It’s commonly thought that the hardest worker in the gym working to failure is clearly going to get the most gains, right? If you have the ability to train to failure, then surely getting that extra rep or two every set (aka max effort training) is going to lead to more muscle growth and strength. But when it comes to how hard you should be training, it seems that training smarter instead of just training harder leads to better gains with less effort. But just how hard should you train? Well to answer this question, let’s start with the theory behind training to failure every set of your workout.
Working to failure is thought to be the best way to train for muscle growth for a few main reasons. First, failure training would lead to more growth given the maximal motor unit recruitment and mechanical tension it would experience. Second, similar to motor unit recruitment, muscle protein synthesis is lower when you don’t go to failure vs when you do. Lastly, given the positive relationship we see between workout volume and muscle growth, it would seem that pushing each set to failure would increase the overall workout volume you’re doing and lead to more growth.
But training to failure every set comes with a cost. Not only is it unenjoyable for most and requires a great deal of motivation to do every workout, but it’s also very fatiguing on the body. This delays recovery and your muscle damage can easily carry over into your next workouts for the week. When done over long periods, it eventually can lead to a state of “overtraining” which results in a reduction in your anabolic hormones and basically just creates an environment in your body that is detrimental to building muscle.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the theory behind training to failure. First, while motor unit recruitment and muscle activation does increase as you approach failure in a set, it seems to plateau around 3-5 reps shy from failure. Second, if you train close enough to failure, you are able to still maximize muscle protein synthesis but without much of the extra fatigue you get when you train to failure. Lastly, the muscular fatigue caused by going to failure in a set causes your performance to suffer in successive sets, leading to less volume overall.
So, when it comes to the question of how hard should you train, it seems that taking your sets just shy of failure is your best bet. However, it’s crucial that you get close enough to failure during your sets in order to still maximize growth, and that doesn’t mean that your training becomes “easy”, because that’s inferior for growth.
Unfortunately, most people underestimate the amount of reps they can actually do for max effort training and end up training too easy as a result. You can ensure that you’re actually pushing hard enough during your sets for an exercise, is to dedicate a day where you use a spotter and try to get as many reps as you can during each set. Add these reps together to get a total, then divide this number by the number of sets you did. This number then gives you a good indication of what you’ll want to aim for next time.
All in all, it’s clear that constantly pushing for that extra rep or two isn’t always a good thing, as it provides very little additional stimulation for the huge jump in fatigue that you get in return. So train hard, but if you want to see the best results in the long run, then you need to train smart as well. And for a step-by-step program that applies this and takes care of all the guesswork for you by showing you exactly how to optimally train AND eat week after week in order to build muscle as efficiently as possible with science, then simply take the analysis quiz below to discover which specific program is best for your body and where it’s currently at: https://builtwithscience.com
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