By Paul Milano
Training is the intertwining of intensity and volume while maximizing technical efficiency. But the underlying driver of progress is and always will be effort.
You could have a great program and get to the gym consistently, but if you are not exerting yourself, you may be losing out on some much-wanted positive adaptation.
A good program will have a variety of intensities. There will be days that are meant to be hard, and days that are intended to be easy. It is important for your level of effort to match the intended stimulus and to keep your hard days hard and your easy days easy. . At the end of the day, it is all about creating a stress response large enough to force adaptation and managing fatigue to avoid overtraining and injury.
You Don’t Train As Hard as You Think
The problem is most people don’t train hard enough to elicit maximal adaptation! This study showed that people often underestimate the weight they can use by a longshot.
In this study, 160 recreationally trained males that regularly performed the bench press reported what loads they normally used for ten reps. Then, they came to the lab and tested how many reps they could perform with their reported ten rep load when pushed to failure.
On average, the lifters performed 16 ± five reps with their 10-rep training load. What is even worse is, 13.8% of the participants performed more than 20 reps with the load they reported regularly using for 10 reps!
Resistance training effort, or how close to muscular failure one trains, has been shown to be a crucial variable in hypertrophy and strength adaptations. The closer you get to failure, the more muscle fibers need to be activated to maintain force production. As you perform more reps, your muscles are exposed to extended periods of time under tension. The longer time under tension the greater the tension stimulus. We know that muscle fibers grow when exposed to a tension stimulus, but how much stimulus is needed to elicit growth? If you lift heavy enough, this tension stimulus is present from the start. Peak muscle activity levels are achieved almost immediately in a set when training with loads in the ~80-90%+ 1RM ranges (read that study here)
You can also obtain an adequate tension stimulus by doing high repetition sets. However, you will need to get closer to failure to achieve the same outcomes since the loads are not heavy enough to recruit the majority of muscle fibers off the bat. No matter how you slice it, there are no shortcuts.
So, Should I Train to Failure?
Training to failure can ensure maximal fiber recruitment on every single set, but it can also cause greater fatigue and muscle damage, which could negatively impact your ability to recover and therefore the volume of training needed for maximal adaptations. This is another crucial aspect we will discuss later! On the other hand, regularly training very far from failure, as the subjects in the study above had done, even with a high frequency and volume of training, may not facilitate maximal adaptations.
For the most part, we should avoid training to failure, but it has its time and place and can be beneficial when used strategically. Training to failure could be useful in specific situations such as for accessory movements that carry a lower risk of injury and are easier to recover from or when used strategically within a training program so as not to affect performance on subsequent sets and exercises that day or, more importantly, down the road on further training sessions.
From looking at recent studies, once equated for volume, It would seem training to failure and training near failure result in similar outcomes. When we are looking at volume, we are looking at sets x reps x weight used. In these studies, they looked at going to failure vs. just approaching failure (1-3 reps shy of failure). The key finding here is that the results were only similar when the training shy of failure group did extra sets to make up for the reps they didn’t do by not going to failure thus equating for volume. It has yet to be looked at how far from failure you can go and still see positive adaptation. But It would make sense that to see the most progress, you will want to train as close to failure as you can adequately recover from. This will ensure maximal muscle fiber recruitment in the smallest amount of sets!
Hey now, I thought this article was about not training hard enough? While training to failure is not necessary, training close to failure is, and from looking at the study above, many of us are too far from that mark!
Does It Matter How Heavy or Light I Go?
Above we looked at how high intensities (how heavy the weight you are lifting) achieve peak muscle activity from the start. Training at these higher intensities is critical to see maximal progress, but you can’t lift heavy all the time. So how light can you lift and still make progress?
The first study we will look at is a meta-analysis of the effects of training above 60% of your one-rep max and below 60% of your one-rep max. It showed that significant strength and hypertrophy gains could be made training below 60% of your 1RM as well as above 60% of your 1 RM, but when looking at strength, it seems that loads above 60% produce significantly larger strength gains. So if strength is your goal, you must lift heavy!
As far as gaining muscle is concerned, there did not seem to be a significant difference between training at low loads vs. training at high loads once the volume is equated, but how light can you go and still make gains?
This study looked at just that and found you can train at as little as 30-40% of your one-rep max can elicit similar muscle growth as training at higher intensities but again only when the volume is equated. It would seem training any lighter then this would not be useful.
Volume, volume, volume (within reason)
So, training to failure doesn’t seem to have a considerable effect once the volume is equated and intensity didn’t seem to have a significant impact once volume was equated; it would seem volume is the key to progress. Let’s look at how exercise effort and intensity have a direct effect on volume:
- Athlete A is training three reps shy of failure, and athlete B is training one rep shy of failure. According to the studies above, they should make similar progress, but let’s look at this in a real-life situation. Athlete A and Athlete B are performing the same exercises with equal weights. Athlete A stops at eight reps each set and athlete B stops at ten reps each set as he is pushing two reps closer to failure. They both perform four sets and move on, but now athlete A has only completed 32 reps while athlete B has performed 40, therefore, accruing more volume and seeing more gains. Training closer to failure will allow you to accumulate more volume in a given time!
- Athlete A is training at 40% of his 1RM, and athlete B is training at 80% of his 1RM. Athlete A would have to perform twice as many reps each set to achieve the same amount of volume lifted. When asked if you would like to complete five sets of 16 or 5 sets of 8, I bet more people would choose five sets of 8 because of the extreme discomfort that results from cranking out set after set of high rep low load sets. Training at higher intensities makes rep ranges more manageable.
So, if the volume is one of the keys to progress, how much volume do we really need?
This study looked at the frequency of training and muscle hypertrophy and found that training muscle groups 2-3 times per week resulted in more significant gains than training the muscle once per week. It also found that more significant increases were made with 10+ sets per muscle group. If you are only training twice a week or less, it is hard to get that kind of frequency (and thus the adequate amount of total volume) for each muscle group. However, there needs to be a marriage of what’s optimal and what’s practical depending on your current conditions.
But what about strength?
This study showed that strength gains could be made at both high and low volumes, but the higher volume group (5+ sets per week) made gains faster.
If you are not making progress, you would like first try to increase your exercise volume in a step-wise fashion.
In theory, the more volume you can do, the better. A recent meta-analysis on this subject shows just that:
Here’s a sneak peek at a meta-analysis the Bayesian research team is conducting on the optimal training volume. If you look only at trained individuals, it seems the more volume you do, the better, all the way up to 30+ sets per muscle group per week.
In practice, however, these extremely high training volumes will lead to overtraining and injury. Your ability to recover from training would have to be extremely high to tolerate that high of volume. The key is to train with as much volume as you can adequately recover from and avoid “junk volume”. The term “junk volume” refers to going above and beyond the point of maximal return on our investment, hence why it is to be avoided if we want our available resources to go towards positive adaptations and not always having to dig ourselves out of a recovery hole.
Don’t Sweat the Technique
Another critical area that requires constant effort is technique. This topic is important enough to warrant its separate blog post, but since it requires so much effort, I thought it was worthwhile to make a note here. Attention to detail on every set is key to optimal progress. This goes from using a full range of motion to putting yourself in the best positions to move the most weight. You need to put constant effort into refining your technique and positional strategies to make continual long-term progress. Additionally, proper technique and execution allows you to get more work done in less time, making you a more efficient killer in the weight room.
When looking at effort as a whole, it’s important to understand the synergy between training intensity and volume while also improving your ability to move as efficiently as possible to maximize the effects of manipulating either variable. Moreso, the main idea that I wanted to construe is that effort is a culmination of all of the different factors that could possibly come into play when it comes to increasing performance in the gym or in competition. But how do you know if you’re putting your effort where it matters?
Here are 5 Ways To Start Increasing Your Effort Levels Where it Counts
1. Perform an honest self evaluation to see if your training is more show than it is go (you know, for the ‘gram). The truth is that what you think is “hard work” could very likely be just going through the motions. And for the record, hard work is not “leaving it all in the weightroom” or some other psuedo hardcore nonsense. It’s approaching your training with the right intent, it’s having a good diet and lifestyle, and it’s avoiding the things that you know will detract you from your training goals. You need to be brutally honest with yourself, take some ownership, and begin to implement the right changes to correct course.
2. Monitor Your Progress: the ultimate determining factor in whether or not you’re working hard enough at the stuff that matters are the records that you keep of your training outcomes and objective quantifiable measurements. If you’re not not maintaining a training journal or keeping track of your data, then how do you determine what you need to get better at?
Obviously the more advanced you are or the higher your training age, the fewer and far between true personal records will be, but if you’re at that point then guess what? You probably already train hard and will continue to do so. But the rest of you? The numbers don’t lie. Keep meticulous records and use your progress (or lack thereof) to see if and where you need to drive more effort.
3. Learn to gauge your effort level via the use of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). While originally used in Endurance circles, the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion was a 6-20 scale based upon the relative intensity of a given bout or training session, with 6 being no effort at all and 20 being a maximal effort. In recent years, the strength world has adopted RPE thanks to the likes of elite powerlifter and coach Mike Tuchscherer. Using a scale of 1-10, lifters can gauge the difficulty of a set based upon how many more reps they feel they could have completed. This method of autoregulation will allow you to draw correlations between your actual effort and your perceived effort (don’t call it a “10” when you had 4 reps left in the tank).
Additionally, RPE can be used to gauge the overall effort level of a training session. While RPE will differ slightly from person to person, over time you will begin to notice trends within your training and make adjustments accordingly.
4. Be consistent. Effort in the gym sometimes gets confused as being these single herculean workouts displayed proudly on social media with expressions like “crushed it!”. What those people fail to realize is that effort is a long term game, and it is not momentary effort that matters, but putting the work in day after day, month after month, year after year by executing a well formulated game plan – which means knowing when to push and knowing when to back off.
5. Elevate your game by joining a gym or finding training partners that are better than you or consider hiring a coach. Maybe you’re a big fish in a small pond and no one ever tells you what you’re not good at or makes you do the things that you otherwise would avoid? The right environment, training partners, or coach can be the difference between you staying complacent or ascending to the next level. Furthermore, a good coach not only provides you with programming and acts as your ‘training stress manager’, they will also be the objective lens for your decision making and can help keep you out of your own way so that you can put more effort where it counts.
There Are No Shortcuts
In conclusion, the more you can train and adequately recover from the faster you will make progress. Sometimes we can get caught up in doing what the research suggests is “best” , but at the end of the day, we still need to be training hard enough to stimulate the adaptive processes. Getting stronger and building muscle is the patience man’s (or woman’s) game and there are no shortcuts. If you put in the work towards the right things for a long time, you will reap the rewards.
About the Author
Paul Milano is the founder of Resilient Training Lab in North Haven, CT where he coaches athletes of all levels and abilities. Paul graduated from UCONN with a Bachelor of Science from the Department of Kinesiology. He had a concentration in Strength and Conditioning, with a minor in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport. Paul is also a competitive powerlifting with a PR total of 1795 lbs with a 650 lb Squat, 435 lb bench and a 735 lb deadlift. Paul is passionate about health and wellness and always learning, but he also is motivated to empower people to understand their bodies and push themselves to be better in tune with their abilities.