In the last few days I’ve had several young dudes approach me on the gym floor and ask me for a spot.
As I was in the middle of my own workout and it’s also not my place to give unsolicited advice I politely went over to lend a helping hand very well knowing what was about to take place.
These young and overly ambitious trainees would reach complete muscular failure at around 4 reps then proceed to grind out another 3-4 reps while giving me a workout at the same time…and as it turned out that wasn’t even their final set.
So what is wrong with the above scenario? After all aren’t they getting maximal stimulation by taking each set to failure and beyond?
If you look at the acute response from a single set then yes they may be stimulating slightly more growth. But looking at the acute response is like looking at the world through a straw.
The downside is that forced reps are excessively draining on the nervous system. The nervous system can take 5-7 times longer than the muscular system to recover. If you don’t manage neural fatigue you will significantly limit the amount of volume and frequency you can handle, which are both key drivers of hypertrophy.
It is much better to keep a few reps in the tank so your nervous system stays fresh. You will be surprised at how much faster you will recover, how much more volume and frequency you can handle, and how much quicker your weights will progress from workout to workout!
So yes it’s important to train hard but it’s also important to train smart.
As I learned from powerlifting legend Ed Coan several years ago, the majority of the time you should be having fun in the gym and crushing your weights.
That’s how you build confidence and momentum. If you’re always grinding your reps you will destroy your confidence because that gives you the experience that the weights are crushing you. And if you cannot recover properly from a workout because your nervous system is still fried then you cannot provide an increased level of stimulus to the muscles the following sessions to stimulate further growth.
If you look at most of the biggest and strongest guys in the gym and even pro bodybuilders they rarely ever train to failure.
As much you hear pro bodybuilders say shit like ‘no pain, no gain’, ‘go heavy or go home’ or ‘don’t leave any reps in the tank’, none of them actually train like that all the time.
That’s just something that they say to sound more hardcore to their fans which is deceptive to young lifters. Even the great Dorian Yates who was a big advocate of high intensity training only did one all out set to failure per exercise. But he usually did at least 2-3 warm-up/primer sets prior to his hard working sets. So even his ratio of maximal to submaximal sets was more like 2:1 or 3:1.
Even Dorian Yates who was known for training to failure and beyond only performed one all set per exercise. But even he still performed a fair amount of submaximal sets not taken to failure.
The reason I am writing about this is because I once also bought into this all or nothing, balls to the wall every set philosophy when I was younger. After a few years of training like that I ended up hitting a wall and encountering joint problems in my shoulders and knees.
It wasn’t until I learned to hold back and not push to failure too often that I was able to really drive my weekly volume up and take my muscle mass to the next level. I hope you too can learn from my mistakes and benefit sooner rather than later.
These days when I work with new clients more often than not I find myself needing to hold them back instead of pushing them more.
Train hard, but train smart and enjoy the gains!
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