Effective Training: Make Every Rep Count

Tom MacCormick

Strength and Conditioning, Personal Training, Sports Science

Effective Training: Make Every Rep Count - Fitness, hypertrophy, muscle gain, training plan, muscle mass, training method

 

A long time ago a bloke with a funny accent said, “The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That's what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they'll go through the pain no matter what happens.” Turns out this guy knew what he was talking about—and he was the most famous bodybuilder of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

 

The reps Arnie describes are what can be termed “effective reps.” Doing as much effective volume as possible is the most efficient way to build muscle. The good news is there is growing scientific evidence of how we can achieve a training environment where almost every rep is effective. In Use High Frequency Bodybuilding To Avoid Junk Volume, I described how to ensure you only did effective volume by fine-tuning your sets per workout. In this article, I strip things back further to highlight not just how to make every set effective, but also every rep. Read on to find out how to make every rep count.

 

Proximity to Failure and The Volume Conundrum

Hypertrophy training has both an intensity (both % 1RM and proximity to failure) and a volume component. While you can develop muscle across a wide spectrum of rep ranges, you need to do enough reps at a given load for it to be sufficiently challenging to force the body to adapt. The moral of the story is that in order to build muscle as fast possible, you are going to have to go relatively close to failure on your sets.

 

Some people don’t go close to failure on any of their sets. They are aware that training volume is correlated to muscle gain. So, they focus on accumulating as much volume as possible. They never get close to failure. While they do lots of “work” none it is very demanding or disruptive. This violates the principle of overload. For training to be effective it needs to disrupt homeostasis enough to cause adaptation. You can only squeeze and flex so hard using the pink dumbbells. These reps are not sufficiently demanding to overload the body and cause growth. They are not effective reps.

 

What Are Effective Reps?

I first heard the term effective reps when reading about Borge Fagerli’s myo-rep training protocol. In the myo-reps protocol you complete an “initial” or “activation” set. This causes full, or close to full, fiber recruitment. After this you perform multiple mini sets, with a series of short rests between. All of the reps done in these mini sets are close to failure and maintain a state of high muscle activation. Thus, you elicit an effective training stimulus from every single rep. Training in this manner means you do more effective reps than if you follow traditional sets and rep schemes.

 

The increasing body of literature supporting the benefits of effective reps has led researcher Carl Juneau to claim that not all reps are created equal. It appears that if you never train to, or very close to, failure you might have untapped muscle growth potential. Juneau has attempted to formalize the theory of effective reps by stating that:

 

  • According to Schoenfield (2010), failure is “the point during a set when muscles can no longer produce necessary force to concentrically lift a given load."
  • Effective reps are reps closer to failure. ?
  • The closer a rep is to failure, the more effective it is? at building muscle. ?

 

In my mind, you need to recruit and fatigue most of the motor units and muscle fibers in a muscle to stimulate maximum muscle growth. Thus, effective reps are the reps which achieve this. They are the ones you grind out as fatigue sets in and you approach failure. Techniques such as rest pause, drop sets, super sets, and tri-sets all offer the potential for you to do more effective reps.

 

Several recent studies have shown that lifters who train to failure gain more muscle mass than those that don’t when volume is equated. Furthermore, numerous studies have started to show how we can maximize the number of effective reps we perform with the use of “intensifiers.” These studies examined popular intensifiers, such as rest-pause training, drop sets, super sets, and tri-sets.

 

They found far greater increases in muscle thickness when volume was matched, in the group that did rest pause style training as opposed to regular sets. Meanwhile, when comparing drop sets of triceps extensions with straight sets, they found that the muscle's cross-sectional area (CSA) increased by nearly twice as much in the drop set group. While the study on super sets and tri-sets did not directly measure changes in muscle mass, it did find that metabolic stress was increased. This is one of the three mechanisms for hypertrophy identified by Brad Schoenfeld and potentially pinpoints the key hypertrophy benefit of these techniques.

 

 

More Isn’t Better, Better Is Better

I cautioned against doing excessive volume per session in my effective volume article. Likewise, you should be cautious about excessively chasing effective reps. While the weight of research seems to indicate that going to failure is more effective at building muscle on a rep by rep basis, and that techniques which allow for more effective reps to be achieved magnify this effect, there are some reasons why taking all your sets to failure and utilizing drop sets and rest pause sets shouldn’t be a permanent fixture in your training.

 

Firstly, a few studies have shown no benefit to utilizing training to failure and/or using drop sets. For example, Izquierdo and colleagues found no gains in strength, power or hormonal responses to training to failure compared to not. They did not measure muscle size directly in this study.

 

Other studies have reported no benefit from the use of effective rep boosting strategies. On the surface, this appears to question the validity of the use of intensifiers for hypertrophy. However, these studies, much like the ones referenced earlier, did report increases in cross-sectional area and effect sizes which were in favor of the “effective” rep strategies. These findings just did not reach statistical significance. This is an all too common issue with research. Unfortunately, the small number of participants recruited for many training studies means that they lack statistical power and it is extremely difficult to report findings deemed “statistically significant.” This does not mean the findings should be ignored. While we cannot categorically state that you have to train to failure all the time, or use effective rep strategies to enhance your results, the trends reported in almost all the available literature is in the favor of these techniques.

 

A second point to consider when utilizing these techniques is the risk/return ratio. While effective reps are, by definition, the most effective at bringing about increases in muscle mass they are also the hardest to recover from. This applies both within a session and from session to session. Training to failure exponentially increases fatigue. Every additional rep also carries a slightly increased risk of injury. Pushing yourself to the point of failure increases muscle activation, but has been shown to decrease volume on subsequent sets for the muscle group. Sports scientist Mikel Izquierdo describes training to failure as a “disproportionate stress to stimulus.” Meanwhile, the authors of a recent study on super sets and tri-sets stated that they, “can enhance training efficiency but may require additional recovery post-training to minimize effects of fatigue.”

 

This shows that smart training is hard training, but hard training isn’t necessarily smart training. You must intelligently apply the scientific research to your programming by undulating training variables over time. The planned, strategic use of training to failure can be a powerful muscle builder, but should not be abused.

 

Effective and Time Efficient

While there is some debate about how often you have to go to failure and/or use intensifiers, there is little question over the efficiency of these techniques. They can minimize your time in the gym by allowing you to get a large quantity of effective reps in little time. Numerous studies report that using intensifier techniques allows participants to complete their workouts in half the time. Since the research points to at least equal, and possibly better, results from these training methods when compared to standard training, it seems sensible to make use of them if you are low on time.

 

Piecing the Jigsaw Together

We know that for a set to be effective it must be hard enough to represent an overload. To quantify a threshold for this, I’d suggest you never do any sets further than four reps from failure. In fact, if maximal muscle gain is your goal, I’d rarely suggest stopping a set with more than three reps in reserve (3 RIR). You should always strive to beat your previous best on lifts, and some days you’ll fall short. That’s normal and can be explained by any number of factors. The key is to ensure you at least make it to an “overload threshold.” I would suggest anything within 90% of your previous best will be enough to count as an overload. If you can’t make it to this mark you probably need a deload, or at least to take the day off and come back when you are better recovered.

 

Utilizing techniques to maximize effective reps can be a powerful hypertrophy stimulus, but they also eat into your ability to recover. So, proper planning of these training strategies is a must. You should aim for the “Goldilocks” zone of doing the most effective volume you can recover from. To achieve this, start out at a minimum effective dose (MED) and gradually increase your training volume and intensity over the course of a training phase. Push until you can no longer tolerate the training stress. At that point, take a deload to allow fatigue to drop. Then, rinse and repeat the process. Here is an example structure to achieve just that:

 

  • Week 1 - All sets 3 RIR
  • Week 2 - As above, but last set of a muscle group is to failure.
  • Week 3 - All sets 2 RIR, except final set for a muscle group. Final set failure.
  • Week 4 - All sets 2 RIR, except final set for a muscle group. Final set a rest pause.
  • Week 5 - All sets 1 RIR, except final set for a muscle group. Final set a rest pause.
  • Week 6 - All sets to failure. Last set per muscle group is a rest pause.
  • Week 7 - Deload

 

In the next phase of training you could repeat the process but instead of rest pauses do drop sets, super sets, or myo-reps. This will adhere to the principle of effective reps, but allow you to provide a novel stimulus—and enhance your results.

 

Training Is Hard

The take home message from Arnold’s statement, and the supporting research, is that effective muscle building training is hard. Anything worth achieving comes with some degree of challenge, suffering, and persistence. Building a bigger, stronger body is no different. In essence, smart training is hard training, but hard training is not necessarily smart training. That is why you need to take an intelligent approach to incorporating these strategies into your training plan. Then you need to violently execute them to build muscle as fast as possible.

 

References:

1. Fink J, Schoenfeld BJ, Kikuchi N, Nakazato K. "Effects of drop set resistance training on acute stress indicators and long-term muscle hypertrophy and strength". J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017;26.

2. Gieβsing J, Fisher J, Steele J, Rothe F, Raubold K, Eichmann B. "The effects of low-volume resistance training with and without advanced techniques in trained subjects". J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2016;56(3):249-58.

3. Izquierdo M, Ibanez J, Gonzalez-Badillo JJ, Hakkinen K, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, French DN, Eslava J, Altadill A, Asiain X, Gorostiaga EM. "Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains". J Appl Physiol. 2006;100(5):1647-56.

4. Prestes J, Tibana RA, de Araujo Sousa E, da Cunha Nascimento D, de Oliveira Rocha P, Camarço NF, Frade de Sousa NM, Willardson JM. "Strength and Muscular Adaptations Following 6 Weeks Of Rest-Pause Versus Traditional Multiple-Sets Resistance Training In Trained Subjects". J Strength Cond Res. 2017;4.

5. Schoenfeld BJ. "The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training". J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(10):2857-72.

6. Weakley JS, Till K, Read DB, Roe G, Darrall-Jones J, Phibbs PJ, Jones B. "The effects of traditional, superset, and tri-set resistance training structures on perceived intensity and physiological responses". European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2017;117(9): 1877-1889.

 

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