How Hard Should You Workout To Build Muscle? (AVOID THIS MISTAKE!)

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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Written article:

Should You Be Training To Failure? (AVOID THIS MISTAKE!)

Filmed by: Bruno Martin Del Campo

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57 thoughts on “How Hard Should You Workout To Build Muscle? (AVOID THIS MISTAKE!)

  1. Jeremy Ethier says:

    Are you guilty of training too hard or not training hard enough? Hope you enjoyed this one – comment below what other topics you’d like me to cover and I’ll get on it! Cheers!

    • John Kelly says:

      I’m 100% guilty of this for years. I can attest it does some with a cost, wellbeing and energy levels outside the gym, the number of sessions you can do per week, and long term strength gains. I was looking at Mike Israetel and Jeff Nippard covering this topic during the lockdown, exactly what Jeremy is covering here.
      I’ve discussed central nervous system fatigue with EVERY qualified trainer i know, for years, and they knew nothing about this issue.
      There is a sweet spot between intensity, volume and frequency. There’s a flip side however. Dorians protocol allowed him to train 4 or even just 3 times week and 45 minutes, that would definitely suit a busy individual. And mentally focusing yourself for 1 set has a phenomenal psychological effect, that simply cannot be sustained over 3 sets. In addition Dorians protocol severely limited drop sets, rest pauses etc. So it was to failure, but not “run the rack drop sets” failure.

  2. Steel Mongoose says:

    I was the hardest worker in the gym, until I realized that I was training like a young man on steroids. Now I train like a smart older guy. Turns out that some moderation and recovery works.

    • Steel Mongoose says:

      @D. Torres Except that there are physiological limits that you should observe. If you do more damage to the muscle than your body can repair, you’re not getting stronger anymore.

    • D. Torres says:

      Steel Mongoose that’s why I said it’s not physically advantageous. And on top of that how do you know you’re working yourself too hard? Just because it hurts or because you’re gasping for breath during your workout? That’s what’s supposed to happen if you want optimal results. Overtraining is if you train the same muscle constantly it’s not the same as consistently training to failure

  3. Raheem says:

    Really hoping Greg Doucette makes a thorough review of this vid. I don’t see why he’d disagreeee with anything , but want to know his opinion as he is my certified doctor

    • Jakub B says:

      ​@Sun of a beach Thank you for daily portion of slogans and dogma. Unfortunatly you’ve missed the point of my message, because i’ve been pointing out flaws in logic. The fact that you say you should train differently as an advanced lifter doesn’t mean you’re instantly right when you come with a different approach.
      By the way isn’t Greg the one saying that most of his viewers are begginers AKA not advanced lifters? Shouldn’t he then teach stuff that works for begginers?
      There’s actually a good source of this kind of informations for advanced athletes made by Christian Thibadau who has been training professional athletes for over 20 years. Right now can’t really find that particular video, but he’s against going to failure on compound lifts too.
      edit: here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFl1iSQOtCw

    • Sun of a beach says:

      @Jakub B That’s a nice strawman argument you pulled out there, Whenever Greg addresses beginners, he tells them to not go CRAZY HARD on exercises since they should focus on important things such as form going through the motions is enough. Also, 1 or 2 hard sets to failure with the majority being 3 reps shy of failure A SESSION won’t hinder your recovery at all. Well tbh you sound like you’ve never seen a Greg’s video, or you just hating to look cool.

    • Jakub B says:

      @Sun of a beach Oh my god, did you ever hear about analogy? I didn’t strawman him, i’ve used the exact same logic he and his zealots apply to any argumentation, to point out the logical fallacy. I’ve actually watched him carefully since he was like 50k, then stopped after i couldn’t handle his flawed logic anymore.
      Being right for wrong reason is just as bad as being wrong because you’ll never be abled to figure it out when you’re actually wrong.
      Again, thank you for another portion of dogmatic informations.

  4. manuel cornejo says:

    I am from Chile and I am in my last year of pedagogy in physical education. I appreciate the good information you give us, plus I practice my English. regards!

  5. Grape says:

    I use the double progression method for compound lifts, so naturaly my first set is probably gonna be an rpe of 7. My last set will most likely be an rpe of 9 or 10. As for isolation excercises i like to take them to failure, and even beyond by doing cheat reps or partials.

    Edit: how can i always keep 1-3 reps in the tank if i do all my sets with the same weight, and they get progressively harder cause of the fatigue from sets before?

    For example if i doing bench press 4 by 5 @225lbs

    Sets
    1. 3 reps in tank
    2. 2 reps in tank
    3. 1 rep in tank
    4. Failure

    Every set gets harder even though i don’t start by going to failure.
    4

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