Max-testing has long been a staple of football programs at every level. Often, the first order of business every pre-season is to have all the athletes prove their physical ability through a series of movement and lift tests. Athletes prove their hard work over the offseason, demonstrate their various strengths to coaches, and build a common culture of teamwork and dedication.
Maxing is something of a tradition, but is it really a valuable tool? Should we be doing things differently? Let’s take a quick look.
For a head coach, there are some very real benefits to testing your athletes on core lifts, least of which is actually assessing the strength of your athletes.
Firstly, like a conditioning test (read our previous article on those here), the promise of a max test at the start of a season motivates an athlete to dedicate himself to the weight room in the off-season. Wanting to impress his coaches, as well as his teammates, an athlete will prepare for the test by committing to the team’s training program. In a sense, we are creating an aura of accountability. Your preparation, or lackthereof, will be exposed when the test rolls around. The test forces the athletes to hold themselves, and those around them, accountable.
Beyond simple accountability, maxes grow a culture of competition within your training and your program as a whole. Athletes, by their very nature, are programmed to fight and claw for “points”. They want to be better than the previous version of themselves, better than their peers, and they will strive to get there. When your athletes compete together on a daily basis, you’ve created a team that wants and knows how to win.
Looking at this purely from a strength coach’s perspective, it’s a bit easier to see the downside of max testing.
Firstly, it’s not easy to facilitate and it takes up lots of valuable time. Testing requires multiple coaches who know what they are doing, individually assessing dozens of athletes, often over multiple days or sessions. No matter how you structure it, your athletes will essentially be forced to take a week off from their preparatory workouts. Usually, this testing occurs the week or so prior to the beginning of preseason. If your athletes are first focused on max testing, then on the first week or two of preseason practices – the result is a significant stretch of days or weeks without serious training. You end up having an off period between off-season and in-season workouts, right at the point of the year where it matters most!
On top of the time demand, we weigh the cost-to-benefit ratio from a physical perspective. Athletes, when forced to do max-testing will push themselves harder than normal, attempting weights they may not normally be comfortable with. Now, with proper form and good coaching this doesn’t mean all athletes are at risk for acute injury. But what about the athletes that didn’t commit? You already know they didn’t, thus the accountability piece is no longer on the table – the test has already failed in that regard. Furthermore, those unprepared athletes are more susceptible to injuring themselves during testing. At the very least, they will be outrageously sore for the next week or so – their bodies just aren’t ready for heavy weighted movement. Even the small chance that one of your committed athletes pushes himself just a bit too hard may not be worth it when you already know the relevant results.
One way to get the best of both worlds, without paying the costs of either, is through a system of progressive and continual testing. Many elite training programs incorporate this process of max management through what, at PLT4M, we call weekly “work sets”.
Essentially, each week the athletes have a specific goal for their core lifts, say 3 sets of 5 reps at 80% after proper warm-up sets. If an athlete completes all 3 sets with technical competency, he or the coach bumps his max for the corresponding lift up 5 pounds. If he just misses completion, the weight stays the same, and if he falls very short, the weight is adjusted down. The next week’s workout is calibrated on this new value, and the process is repeated. Thus, what you get is a weekly reaffirming of the athlete’s current status and progress through the program. On top of achieving better results due to weekly specificity, this generates daily competition. Athletes want to progress, want to beat each other, want to get better. Kids work together, and build the culture of winning you want as a coach.
If you follow a good program, and accurately track player maxes via regular work sets, you will find that come the end of your off-season workouts, the max values on paper are actually quite accurate. Thus, there is no need to waste a week testing. You have developed accountability and fostered competition year-round, and have built the best athletes you can.