focusing on pushing up the minimums will also increase the maximums, but at a lower cost, both psychologically and physiologically.
Think about it practically, if you can squat 125kg x 5 with everything going against you, while your best ever is 135 x 5, you should have the confidence that the best day ever should easily be better than 135.
Training sub maximally also helps build mental toughness. It's common for lifters to be intimidated by certain weights. For me, it was a 225 bench press. I would feel pretty good working up in the low 200 range, but slapping on 2 plates messed with my head, mainly because I hadn't done it in very often. It wasn't super heavy, not even a max effort single or double, but I was scared. To overcome this I would do high-volume training with this load, say 7 sets of 4 or 9 sets of 2. I desensitized myself to the weight.
A similar thing occurred with a 405 back squat. Even though the first time I put it on my back I hit it for 4 reps, I was still scared. Sure, I concentrated on pushing my maximum so 405 would feel lighter, but I also had spurts where I would just rep 405 to build mental toughness. Now, it's just whatever.
You aren't a machine. You can't ignore everything in life that ultimately affects your performance.
As you get better the bad and mediocre days outnumber the PR's.
Use minimums and maximums to maximize your training - both physiologically and physiologically.
Take Home Points
- Minimums and maximums better allow us to autoregulate, performing at the apex of the inverted U.
- Mins/maxes not only help training, but most important on competition day.
- Starting mins should be 90 percent of best, starting maxs 105 percent of best. Adjust accordingly based on individual.
- Push the minimums just like you push the maxs. Use the sub-max work to build mental toughness.