When it comes down to how hard you train, folks mostly judge it by doing more exercises per session, spending a long time in the gym, lifting only heavyweights, screaming, etc. This is common everywhere in the world. You may get a different advice if you ask a bunch of competitive bodybuilders or strength athletes, but I think in general, the average lifter doesn’t train as hard as they could or should.
What does training hard actually mean then? Well, keep reading the whole article to find out the real deal.
A recent study, which took 160 males who typically performed the bench press; they were asked what load they use for multiple sets of 10 reps. The researchers then had them take that load to failure after a series of guided warm-ups. Over 40% of the lifters did 17+ reps, & the remaining lifters did between 10-16 reps. So a large number of these lifters is training too far from a failure. If you normally do sets of 10 reps with a given load but could do 17 or more reps if you go to failure; there isn’t really any mechanical loading, which is the stimulus for hypertrophy. The answer here is to do more reps during all sets, say 14-15 reps, or add more load to the bar so that 10 reps lands you about 2-3 reps from failure on average. For this study and its members, you could make the argument that excitability and motivation could have been higher at the time of testing leading to more reps, but this probably doesn’t explain the large variance in reps all that much.
And sure, you could make the argument that not everyone’s goal is the same nor have the same level of ambition to achieve a certain goal (whether physique or strength related). But, in my opinion, if you’re going to be in the gym, you might as well squeeze out all that you can every single workout session, even if you’re just in the gym for 30-minutes twice a week, otherwise, you’re just wasting precious time. This doesn’t mean going to failure every set, as this will impede recovery, subsequently reducing the amount of weight you can lift, reps you can do, frequency and volume you can handle. And yes, going to failure will likely improve hypertrophy, but the benefits are likely reached 1-2 reps before failure.
If you’re leaving much more than 4 reps in the tank, it’s almost a warm-up, or what I like to call as “junk volume”. the volume which is not helping in creating the maximum adaptations to cause maximum increases in size and strength. There is a place for leaving 5+ reps left in the tank, such as a de-load, taper, warm up set, or when training for power (speed work); but for the purposes of a working set as it relates to gaining muscle or strength, you need to put in more effort.
The force-velocity relationship shows us that velocity in a set must actually slow down in order to achieve mechanical tension, which is what causes a muscle to grow. It’s important to point out that purposefully slowing down the concentric does not work, because this reduces force. You need to try as hard as you can to lift the weight up, and velocity will slow down when all of your muscle fibres have been recruited and becoming fatigued. It is then your job to finish the set just short of failure.
This is easier said than done, and whether or not you do this exactly, depends on the rep range and exercise in question. Let’s take a look at exercises first shall we:
EXERCISES AND REPETITIONS TO FAILURE:
When it comes to big compound movements that are physiologically and psychologically exhausting, we want to be a bit more careful about training to failure, especially when you’re talking about low repetitions. So for exercises such as barbell squats and deadlifts, you’re probably better off leaving 2-4 reps in the tank on most sets. By your last set as you become more fatigued, your last set may be a 1 RIR (1 rep in reserve) and that’s completely fine.
For isolation exercises or other compound lifts that are not as demanding, such as pulldowns, cable rows, leg press etc. You still don’t want to abuse failure, as mentioned before this can hinder recovery and not only affect the rest of your exercises for the day but also the following days or weeks, believe it or not. So for all these exercises, 1-3 reps from failure are where you won’t be. If you’re feeling ambitious you could take the last set on a given exercise to failure. But it probably isn’t important.
REP RANGE AND REPETITIONS TO FAILURE:
The reason a lifter might train too far away from a failure could be either:
- The lifter experiences pain when training and stop early; or
- They depreciate what they can truly lift.
Pain is a big one, if you primarily train in a high rep range, there is one big caveat to remember, high reps BURN. Have you ever taken a set of leg extensions all the way up to 20+ reps? You probably stopped because you couldn’t handle the pain anymore. But how many do you think you could have gotten had you went to failure until you could no longer complete another rep with full range of motion? If you stopped at 22 reps, yet true failure would have been at 30 reps, you just cut yourself short.
Now compare that to a set of 12 reps on leg extensions, you could apparently more easily tell if you were close enough to fail to stop the set or not. Does this mean you should ditch all high rep work? Not necessarily, moderate rep ranges are not immune from this either. You may very well have stopped at 12 reps thinking you probably had 2 left in the tank, but perhaps you really had 5 left in the tank? It’s entirely possible, and you won’t know until you know.
To emphasise this further, a few days ago I was in the gym and was beginning my triceps extension exercise. Since I was writing this article, I decided to choose a load I “assumed” I could do for 30-40 reps and decided to go to failure. Given, I’ve don’t typically use this rep range but it does make a point. By rep 40, it was hurting pretty good, most people would have stopped here. By rep 50, my triceps were about to split, to keep going you would have to be some kind of psychopath. I went all the way to 55 reps before I could not handle the pain anymore, but I did not reach failure. How many did I have left? 2, 6, 15.. I don’t know, the weight was too light to tell. But that’s my point, you don’t know until you know.
HOW TO ASSURE 100% YOU ARE ALMOST ALWAYS TRAINING HARD ENOUGH?
I recently started barbell hip thrusts again after nearly a month off the lift, since I’m building other parts up, I can’t rely on my old numbers and percentages to choose my working weight. So I had to rely on RPE (or RIR). I chose a given load and went on to do sets of 6 reps, I grappled a bit, but I did question whether my intensity was sufficient, given prior to my 1 month lay off, I could have done this without breaking a sweat, and since it was my 2nd week and third time back hip-thrusting again, I felt I could do more. So I took my 4th set to failure and I legit failed the 9th rep, meaning I was training with around 2-4 reps in reserve, perfect. Now in my own case, next week I will probably be able to add an additional 20lbs, given I’m not starting from scratch, rather building back to previous levels of strength, so the same load next week will leave me with too many reps in reserve.
But this is what I recommend you to do. On ANY given lift, if there is any chance you feel you could be doing more, go on to do your initial sets and reps, but on the last set, take it until you literally fail, ask for a spot if need be. If you got 3+ reps on the last set, you should probably be doing more reps or weight. Think about it, if you did 3 sets of 8 with 300lbs, yet got 11 reps on the 4th set, just how far from failure were you training the initial 3 sets? Each following set you fatigue a little bit more and so your initial 3 sets might have been 4-6 from failure. So in other words, pretty much only 3rd and last set were true “working sets” that will aid in real progress. I do understand that your mind can play a big role in this; perhaps on your last set since you know it was to be done to failure, your excitability was higher, music a little louder etc. allowing you to bang out a few extra reps than you otherwise would have, but let’s try to avoid that for the goals of this test.
In general, your last set that was done to failure should be about 1-2 reps more than the previous sets. Even if you’re going for volume, say 5 sets of 10 reps on bench press, if you’re training 4 reps from failure your initial sets, by the last set you’re bound to have at least 2 left. Going to failure on the last set is just a substitute to ensure you are training with sufficient intensity across all sets since many of us use the same load and rep target across all sets for a given exercise. Once you’ve identified that you are or aren’t training with sufficient intensity for a given exercise, you can either leave it be or adjust reps or load up/down if need to be.
As you become a more experienced lifter and learn how it feels to truly train just shy of failure, you’ll be able to carry on in your training without having to go to failure all the time. If you’re done warming up and your reps are still moving relatively fast, keep going.
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Don’t forget that effort isn’t everything. You still have to do enough volume for YOU, train with proper form, a full range of motion, manage fatigue (in large part done by bypassing excessive failure), and manage your training stress accordingly throughout the week.
Yashovardhan Singh is a fitness coach with GetSetGo Fitness and a former national football player. He likes to keep a no-nonsense approach to fitness by applying scientific literature to provide results to his clients. Reach him at [email protected] for coaching.