<b>REP:</b> Maximum bench press weight is a virtually irrelevant number, but one that can mean so much to men.

REP: Maximum bench press weight is a virtually irrelevant number, but one that can mean so much to men. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

THERE are certain measurements that define us as men. Yes, there's that one. Then there's the maximum amount of weight you can raise in a bench press in a single stroke, known to red-faced, horizontally herniating gym rats everywhere as the "Max" -- as in, "What's your Max?"

The Max -- capitalized when used in the sense of its Platonic ideal -- is actually a bit of an exercise throwback, a weight-room holdover from a less enlightened time of physical fitness, the anaerobic equivalent of Cold War "throw weight." As a practical matter, it's a virtually irrelevant number unless, of course, you plan to push your car to work. As for aesthetics, if you want Abercrombie & Fitch pectorals, you'd be far better off repping out with a lighter weight. You want a major man-rack? Do 200 push-ups a day.

Only bodybuilders, football players, power-lifters and other scary, thick-necked beefalos really need to care about the Max.

And yet, the Max has its own fascinations. It's a fairly reliable measure of physical strength -- many police and fire departments have a bench-press requirement of their fitness test, usually indexed by body weight, age and gender. For example, an 18- to 29-year-old man might be required to lift 110% of his body weight (203 pounds for a candidate who weighs what I do, 185 pounds). A 46-year-old would probably be obliged to lift only 80% of his body weight -- 148 pounds.

Typically, though, the Max is an unequivocal number, a straightforward, highly dynamic test of weight-room heroism. To know your Max is to know the satisfaction of adding weight to the bar after your training partner -- with an air of cool and casual superiority that says to him, quietly, "wuss."

The Max has an ineffable Arnold-ness about it. Nobody cares about your V-Max (cardiopulmonary efficiency) or Pilates stroke count. Please, spare us your breathless tales of holding the salty pretzel pose in yoga class. What kind of iron can you push?

Given the Max's exalted place in gym culture, it's no wonder older guys blow out their rotator cuffs on the bench with such regularity. In my gym, you can actually hear it -- from out of nowhere the sound of crashing steel plates, then the keening wail, like a wolf caught in a leg trap. It's like bells and angels' wings, except when you hear the sound it means another orthopedic surgeon is going to get a boat.

Like all other measures of physicality, the Max declines with age. The good news, however, is that the Max is less susceptible to decrepitude than other performance metrics. At 46, I can still bench as much as I could when I was 26 -- I think my lifetime Max is 250 pounds -- it just takes me several more weeks of training to reach that plateau.

Indeed, the Max would seem a resolute outcropping of youthful virility in a rising tide of flab and fallen hair. For this reason, you often see Viagra-generians preoccupied with the Max to the exclusion of other exercises. In my gym there are several old guys who have the pecs of a 20-year-old, even though their keisters are hanging down around their tube socks.

The Max has other satisfactions, such as fellowship. You can't know how much weight you can lift on the bench without risking what's referred to in the gym as "failure." Failure means dropping the bar across your chest and neck, a sensation like being executed by a very dull guillotine. For this reason, you always need a spotter when "Max-ing," a workout buddy who stands behind the rack, shouting encouragement -- All you! You da man! and so on -- while bracing to catch the bar.

I think this is one reason I never fixated on the Max. Not that I'm antisocial. I just don't like lying on the bench with some guy's crotch over my head.

Another intoxicating feature of the Max has to do with physical proportion. As men get older, their waists inevitably thicken, turning their splendid V-shaped torsos into less-than-splendid H's, or even ignominious O's. The body-sculpting solution: Pack on the muscle in the chest and shoulder girdle, thus recapturing some of the taper of younger days.

Chasing the Max -- with heavy weight and fewer reps -- is a recipe for bulking upstairs. There are, of course, limits. I don't look good with anything more than about a B cup.

There are certainly ways to maintain the Max. Smarter routines and better nutrition, for example. I personally am an advocate of creatine and other quasi-legal "nutra-ceuticals." Ask me about my back-ne.

Ultimately, though, the Max doesn't comfort men so much as haunt us. There are no excuses for declining performance, no places to hide. It's not like they are making gym equipment out of denser materials these days, like depleted uranium. If you can't get it up like you used to, well, that's the way the fragile male ego crumbles. One day, your Max will become your min.

Lift it while you can.

health@latimes.com