There was a period of lifting when I had plateaued, making it incredibly boring for a little while because I wasn’t getting stronger.
One of the big problems (in hindsight) was how I understood “reps.”
I’d looked at my workout, saw the number of reps written out, and when I lifted, I counted my reps and stopped when I got there.
Eight reps programmed? Eight reps done. Check.
Aside from treating my workouts like a chore to-do list, and the mindset of doing the absolute minimum, I was making a grave training error.
Now, this message may mainly be for the slacker types (like me.)
I know there are those out there prone to burnout. This is probably not going to be a message that resonates with them.
So here was my problem:
I was too focused on counting reps instead of getting close to true failure.
As a slacker, exercising still feels challenging even when you’re ten reps away from failure.
For example, at that time, let’s say I was deadlifting for five reps. I might choose a weight like 225 pounds and do it for five reps.
For a slacker, picking up 225 pounds a few times is still hard work.
Feels tough? Yes.
Enough stimulus for my body to make an adaptation? Probably not.
I was too far away from failure to make an adaptation (build new muscle and get stronger.)
I likely would have been able to deadlift that weight for 15 reps before reaching true failure.
So, there’s a reason why the Reddit advice to “lift heavy, eat big” exists.
Lifting stupidly heavy ensures you’ll get to failure and provide enough stimulus for growth.
For example, it’s a lot easier to get to true failure when you’re lifting something for three reps compared to 15 reps. The higher the reps get, the more it burns, and the more you depend on your personality/energy/willpower/aerobics to keep those “voluntary” contractions happening.
(And I’m sure lifting at 6 pm when I was already dead tired after work wasn’t helping me push myself.)
Unfortunately, “lifting heavy” to failure comes with tons of problems:
- You get more muscle growth if you stop with 2-3 reps in the tank without nearly as much stress and damage. A 2019 study found that stopping a few reps shy of failure had better gains with the exact same program and volume.
- Going to failure with heavy lifting can cause extra damage and slow down recovery—24-48 hours longer than normal. This reduces your ability to keep training and get more gains, and your body is more focused on repairing rather than adapting. Not to mention you don’t feel good as you’re crazy sore.
- Training to failure with heavy lifts on compound exercises could increase the risk of injury.
- Assuming you’re not eighteen years old anymore, going to failure on super heavy lifting can cause joint and tendon damage, slowing down recovery even more. (Again, not very fun.)
Aside from all those downsides, only lifting heavy leaves out faster and more well-rounded gains that come with a mixture of rep ranges.
But not going to failure might mean that you’re actually way too far away from failure to get gains—especially if you find you’re a bit slackerish.
Here’s how to fix the problems of “going to failure”
In a 2019 study, Dr Brad Schoenfeld and his team published: “Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy?”
And what they found is that there’s a nuance when it comes to failure.
When it comes to heavy lifting, we shouldn’t go right to failure because of all the main downsides listed above. (Though they said heavy lifting to failure could be used sparingly in a properly periodized program.)
But when it comes to lighter lifting with higher reps, we should consider going to failure. Here’s a quote on why:
“Training to muscle failure may be more relevant when training with low loads, as larger motor units may not be activated until failure is reached. With high loads, high-threshold motor units are recruited almost immediately, this training to failure may not be a priority.”
So going to failure with lighter weights may be necessary to fully activate the muscles so that they get the stimulus they need.
Plus, with higher rep exercises, the weight isn’t heavy enough to damage your joints and tendons as much, so we can take our lighter sets to failure without worrying as much about damage.
Anyways, here’s how Dr Schoenfeld wraps it up:
High effort? Voluntarily—from a slacker?
I’ve been finding going to failure for some of my higher reps sets helpful, especially if I’m doing 30 reps of weighted push-ups.
So if you’re a slacker, and your workout says to do 15 reps, here’s what you could do:
- Use your best judgement to pick a weight to get the 15 reps in.
- Do the set, and as you’re doing it, don’t stop until you reach the point that you know you won’t be able to lift it again.
- Get right to the cusp of failure. That might mean you get to 18 reps. Maybe it means you get to 22 reps. We don’t know. It depends on how much you’ve been holding back.
So, use reps on a workout as a guide for selecting a weight, but don’t count them and stop, like I did.
Instead, consider going right next to the cusp of failure when doing higher reps.
You may need to experiment with this a bit to find what’s right for you, but I’d say once you’re beyond eight reps, you may want to try going to failure and see if you’re being true to yourself when it comes to failure.
To be clear, I mean failure with absolute, perfect textbook form. Don’t ever let your form crumble. There’s a risk to injury when you do that. I’m talking about getting to the point where the weight doesn’t move anymore while having pristine technique, and then disengaging from the set safely.
Once you know what true failure is, then you can learn the feeling of getting to the final rep or two before failure. Top trainers often coach to keep a couple “reps in reserve” or “keep a couple of reps in the tank.”
So, what’s the point of reps then?
Well, rep programming in workouts will help you pick the right load of weight (heavy/moderate/light). That weight you pick plays a role in the velocity/speed of lifting, and so it can impact the type of adaptation in the muscle (mitochondria, myofibrils and sarcoplasmic).
But all those details won’t matter if you’re not getting close enough to failure. So instead of counting reps, learn to put in high-effort. And if you’re a slacker, like me, that might mean getting right to the edge of failure for each set.