What you'll learn: How to effectivly train to failure, when its appropriate, and how to get the most out each session.
Describing failure is our first challenge because depending on who you ask, the lines can get a little blurred, especially taking into account things like spotted reps, technique breakdown, cheat reps, etc.
How I describe failure is like this. Picture yourself doing chest press, you get 8 reps out and with the bar still in your hands, your gym partner and supposed friend literally put a gun to your head, telling you if you don’t get another 5 reps you're dead. You thinking your done for, so you push out 3 more reps, now on to the forth rep, your fighting it up and crawling underneath you manage to lock the elbow out at the top, but now you're finished... you pause at the top, take a big breath and lower the bar fast bouncing it off your chest, you get halfway up elbow wriggling all over the place and the weight starts to slow down and you're fighting with the lockout, lifting the shoulders wriggling underneath it as you try to lock it out. Your gym partner starting to squeeze the trigger, you continue to grind and grind but the weight just won’t move that final inch. Your entire life starts to flash before your eyes, still grinding your gym partner clenches the trigger harder, you're all out of energy and you can’t push anymore and the weight comes straight down onto your chest. Lying there underneath the barbell you beg for forgiveness, your gym partner stood over you with the gun still in his hands, he’s smirking, he said don’t worry I’m not going to kill you, I just wanted to see you take your set to failure. So hopefully now I think that clears that up, failure is if somebody held a gun to your head you couldn’t get another rep out of that exercise, with no assistance from a spotter and the exercise for the most part resembles exercise you're trying to achieve.
Now when it comes to programming for a clear guide for relative intensity we use whats called Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE(some of you might be more familiar with RIR or Reps In Reserve), so an "RPE 10" would be failure meaning you’ve got 0 reps left in reserve(0 RIR). So "RPE 8" would mean 2 reps left in reserve(2 RIR)and so on right down to "RPE 1" which would mean you have 10 reps left in reserve this would be a very easy set. Occasionally you may even go to RPE 11 OR 12 which would mean having a partner spot you for 1 or 2 reps after you’ve completed your set.(-1 RIR or -2 RIR) Understanding this will make the rest of the discussion a lot easier. Below is a graph for RPE and RIR.
It’s very well backed up by science now that the higher the RPE the more microfibrillar damage will occur thus more growth will occur. So taking a set to RPE 10 will in short be the best for gains or even doing spotted reps at the end of your set will be even more effective for growth. But before you get carried away taking every set to failure, just be patient because there is a punchline here. When we take any set to RPE 10 or especially beyond of course it has greater intensity, which will usually create a larger stimulus but as result, we have to recover much longer. Not only that but it normally affects your total session volume because you're not recovered from the sets at the start of the session, which ends up affecting the sets at the end of the session. It can also reduce your weekly total volume, because you're not recovered enough to do more effective work.
Your goal should be to get the most total mathematical volume out of your session and week. (Mathematical Volume: Sets X Reps X Weight) So be strategic with your session when it comes to failure, you can go to failure but don't let that impact the total volume of the session. Usually, the last set of exercises is a good shout or near the end of your session when it matters less.
Below is an example of how and how not :
Person 1 : "Mr I bring every set to failure"(HOW NOT)
Monday they train chest:
Flat bench at 100kg for 4 sets all at RPE 10
Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Set 3: 7 reps
Set 4: 6 reps
Totalling 31 reps at 100kg which would be 3100kg of total volume.
Person 2 : "Trains to RPE 8/9" (HOW)
Monday they train chest:
Flat bench at 100kg for 4 sets all at RPE 8/9
Set 1: 9 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Set 3: 8 reps
Set 4: 8 reps
Totalling 33 reps at 100kg which would be 3300kg of total volume.
Meaning Person 2 achieved 200kg of volume more over the 4 sets, and because the sets weren't as hard probably did it in less time too.
There no magic RPE however, you have to find what works for you, I personally can ride the intensity high, mostly RPE 8/9, and my sets still remain effective without falling off. But what I can say is it isn’t all sets to failure(RPE 10). If most people go to RPE 10 then you'll likely end up with a lower total volume of the session.
So does failure have its place or should we never go to failure then? Failure absolutely has its place. Applied correctly its a fantastic tool. The simple fact is that in order to improve overload has to occur. Overload means to do more than you previously did before, where hypertrophy is concerned it essentially means lifting more weight through more reps over time. Think of it like this, If you can bench 80 for 10 reps what do you think your chest would look like if you could bench 100kg 10 reps? Would it look bigger?
This is where it gets tricky, if you're trying to improve each week it would be great to say that you can always be at an RPE 8 consistently and numbers will keep climbing but the likelihood of this happening is very slim. So RPE 9 and 10’s are always going to happen in your quest to be better. To follow on from that you will need to do sessions that are harder than what you are usually capable of. We call this functionally overreaching. Where you purposely raise the intensity of a session or even a whole week to try to get your body to adjust to do more.
Finally more on the specifics of how you actually apply this. Well think on average throughout your program you want to be around an RPE 8. This generally applies to the bigger tougher exercises known as compound exercises like squats, chestpress, rows, and deadlifts. These exercises are much more overloading than say bicep curls, lateral raises and reverse flys, which you can worry less about being accurate with your RPE. Compound exercises cause much more stress needing much more recovery, so it is harder to manage the fatigue from compounds, so using RPE to manage the fatigue from each set to enable you to get a larger total volume is more necessary.
Training muscle groups twice or more a week is recommended for best results, to do this however they need to be done at varying intensities. Always doing maximal intensity will make it very difficult to recover between sessions. Furthermore will also make it harder to make sessions more overloading, and harder to progress consistently. The ultimate goal you trying to aim for, is being able to train as intensely as possible as often as possible but also being able to recover too.
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