It’s funny how a big PR can immediately turn an average or lousy day into an amazing day. Showing up to the gym is easy. Going through the motions is easy. But consistently getting stronger month in and month out is very challenging. It requires intelligent training, sound nutrition, and ideal levels of sleep and stress. However, even when we seemingly do everything right, we sometimes spin our wheels. This is why it’s important to pay close attention when training. Here are 5 tips that can expedite your progress.
1. Manage Fatigue and Regulate Effort
You don’t always have to train balls-to-the-wall in order to see results. When I was a teenager reading bodybuilding magazines, I recall countless articles urging lifters to take every set to failure. In fact, I distinctly remember reading an article by professional bodybuilder Tom Prince, who claimed to take every set he ever performed to momentary muscular failure. I remember wondering how in the hell these bodybuilders could pull this off, knowing that they performed high volume training and probably busted out at least 20 sets per training session. I felt insecure about my own training and assumed that I wasn’t nearly as manly as these guys since I wasn’t able to do so. Well, let me clarify. I could indeed take every set to failure, but I didn’t feel that it was the optimal way to train.
For example, at the time of the article, I was probably 21 years old and could bench press around 225 lbs. A bench session back then might have consisted of a set of 12 reps with 135 lbs, a set of 10 reps with 155 lbs, a set of 6 reps with 185 lbs, a set of 3 reps with 205 lbs, and a back-off set of 15 reps with 135 lbs. Only the last two sets were taken to failure.
Let’s say I did take every set to failure. The bench session probably would have looked something like this: 135 lbs x 21 reps, 155 lbs x 6 reps, 175 lbs x 1 rep. I would have been fried after the first set and my strength would have been zapped. Would this style of training have led to better results? No, it wouldn’t have. I instinctually understood back then how to train wisely, but it was difficult to trust my instincts at the time because bodybuilders who were much larger than I was were recommending otherwise.
Years later, having gotten a chance to watch many professional bodybuilders train in person, I realized that they don’t take every set to failure. They could almost always bust out a couple more reps if their lives depended on it. It’s just something they liked to claim at the time in order to sound “hardcore.” Or, maybe the magazines were telling them to make these claims. Either way, none of them actually followed their own advice.
Several years later, I recall reading various high intensity training (HIT) articles where the authors claimed that the last rep of the set was the only rep that mattered. Stopping short would just maintain size and strength, but busting out that last, grueling rep would cause the body to make adaptations. Former bodybuilder Mike Mentzer was a proponent of this type of training theory.
But as former Physicist Richard Feynman used to say, “If it doesn’t match experiments, it’s wrong.” In the next decade, several peer-reviewed, published RCT’s would emerge showing that training to failure was not mandatory for results, nor was it better than stopping shy of failure.
Last April, I wrote a blogpost titled, Reduced Load & Effort for Increased Results. This article was written in an effort to promote my 2 x 4 Maximum Strength program, which utilizes submaximal loading and effort in order to allow for increased training frequency and promote greater gains in strength. This was the first time I’d purposely gone lighter in my training in order to work on technique and train more often without overdoing it and hampering my recovery. The results were impressive, and I finally reached my goal to deadlift 600 lbs.
To powerlifters, this is nothing new. Popular programs such as Sheiko take advantage of lighter loads and reduced effort in order to allow for high training volumes and frequencies. Now, Sheiko is still very challenging, since it has you performing a large number of sets of challenging exercises. But it’s a different kind of challenge, unlike the challenge of maxing out with one top set or taking one set to complete and utter failure. Some powerlifters might be thinking of Westside Methodology right now, where lifters max out week in and week out on a particular variation of squats, deadlifts, good mornings, and/or bench press. While this is true, they also take advantage of submaximal training in the form of assistance lifts and special workouts. In other words, not every single set is taken to failure. No serious lifter really trains like that in real life – many of their sets are stopped far short of failure.
A couple of times per week, I train at Revolution Training in Tempe, Arizona. Not only do I enjoy the atmosphere and the equipment, I also like observing and conversing with powerlifters and strongmen. Many of them have recently been experimenting with the RPE method (rating of perceived exertion). Here is the system that top powerlifter Mike Tuschscherer uses with regards to RPE:
10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank
9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank
8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left
7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”
6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force
5: Most warm-up weights
4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle
An RPE below four isn’t important.
This scale can be utilized to manage fatigue and provide for more efficient training. I love RPE, but the drawback of using RPE is that some lifters aren’t very good at perceiving. They lie to themselves and pretend that a lift was easier than it really was. So it requires a degree of honesty with one’s self in order for it to be effective. I mentioned that several of my incredibly strong lifting pals recently began incorporating RPE into their training programs. Each of them has experienced increased results since doing so. You don’t see nearly as many grinding repetitions or incidents of form breakdown, nor do you see as many post-set nosebleeds or fainting. What you do see, however, is more quality, more volume, and more strength gained.
Last week, my clients crushed it in the gym. The girls set numerous PRs, so this week I prescribed pause sets, unique variations to address their individual weaknesses, and higher rep sets. In this manner, they still receive an excellent training effect but they avoid grinding out their reps or allowing form degradation in order to further advance their PRs. Sometimes strength gains need to be purposely slowed down in order to allow for gradual and sustained strength gains over the long haul. Deloading has become more popular in the past several years, and there are many different ways to do so. One way is to ramp up in effort in 4-week waves: light, medium, hard, and very hard. Another way is to just train instinctually and back off when your body tells you to do so. But similar to RPE, the problem with instinctual training is that many lifters don’t pay attention to biofeedback and listen to their bodies.
Can sets be taken to failure? Absolutely. But there’s a huge difference between a maximal set of 10RM rest-pause deadlifts versus a set of rear delt raises, hammer curls, or face pulls taken to failure. It takes most lifters many years to truly understand how to regulate their effort and manage their fatigue. Once lifters reach this level of mastery, training tends to “click,” and steady gains are usually seen thereafter.
Bottom line – you don’t have to take you train balls-to-the-wall every session, you don’t need to go all out every single week, and you’ll likely experience better results by performing a considerable amount of training in the 70-85% of 1RM range while keeping some reps in the tank.
2. Use Variations Wisely
This should go without saying, but if something hurts, you don’t want to train through it. But common sense ain’t so common these days. Many lifters stubbornly push through pain, thinking that somehow the ailment will just go away. Sometimes it does, but many times it doesn’t, and often an acute situation turns into a chronic situation.
If your upper arms are aching from low bar squatting, do safety squat bar squats, front squats, or high bar squats.
If your knees are hurting from squatting, try low bar high box squats with vertical shins, and if that doesn’t work, omit squatting for a while and just hammer the posterior chain.
If your hips are hurting from wide stance squats or sumo deadlifts, move your stance in and perform semi-sumo or narrow/conventional variations.
If your low back is aching, take the day off of deadlifting and opt for some single leg work and posterior chain work (ex: Bulgarian split squats, Nordic ham curls, single leg RDLs, and/or single leg hip thrusts).
If your shoulders hurt when you bench, find a pressing variation you can do that doesn’t hurt. Maybe you can do floor press, or board press, or decline press, or push-ups, or neutral grip dumbbell military press. If that doesn’t work, skip pressing and bust out a bunch of rows and arm isolation exercises.
If chin-ups are causing you pain, just do rows for a while. If dips are causing you pain, just do horizontal pressing for a while. The list goes on and on.
This is precisely why possessing a large toolbox (vast knowledge of exercise variety) is useful; it allows you to train around injuries and/or nagging pain so the issue heals up and is no longer a hindrance. Whatever you do, please don’t just stubbornly grind through an exercise if it doesn’t feel right. This rarely leads to good outcomes. I know of some powerlifters who are so hell-bent on specificity that they spin their wheels due to benching, squatting, and/or deadlifting while in pain. This is unfortunate, since these lifters could perform joint-friendlier variations that would enable them to build their strength all while allowing the nagging pain to subside, which would prolong their lifting careers.
3. Don’t Obsess About Hitting All the Angles
If you’re like me, you love the angles. You like attacking your pecs from horizontal, incline, and decline vectors, you like blasting the delts from every possible direction, and you don’t feel right if you fail to hit the glutes from a variety of joint actions. Trust me, I get it – you want to be thorough in your training.
But the only way to realistically be thorough is to adhere to body part split routines where you train 1-2 body parts per day. On chest day, you can do your inclines, flats, declines, and flies. On back day, you can do your chins and pulldowns along with all of your favorite rows. On leg day, you can compound, target, isolate, and annihilate. The problem with body part splits is that training frequency must be greatly diminished and you only end up training your favorite body part or lift once per week. If you want to maximize your strength, then you’re going to have to compromise.
You cannot perform every exercise under the sun week in and week out. Consider the biceps. You have barbell curls, dumbell curls, preacher curls, easy bar curls, Scott curls, drag curls, incline curls, spider curls, pulley curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, reverse curls, cable curls, Zottman curls, and chain curls, amongst others.
Clearly you can see that you won’t be able to fit in every single curling variation throughout the week (or even throughout the month). Every muscle has myriad ways to train it. It is good to hit the muscles from multiple angles, as long as it doesn’t interfere with strength gains. Some lifters seem more interested in hitting all the angles than setting PRs and gaining strength. If you’re the same strength one year from now as you are today, you probably won’t look much different. You must strive to get stronger over time if you want your body to transform and add shape and muscle.
My recommendation is to perform a heavy strength movement first in the training session, such as a squat, deadlift, hip thrust, bench press, chin, military press, row, or dip. Go heavy and try to set some sort of PR. After that, feel free to perform some additional compound movements or some isolation movements and go for a burn or a pump. Tension first, metabolic stress second. Hit the angles, but don’t hit them so hard that you’re not recovered for your next training session. You want to stimulate, not annihilate.
Strength training isn’t rocket science, but it’s not straight-forward either. Due to the multi-faceted nature of human physiology, even when we control the variables, we can’t completely predict the response. Therefore, you need to rise up and educate yourself. You must pay attention to biofeedback and experiment to figure out what works best for your body. You must adhere to a proper routine to give yourself the best chance of succeeding. And you must make wise decisions during the additional 23 hours when you’re not in the gym.
I first heard about this concept of submaximal training and not having to kill yourself every time you enter the gym from Paul Carter. He is a big proponent of building a strong strength base using submaximal loading and always leaving a few reps in the tank. Shutting your own ego up and not attempting 1 RM every single week (just to prove to myself that I can still do it) is a key part of this.
Yep, I totally agree with Paul’s approach in this regard. Save the grinding sloppy lifts for the platform.
What about taking every set to failure 3x a week, but reducing the volume to six sets only, doing A/B/A or B/A/B upper/lower split. That way the end is always near, frequency is relatively high, recovery is sufficient, it’s quick, you hit pretty much everything once or twice over the course of the week…
Well, havent you read the article? Bret specifically explained that muscular failure isnt needed, so why would you want to do it when it deteriorates all other aspects that do matter: technique, injury risk, volumen, regeneration?
I read other sources as well, and it is well documented in certain situations training to failure is a good choice. Especially if you train with low volume…there is not much risk of overtraining and you get better stimulus. Also, sure, this debate is about optimal training, but the time investment of frequent, multiple set training is huge and too much for most.
Well, depends on what you understand under “well documented”. If you have those research, pls link it, I am very interested.
I only know of Bret´s buddy´s Chris Beardsley just recently summarizing the research regarding training to failure. Its here: http://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/2014/01/08/muscular-failure-hypertrophy/ and here: http://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/2014/06/16/training-to-failure/
There are only a couple of studies that hint to slightly better results with training to muscular failure – in a research setting, mind you: Because the big problem in practice is that you take all the mentioned disadvantages to have only one possible small advantage.
So I can only see a very time-restraint trainee who is very advanced, has robust, injury-proof structures with perfect technique – he or she can indeed profit from training to muscular failure.
A rookie lifter who has no time and thinks he can do a HIT-like approach with training to muscular failure once every two weeks will have very suboptimal progress and still a high risk of bad technique, injuries and so on – some things just need time.
So the huge majority of lifters profits from the classical approach.
Note that Im not talking about rarely applied high repetition sets (>25) for the goal of hypertrophy, in which training to failure has indeed been found to be beneficial.
Excellent comment Chris! Thanks for linking the two articles by Chris B., and I agree with your views.
I saw some very good results when I trained in this fashion many years ago. I think it’s a very valid approach, especially if you have inherently good form and appreciate expedited training sessions.
“… post set nosebleeds or fainting”?? Whoa! Clearly I have not seen any honest-to-goodness hardcore “to-failure” training. I had no idea! Good to know that I can obtain great results without this! Nosebleeds and fainting (or even barfing) hold no appeal to me whatsoever. Thanks, Bret, for another great article!!
It mostly happens with experienced powerlifters Teri…you don’t see this very often in commercial gyms haha.
Great article. I love the additions of the names and descriptions for the photos.
Thanks Jeffo, glad you liked it!
I used to train to failure on every set over 20 years ago mostly because it was the latest trend….I didnt injured my low back only because I didnt perform deadlifts at the time but I felt like shit all the times despite being young and sleeping 9 hours x night…..I m very happy that modern research has finally proven that such a torture is not necessary to become strong…….another excellent article thanks Bret…..
interesting read. Great insights.
Excellent as always Bret. These are some of the same conclusions I have ben coming to lately but your reasoning really helps clarify my thinking.
In addition to the comments made, training to excessive muscular failure has been demonstrated to have an adverse affect on joint kinematics during exercise performance and athletic tasks (i.e. why does a pitcher have a pitch count in baseball?). This is especially true with regard to smaller muscle groups that enter an environment of excessive fatigue. For example a non-pathologic or “normal” rotator cuff of the shoulder exercised into an environment of excessive fatigue has been demonstrated to mimic the same abnormal gleno-humeral joint kinematics that occur at the shoulder in the presence of a torn rotator cuff. An abnormal change in joint kinematics due to instilled excessive fatigue during exercise performance may lead to pathology if this practice occurs over a prolonged period of time.
Just my opinion
Great article Bret! I have noticed over time by following you that your audience is very educated and I would even go as far as saying you may have a few geniuses following you. My point being you have to always be on your A game at all times when writing and posting articles because from my experience you have followers set like mouse traps ready to snap at perceived error. The reason I say perceived is 20 years from now most everything we think we know now will be shown to be in error. After 35 years in the iron game I find it amazing that I see the same ideas come and go and then reappear again because some new study found otherwise! Lesson I have learned? Studies can always be in error, flawed or overlook critical information (often not known at the time of said study) but if you learn to listen to your own body and train accordingly you will rarely, rarely go wrong!
I dont think so, Joe: Sciences evolve, they err sometimes, but dont err completely for twenty years en bloc only to err (on the other extreme) for the following next twenty years. All sciences work like that: Einstein didnt show Newton to be false, he enhanced the theory of gravity for certain cases where the concept of relativity is very meaningful. We have technology (planes, antibiotics, this thing you wrote your comment on) that are bases on principles of science that are dozens of years old – they wont be “totally wrong” (and you were only hallucinating that GPS worked in 2014) and “change opinions”, but those fields evolve.
Same thing in sports science: We see more substantial developments there, because its a very young science, a complex field and a not heavily sponsored one, too (ask Bret if he or his advisor got a couple of million bucks for his PhD research as they sometimes would in cancer research). But basic principles still apply after years – take a textbook from 1990 and youll find lots of basic research thats still valid. When it comes to fine details (you probably think of such concepts like “time under tension” and “back off sets”, well, they simply often havent been investigated yet at all, so science is very hesitant to give hard rules there.
The perception “that everything will be wrong in 20 years´time” is mostly one of ppl who DO NOT follow science, but accept fast and ready recipes or extreme black-and-white-stances that are not justified by science in the first place (science is grey, after all). Think of reading some t-nation articles (yeah I know Bret, you must intervene here 🙂 ), there you can have (purposefully) contradicting statements from one week to another – but thats not science!
Personal anecdotes, listening to your body are valuable methods to check if some things are working for you (although you can be very fooled by this). But research helps massively to be able to discover and test senseful conepts in the first place.
GPS didnt fall of a tree, after all, because someone “had that feel”. 🙂
Very good article Brett, and agree that MMF is not necessary for hypertrophy or strength gains…Not necessary at all. BUT…If one understands how to apply the concept of HIT properly it is pretty damn awesome for both. Also…It is imperative to understand how to apply the ‘mechanics’ of HIT as well as how to integrate the recovery component of such a CNS demanding routine as well. Would use HIT as a 10 week, 3 day split cycle program 1-2x a year max for growth (have to EAT like a mutha-fer on this one) while facilitating Acute Adaptations found in ‘Neuromechanical Basis of Kinesiology’ Second Edition, Roger M. Enoka p. 279. I always enjoy reading your stuff, brother…Thank You!
Great Article! Perfect info
Great advise to train first de big movement like the squat, bench, row, pull up, military press, deadlift and hipthrust. If you only do this exercise you can as big as you like. Butt angels are important for the people how like to shape. If we look at bodybuilders they train a lot with body part splits even the naturals. Some body parts are hit 2 time and some 1 time. You see often great shoulders and arms because they hit them more as they have a special shoulder and arm day. But they hit them already 1 in a back and a chest session. The body splits training routine give maybe not the best frequency per muscle group but they get there needed volume. I time ago i read the article from nick tumminello http://www.t-nation.com/workouts/simple-program-for-complex-results. His advise was very simple
Train anywhere from 3-5 times per week, depending on the client/athlete’s availability to train
Each muscle group/body part is trained 1-2 times per week
12-20 total sets per week/body part
Sets can be all done in one workout per week, or spread in multiple workouts (2-3) throughout the week.
And his template for 3 days is in almost al his articles a Pull upperbody, hips/leg, push upperbody and day.
This example template is maybe not very efficient for the muscle train frequency it would maybe be better to hit the same muscle within 2-4 days. But the volume and the muscle angels of the muscles are done well in this template.
Off course you could also spread the exercise in 3 full body workout but I see a lot of men struggle to recover that quick, women and beginners how train les than a year can recover quicker butt It has maybe something to do with the relative low load comparing to advance trainers. For this group it would maybe better to do a pull whole body/ push whole body,/full body worktout template or something like a upperbody/lowerbody split in the way of A/B/A and B/A/B.
But the main question remain:
what is more important to gain fast optimal frequency with some focus at the angels in a full body or special split regime like I describe above.
Or is the volume in a week more important with some focus at the angels and use a body part split like the one of Nick Tumminello.
Is there ever wrote a article about this discussion?
I have read Mike Tuchscherer’s book (a couple times – and will probably read it a couple more) and he’s clearly on to something. A lot of how he uses the RPE system is beyond the work capacity levels of a lot of the people I train, however there are a multitude of ways to use RPE’s, and my hunch is there’s more to come as more and more people start jumping on board. I start familiarizing even my newer clients to RPE’s, having them write in their log how they rate each set of their main lifts. This occurs while they are still on a pretty simple LP system. Ultimately, they evolve, little by little into methods that more actively utilize this kind of information. With so much buzz about frequency and increasing volume through gradually improving work capacity, I think Brett makes an excellent point about being able to increase (quality) volume by being aware of one’s level of exertion, set by set.