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Fitness Q&A

Know Your Bench-Press Limits


Question: I lift weights at home alone at 4:30 a.m., and I don't have anyone around to spot me. What would be my maximum weight, and how can I test it on the bench press without risking injuries?


Olema, Calif.

Answer: Let's look at this mathematically. The amount of weight we can lift 10 times is roughly three-fourths of the maximum any of us could lift once. So if you can do 10 repetitions at 100 pounds, your maximum is likely to be about 135 pounds (100 divided by 0.75). Although this is great in theory, I wouldn't put it into practice without a spotter, because the intensity of our strength-training sessions varies from day to day. If you're particularly tired one day, for example, you could get hurt.

But training to failure (performing an exercise until you physically can't push or pull the weight anymore) isn't the only way to gain strength. For example, because an old inner-ear injury now limits the amount of heavy weight I can lift, I've been using pre-exhaustion training (supersets to build maximum muscle without the need for maximum weight) to gain strength. Here's an example:

* Load a weight you can lift safely six times onto your bench-press bar.

* Choose a second move that isolates your chest (such as dumbbell flies) and use a weight that will let you do 12 repetitions.

* Do five repetitions of the bench press, then immediately do six to 10 chest flies.

* Rest two to three minutes and repeat both exercises.

Aim to do four sets.


Stephanie Oakes is the fitness correspondent for Discovery Health Channel and a health/fitness consultant. Send questions by e-mail to

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