Disclaimer: Always practice safe weight training. Using improper form to “train harder” is never the answer. Be honest with yourself and train according to your ability and experience. A failed rep or a rep done incorrectly is never a good rep.
A common reason people don’t see the results they desire is that they’re simply not training hard enough. Although the opposite (training too hard) will also lead to lackluster results, it’s a less common issue.
If training for maximal strength or endurance, how hard you should train is different than for those looking to build muscle, lose fat and change their physique.
Although this article is mainly focused on the latter, I’ll briefly explain why training for endurance or maximal strength should be approached differently.
Endurance and Strength Athletes
Endurance athletes should actually train “easy” significantly more often than “hard”. Why? Because most positive endurance adaptations take place in the zone 2 heart rate range, which is significantly lower than your maximum heart rate.
If you’re consistently going beyond this range (120-145 HR for most people), the cost of recovery greatly outweighs the benefits. Therefore, as a general rule, 80% of endurance training should be “easy to moderate”, while 20% should be hard.
If you’re in a strength sport like powerlifting or olympic lifting, it also behooves you to train at submaximal efforts most of the time, while occasionally pushing towards your maximum effort. The power lifts and olympic lifts are very high-skill movements, and therefore frequent practice at sub maximal loads is required to achieve high levels of performance.
Usually a good strength or olympic weightlifting program will progressively build up in intensity over time until the trainee is ready to “peak” for a top performance like a 1-3 rep max. Other sessions will be treated more like practice, where the lifter focuses on perfecting their technique with less physically and mentally taxing loads.
Strength training is generally done in the 1-5 rep range and at higher percentages of the lifter’s 1 rep max (85+%) which is very demanding on the body.
Training Intensity For Everyday Lifters
If you’re not interested in endurance training or powerlifting, and just looking to change the way your body looks, feel better, and be healthier, you probably know by now that one of the key pieces to this puzzle is to do resistance training.
A common obstacle many everyday gym-goers face is the struggle to gauge how hard they need to be training. Thankfully, it’s not overly complicated, and in this blog post, I’ll provide you with the tools you need to maximize your potential.
I’ll explain how hard you need to train as a beginner, intermediate and advanced trainee. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be referring specifically to how hard you need to resistance train (aka lift weights).
Cardiovascular training is on a different wave-length in regards to intensity, and most of us can get incredible results from just walking more every day. I’ll write a future post that goes more into detail on cardio.
Do You Really Train Hard?
Many people think they train hard. If you think you train hard, but you’re still not getting the results you want, chances are you’re not training as hard as you need to be. If you’re stopping each set when it starts to burn in the muscles, you’re leaving a lot of progress on the table.
That said, the intensity with which you should train is highly dependent on your experience with lifting weights, and the next few paragraphs will break down just how hard you need to train based on your current abilities and past experience.
Beginners have a significant advantage in that they’ll see results from doing the bare minimum in the weight room. If you’ve just begun, or even never done any lifting (or at least lifting properly), you’ll get results from almost any exercise program.
The most important thing for beginners to focus on is doing the most effective exercises safely and with the right technique. A great mindset for beginners is to treat the main lifts like the squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press and rows as “practice”.
Mastering the technique for these lifts early on in your lifting journey is highly important for long-term success and pain free movement.
Generally speaking, the optimal training split for a beginner is a 3 day/week full body program, like my Kickstart Program. As long as you’re adding weight to the bar and/or doing more reps each time you train, you’ll continue to get results until you’ve run out of “newbie gain luck”.
Eventually, you begin to shift into the intermediate level of lifting, and you’ll have to make some adjustments to avoid plateauing.
Intermediate lifters should still maintain a high degree of focus on great technique, following the right program, and progressing in either weight or rep count. But if they’re consistently stopping their sets too far from failure, they’ll end up frustrated with their lack of progress.
It’s important to note that failure in regards to weight training is defined as technical failure, not complete inability to move the weight. Technical failure is how many reps you’re able to do with perfect technique.
Studies show that sets close to failure are the ones that produce the most stimulus. These reps are called “effective reps”. Anything more than 4 reps shy of failure is almost a completely wasted set. So if you could easily do 15 perfect reps in a squat and you stop your set at 9 or 10, you’ve essentially just performed a warmup set that won't cause your muscles to grow.
The best range to train in is the 1-3 reps shy of failure range, also known as reps in reserve (RIR). If you’re training in this range for each working set, you’re ensuring that you’re performing 1-3 effective reps each set without excessively stressing the joints and nervous system.
To paint this picture more clearly, If you do a set of 9 when your technical failure point is 10, you’ve done 3 effective reps (because the first 6 were too far from failure). Essentially, once it starts to burn and feel uncomfortable, you have another 4-5 reps (or more) in the tank.
Something to focus on as an intermediate lifter is to learn what true failure feels like occasionally by reaching it with safely failable lifts (so, not bench press without a spotter). Once you know how it feels to reach failure, you’ll have a better idea of how 1-3 RIR feels.
Your gains will not be as linear and as drastic as they were when you were just starting out, but this shouldn’t deter you from training hard. Generally speaking, 12-20 hard sets per muscle group per week is what to shoot for as an intermediate.
Like all things in fitness, there will be genetic (or PED related) individual virances, but this is a good ballpark. Intermediate lifters should also train each muscle group at least twice per week. Just because your favorite IFBB pro bodybuilder has a “chest day”, “back day”, “quad day”, “hamstring day” does not mean that intermediate lifters should follow suit.
I prefer an upper/lower/push/pull/legs if training 5 days per week (my 19 Week Hypertrophy Program is exactly this) or an upper/lower/upper/lower if 4 days is your preference. More than 5 days per week of lifting is something I generally advise against.
You can also make great gains with a 3 day/week full body program just like beginners can! Although occasional failure training is important, doing it too often can lead to overuse injuries, fatigue, and stalled progress. Once you’ve perfected your form and learned how to train hard, you can begin to consider yourself more advanced.
Once you’ve been lifting weights consistently and properly for years (at least a decade), you begin to move into the advanced category. Many people consider themselves advanced, but then I’ll see them in the gym and learn otherwise.
The consistency part is key here. If you started lifting 20 years ago, but you regularly “fall off the wagon” or rely on motivation to train hard for periods of time and then stop, you’re simply not advanced.
Advanced lifters have nearly reached their genetic muscle building potential, have excellent technique, have the ability to autoregulate, or train according to how they’re feeling, and therefore need to take a meticulous approach to their training in order to continue to progress.
Once you’re advanced, your body will not simply respond to going through the motions. Advanced lifters must train extremely hard if they want to keep gaining muscle. Conversely, an advantage of being advanced is that to maintain the muscle you’ve already gained, the work required is quite minimal.
You can train each bodypart for 5 hard sets per week and maintain 99% of your muscle if you’ve spent years building it. In fact, many people believe that advanced trainees must continue to do more volume year after year to continue to progress.
This may work for some, especially those using PED’s, but the real secret to making gains when advanced is to train hard, and focus on making progress in other ways besides adding more sets, reps, and weight. It’s unrealistic to think that an advanced trainee will progress like a beginner.
If that were the case, I’d squat 5,000+ lbs. At some point, the boy cannot continue linear progression, and things like increasing your range of motion, improving your mind-muscle connection, and utilizing different exercises and equipment to provide your muscles novelty becomes the name of the game.
Regardless of your experience with lifting, working hard simply feels good. It’s what keeps you coming back for more. Once you’ve learned the basic movements, it’s then time to learn what hard work feels like. If you’re always trying to avoid the burn or stopping each set too far from failure, you’ll never know what your true potential may have been.
Thank you for reading! Let me know what your thoughts are on training intensity in the comments section below.