In every gym all across America, meatheads (I use that term with love) can be found hovering over their training partner talking about the last rep and its magical powers to unlock gains. Some can even be heard saying, “The last rep is the only rep that matters”, even referencing ‘no pain no gain’ and ‘blood-sweat-and tears’ as their mantra. We’ve all seen “Pumping Iron” and watched Arnold and Lou struggle for the last rep, grinding and fighting to complete it. And of course we know the kind of physiques they displayed, so there must be something to the method. So, is pushing yourself to muscular failure really how you gain maximum strength? Or is there a better way? How do we decide the number of reps and sets to complete for each exercise? Do reps and sets even matter in the long run? Or can we just assume that as long as I’m working hard and going to the max every time I step in the gym, I will achieve the results I’m looking for?

There are many misconceptions in the local gyms and internet forums and I think consistently training to muscular failure is one of them. Working hard is unquestionably a requirement. We should always be training as hard as possible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t train intelligently as well. If we train hard and train smart…watch out! That is where our progress will really become noticeable. Let’s dive into some research and discover what we can do scientifically to gain the most muscle mass and strength possible in the most efficient way possible.

First, let’s discuss going to muscle failure and what that does to our potential training outcome. We will use Monday, “National Chest Day,” as our example. How many times have you gone to the gym on Monday with the idea of crushing chest? You take your pre-workout concoction, get jacked up, and go do a million sets of various chest exercises. The following day, you can barely move your arms because your chest was destroyed the day before. Sounds like a great workout, right? A ton of damage was done to the muscles and we all obviously know that maximum muscular damage leads to maximum muscular growth. WRONG!

For the average gym goer, a training week might look something like this:

  • Monday: Chest, Triceps
  • Tuesday: Back, Biceps
  • Wednesday: Skip Legs – CNS overload from Monday and Tuesday
  • Thursday: Shoulders (maybe)
  • Friday: Biceps, Triceps

In our example, we completed one day of training for chest/bench pressing exercises. This is an inefficient way to gain strength and size. If I were to say that you need to increase your bench press 100 lbs. by next year or you will die (I know its extreme but play along), how many times would you bench press per week? Once? Twice? Three times? I think we would all agree that once per week is not the answer. The appropriate answer will vary from person to person based on experience.

Gaining strength has a lot to do with appropriately increasing your training volume over time. Volume is the total product of: sets*reps*load (load = weight lifted). Let’s go back to our Monday example and investigate the day a little closer. Assume our workout looked like this:

 

ExerciseSets*Reps*LoadTotal Volume
Flat Bench Press3*10*200 lbs.6000 lbs.
Dumbbell Incline Bench3*10*60 lbs.+3600 lbs.
Cable Chest Fly’s3*12*30 lbs.+2160 lbs.
∑ 11,760 lbs.

 

+ = 60lbs and 30lbs were multiplied by 2 each because it would be 60lbs and 30lbs per hand using an independent movement. Actual multiplication was (3x10x120) and (3x12X60), respectively.

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