3 Rep Max Program Recap


Sep 8, 2023

 by Tyler Watling
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3 Rep Max Program Recap

I generally shy away from strength training. I like to work in the 6-12 rep range and focus on aesthetics, sue me. However, when I wrote this program for the members of Verve and our Hybrid class, I was excited about the plan and figured I should give it a shot. And because I hadn’t done strength training in a bit, I figured it might not be a bad idea to do the workouts to as a way to vet it before I threw the members into it.

At the same time, because I was trying this new workout plan, I thought I would mess with my diet in the process. For as long as I’ve tracked macros and stuck to a diet, it has always been moderate to high carb. Strength training done properly usually has longer rest periods and doesn’t always have a massive caloric expenditure. Because of this I decided for the first time to try a high fat and low(ish) carb diet.

Due to the successful outcomes of the program I wanted to write a recap of all its details, my methods in and out of the gym along with the results of the workouts, my body composition analyses and my thoughts overall since completing it. (You wouldn’t hear shit if it didn’t work)

The goal of this is to provide some insight on how I went about the design and execution. Believe it or not, there are some methods behind the madness.


Program Design

This was a 13-week program that was focus on increasing strength. The tests used to measure this were the Back Squat, Barbell Bench Press and Conventional Rack Pull. Strength is best measured at 5 reps or less, so I decided to have everyone test to determine their 3-rep maximum. This is the most amount of weight one can lift for a single set of 3 consecutive reps.

The baseline test was done week 1 and the retest week was done in week 13. There was a deload in week 7, but otherwise the remaining 10 weeks were all max effort days focused on improving strength in those 3 lifts.

The Hybrid class at Verve takes place at 5:30 and 6:30am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each day had its own focus on one of those lifts.

It should go without saying, but just to be safe, if you want to get stronger at a certain lift you are going to have to do it with heavy weight. Therefore, on each day of class the focus was on performing those 3 lifts at different sets and rep combos, but always working at 5 reps or less. There was an emphasis on rest periods (3+ minutes) so that as much weight as possible could be lifted each set resulting in improved strength.

Accessory movements were included after and done at the 6-15 rep range where form was more crucial than weight lifted. Some of the common exercises selected to compliment the main compound movements were:

  • Back Squat: Bulgarian split squats, walking lunges, Spanish squats, sled drags.
  • Bench Press: Shoulder press, dips, dumbbell pec flys, pushups.
  • Rack Pull: Bent-over barbell rows, barbell good mornings, GHD hamstring curls.

The focus each day of the week changed week to week so that if someone couldn’t make a certain day, they were not consistently missing the same target area. Regardless, no muscle group was directly trained more than 1 day a week with 3 workouts each week and 3 separate targets.


My Experience

The last few programs I have written for the Hybrid class, I also did myself. The only thing different about this one is that I performed all the written exercises the day before each class (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday). This was for 2 reasons. 1, I have generally worked out alone and it helps me lock in to get it done with the right intensity and focus. 2, because I hadn’t participated in strength training in a bit, I was able to use those days as a way to vet the workouts before the members did. If something was really beyond what I could do, then there is a good chance others would have the same problem. It was a good way to find the right level of work for everyone else.

As previously mentioned, the main compound movements were always done at 5 reps or less. This varied from straight sets (3 sets – 3 reps) to descending sets (4 sets – 4 reps, 3 reps, 2 reps, 1 rep) with ascending weight. There were also 2 weeks with a variation in the style of lift. These included supramaximal eccentrics along with overcoming isometrics. SparkNotes explanation of these:

  • Supramaximal eccentric - Loading the bar with more than your max and just performing the negative portion of a lift.
  • Overcoming Isometrics - Pushing or pulling a bar to a sticking point of the lift with max effort for 5-6 seconds.

These are great methods for pushing through strength plateaus and it was good to teach the members a new type of movement they hadn’t done before.

Given the fact that the compound movements were focused on moving as much weight as possible and offered plenty of rest, this part of the workout was not very taxing. The accessory exercises were done with higher reps and lower rest and that is where the muscles began to fatigue. This combo of heavy weight to start and moving to moderate weight with more reps resulted in a great pump and definitely gave the feeling of a successful workout (I was sore as hell every week).

Although it was taxing, there is always something satisfying of loading up a barbell with a lot of weight and moving it smoothly.


My Diet

I am a lunatic and track all of my diets in a Google sheet (red flag). I can go back about 5 years and look at every diet I have had and what exercise program it was paired with. Every single one of them had a common theme, moderate to high carb. This means out of all the calories I was consuming, at least 40% of them came from carbohydrates. In some of the plans this got as high as 56%.

This was the first time I diverted from that to try a low carb-high fat diet. No, this was not Keto (those are usually 5-10% caloric intake from carbs). My goal was to cut to about 20%. I made sure to still try to shoot for .9 grams of protein per pound of body weight and get a good fiber intake. And then the rest of my diet was made up of fat sources. I reserved my higher carb meal, white rice obviously, for the end of the night as a way to replenish glycogen stores from the day of activity.

You can see my standard day of eating above. Starting my day with protein, peanut butter and dark chocolate was a weird feeling, but surprisingly fantastic. I am a big advocate for “If It Fits Your Macros”, but not in the way that you can eat whatever the hell you want. Moreso in the way that at 10:30am every day I ate a burger patty with butter and cheese. No bun. Side note: Kerrygold butter and cheese is so elite. I should also note that I did a moderate version of intermittent fasting (I prefer the term time-restricted feeding) and I would eat for the first time at 8am and be done with dinner by 6pm. This meant training and coaching morning classes fasted which was a huge change.

It was definitely a strange switch to not be crushing chicken and rice nonstop and took some adjusting to, but this diet for sure had its perks.


My Results

My 13-week progress in 3 rep maxes were as follows.

Lift

Week 1

Week 13

Change

Back Squat

305 lbs.

330 lbs.

8.20%

Bench Press

280 lbs.

290 lbs.

3.57%

Rack Pull

355 lbs.

425 lbs

19.72%

 

Below are the results of my body composition analysis. The first one was taken on the 2nd week of the program and the last one was taken the day after my last test lift. This was done on the InBody 270 which we have at Verve.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s not DEXA which is the “gold-standard”, I get it. The results are relative and if done properly still offer valuable information.


Results Explained and Recap

Very hard to not call these last 13 weeks a major success. On top of my improvements, the members at Verve also saw major leaps in some categories. It is WILD what can be accomplished with a well-designed program!

Back Squat

I’m most proud of this one. In January of 2022 I suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain and a partial meniscus tear. Ended up lingering and an entire year later in January of 2023 I got surgery, a partial meniscus removal. Back squat has never been my strong point. My old ONE rep max was 320 lbs. so the fact that I got 330 for THREE is huge. I blame it on the fact that my legs are long (not an excuse guy though). And check the tape on that depth. It’s mint.

Bench Press

Small improvement here. Good to see, but it is already weirdly high compared to my lower body lifts so there was only so much room for gains. Pretty clear where I need to focus in my next program… This is what I get for being a douche in college and lifting upper body 4 days a week.

Rack Pull

This one is pretty glaring, but there is a very simple explanation. The first part is that I have never done rack pull before this program. Same as if you have never worked out before, the gains are going to come on quicker than they ever will. And second, I tested the first time without and a weight belt and re-tested with one. Makes a massive difference on the stress you’re able to put on your low back having the assistance of that bracing your core.

A grand total of 1,045 pounds lifted across all the 3 rep maxes. Nothing to be upset about there.

Low-Carb Diet

I really did not notice much change outside of the gym with this diet and did not have any issues adhering to it. I was still able to eat plenty of foods I enjoyed. I hit my protein and fiber goals and if anything, I ate a little bit better. Because I was not eating a bunch of rice and oatmeal like normal, I had to load up my other meals with vegetables and good fats. My lunch was so much damn cabbage and kimchi with avocado and olive oil. It turned out to be delicious and I felt like it helped my energy levels stay consistent throughout the day.

The big difference I did notice though, was in the gym. Specifically, at the end of the workouts. I had no problem getting through the first part of the day with the main compound lift. It was at the end when there started to be supersets and dropsets mixed in with shorter rest periods and moderate weight. These are pretty energy demanding and I have a feeling that the lower carb stores were to blame for that. Not necessarily a problem because I was still able to get through the key part of the workouts, but I know that if I stich to a different style program I may need to up my carb intake to meet that energy demand.

Body Composition Results

This is my favorite part. I’m an engineer so anytime I can combine numbers and data into fitness I’m pumped. The results need to be taken with a grain of salt because there is always some margin of error in these scans. I tried to keep the testing conditions identical so we will assume they are accurate as can be.

There are a couple key things that stand out. First, even on a high fat diet, I put on ZERO body fat. Zero point zero pounds. The joys of physcial activity and caloric intake management.

Second, the drop in weight came from both a reduction in water weight as well as some muscle mass. The muscle mass reduction could be a factor of the lower water weight, but also the lower calorie intake. With how active I was, I probably needed a higher caloric intake than I had.

Finally, some people might ask; If your muscle mass dropped then how did you get stronger? Great question. It is important to note that strength is a functional adaptation. This means that you are improving the muscle’s ability to produce a greater force output. This relates to its coordination of the fibers and generally improved biomechanics (technique). Strength does not equal size. In the progress pictures below, you will really not notice much of a change from week 1 to week 13. Maybe a little leaner, but nothing that screams strength gains.

Otherwise, there is not a whole lot that jumps off the page at me. About the results I expected.

Recap

One thing I would change about the program would be to have 1 extra day or another part of the days dedicated to upper body training. It seemed that the bench press was the lift people saw the least improvement in. This makes sense when you realize we were training legs in some form twice a week and our upper body (chest/shoulders) only once. The second would be to extend the program by 1-2 weeks and include a re-test in the middle. Then, we would be able to reevaluate our lifts and adjust the weight selection moving forward to the end of the program a bit better.

All in all, I felt that this program was successfully designed and the results for myself as well as the class tend to agree. Working with high weight (70%+ of max) at lower rep ranges (<5) will result in a greater force production by the muscles and increased strength gains. Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to take a rest week.

For any questions about the program or how you can incorporate anything from it into your lifestyle feel free to reach out to me on Instagram!