By Michael Krueger
I find keeping a list of personal records, or PRs, to be motivational and useful as well as a lot of fun. They tell the story of your progress, your discipline, and your dedication to your fitness.
So pull out your log book, take a look at what you have accomplished so far, and you may find out a little something about where you are headed as well.
Defining a PR
Most people think of lifting PRs in terms of the performance of a one-rep max. This is by far the norm in competition, not so much in your everyday training. In fact, there is very little reason for a nonpowerlifter to ever attempt a true one-rep max lift. That said, most people will try one at some point in their training life, and it will probably be on a bench press.
The best way to chase a PR for the bench press, and with less risk of hurting yourself, is to go for a 10-rep maximum. A 10-rep set certainly demonstrates muscular endurance, but if you work at it, you can move some impressive weight as well. For example, 10 reps at 225 pounds using the standard prediction tables gives you a single at 300. This is an excellent goal. I find that the extrapolation at 10 reps to one rep has an error of minus seven to 10 percent. But it really doesn't matter what the prediction might be, since this is now your PR for 10 reps.
But why stop at 10 reps? You can set records for 8, 6, 4, or any number of reps you happen to get at a particular weight. You can have a PR for the best 3 sets at each of those repetition schemes. Then there is a "total tonnage" record, which is the most pounds lifted in 3 or 5 or whatever number of sets you do. You can pick a weight, say 135 pounds, and see how many reps you can do and then try to exceed it after every eight weeks of training. My favorite is how many reps you can do at your body weight, since it demonstrates that you have a respectable weight-to-strength ratio. I even keep track of PRs by where the exercise was situated in the workout. Obviously, if the bench press was the first exercise done, the records would be different than if it was the fourth exercise and I had already "pre-exhausted" my muscles. Create your own PR criteria and set a record.
Of course, you may have PRs in endurance training as well. An easy and fun way to do that is to participate in races of various lengths. When you do that you are certain that the course is as long as it is supposed to be. I also like to keep running PRs for the different courses I train on. I maintain a list of my top 10 times on four different routes. I like to think of them as world records for that route and for my age. This is just my way of looking at them, and since they are all about me I can look at them in any context I choose.
You may keep separate records for each year, season, or location. I know one guy who even has his PRs broken down by what brand of shoe he was wearing (a bit too obsessive compulsive for my taste).
You can see there are a lot of different ways to keep records. Of course, what you actually get from them has to do with how you use them.
What They Really Mean
Sometimes personal records are used by trainees simply to see how they compare to the average. There are plenty of tables published that can be used to see how you rate compared to others in your age group or weight class. If that keeps you motivated, more power to you. I think it is more useful to use your PR as a benchmark; you compare it to how you did the last time you trained to measure your progress.
When you first begin training or start something completely new, you will set a PR almost every time you work out. This makes sense in that you aren't anywhere near you ultimate potential. After your first 10 workouts, you will have a "top 10" list. It's very exciting to set a record every time you work out, but this is not sustainable over the long run. After you have been training for a while, you will begin turning in times or lifts that aren't good enough to crack your top 10. This is to be expected and is not cause for concern. At that point you stay the course and work hard, and occasionally you will have a workout that makes the list. Then you'll get excited all over again.
While setting a new PR is thrilling and motivating, you can also look at PRs in a more utilitarian way. I see PRs as a gauge to determine how well a workout is designed. Look at what you've been doing and see if the progression is keeping you on track to meet your stated goals. If you are improving on schedule, then your program is working for you.
What if you are struggling and not improving or, conversely, you are easily improving all the time? If you are going week after week setting a PR in every workout, perhaps your progression scheme is too slow and the workout is too easy. In this case, you need to be challenged more. If you start a new eight-week program, hit a PR after just three weeks, begin backsliding, lack enthusiasm, or are constantly fatigued, perhaps the workout is too hard or the progression is too fast. Either way, comparing what you are doing now to what you've accomplished previously will give you clues as to what the problem might be and how you can fix it for the next time.
Ego vs. Motivation
The fitness process is what PRs really speak to. They help you to understand whether or not your workouts are effective. PRs measure improvement, not self-worth. If they become the be all and end all of your training, you will probably burn out or get hurt or both. Oftentimes gym rats will throw around their "numbers" just to stroke their ego. A well-rounded, process-based lifter will have good PRs in a number of lifts as well as in an endurance activity. An ego-based lifter will have one specialty (usually the bench press) and is more than happy to tell you all about it and about how much better he is than you and why. Avoid the ego lifter; he builds himself up by putting you down.
Use your PRs as a tool and you can make your workouts much more focused, enjoyable, and effective. Seeing the numbers improve over time will help you to stay on track or make needed changes, give you quantifiable accomplishments, and keep you motivated as the years go by.
A PR is just a number, but the work behind getting them is real; be proud of what you've accomplished.
... Now, can you give me one more rep?
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFCâs FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.
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