If you’ve been training a while, you’ll invariable come across a lot of quotes and memes pertaining to “training hard” – beastmode, train heavy or go home, no pain, no gain…..
People often talk about training “hard” but don’t really define exactly what that means to them.
Is it performing a certain number of exercises? Is it performing a certain number of sets?
Is it doing more than you need to do? Is it going above and beyond the requirements for growth and strength? Is it training with a high frequency? 2 hours per day?
To me, the question shouldn’t really be about how “hard” you think you’re training, but doing what’s effective for the intended result.
In other words, targeting a specific training effect in each workout, and ending once that effect has been reached.
One of the best analogies I’ve come across regarding this subject (and I can’t remember who came up with it) – is akin to someone trying to climb a mountain. If the goal is to reach the pinnacle of the mountain, you’d probably think of the most effective and efficient way to climb the mountain. You wouldn’t try to figure out the most difficult way to get to the top – the path that took the greatest amount of energy, supplies, effort, and time…etc.
So why should training be any different?
This does not mean there isn’t great effort applied or you can be lazy – It means, you do what it takes to get from point A to point B, without traveling to point C first.
The “least amount” could still be a LOT of work for some people. Yet that amount of work might have been the minimal amount required for a specific individual in order to reach a certain goal.
On the flip side of this – If you don’t go borderline crazy from time to time you lose sight of what training hard means. An occasional lesson in pain in the gym will allow you to keep things in perspective and build a certain amount of mental fortitude.
Ultimately, the point I’m making here is that training “hard” isn’t THE primary goal itself, it’s a requirement to get you to your goal. You cannot gauge the effectiveness of a training session or programme based on the level of discomfort it causes.
Here is a little quote from a guy named Christian Thibaudeau (a world reknown strength coach) on the subject that I think summarizes this point nicely…
“Feeling the burn. Driving yourself into the ground. Feeling crippling soreness. Puking. Not being able to walk after leg day. Not being able to drive after arm day.
All of the above are badges of honour for many lifters, but none of them guarantee that your workout was positive and will lead to improvements. Regardless, many of us prefer to focus on these elements rather than on objective progression…
Why? Because doing madman workouts makes you look hardcore, like a warrior. Your workout often turns into a test of how much suffering you can endure…
Causing severe discomfort in the gym is easy; it doesn’t require much smarts to do it. Getting results over the long run is another story. That requires skill and knowledge”
So what does training intensity mean?
Intensity is the parameter that determines much of the training effect. If your goal is to develop absolute strength, then that will require certain levels of intensity, just as if your goal is to develop hypertrophy (muscular size), it wouldn’t make sense to train with very light weights.
The weight on the bar – or more accurately, the effort required to move it – will determine the vast majority of your training effect.
So if you’re training with a purpose in mind – any purpose – and aren’t paying attention to intensity, then there’s a strong chance that you won’t achieve the effect you desire regardless of the exercise you choose.
When it comes to strength training/lifting….the word Intensity has two variables –
Relative Intensity is simply how much load or weight you’re working with relative to your max. It can often be expressed as a percentage of a person’s maximum – for example: If you have a 100kg bench press and are lifting 60kg your intensity is 60%. If you’re lifting 90kg your intensity is 90%.
Perceived Intensity “aka: Intensity of effort” is how much psychological and physical effort you’re exerting. The lifter with a 100kg max bench press lifting with 60kg could actually put more effort into his/her set than he/she could lifting 90kg, so it’s possible to have high intensity of effort and a low relative intensity in terms of bar weight and vice versa.
How much intensity you apply to each of your training sessions will vary from person to person, which is why some people can get great results by training 3 times a week with little volume and heavy weights, and others need a totally different style. This brings us to the next question….
HOW MANY SETS SHOULD YOU DO?
One of the questions people want to know the answer to is – how many sets should you do for each exercise?
Many people like to talk about training volume – the quantity of sets, reps and exercises they do….e.g: “I killed myself yesterday doing a high volume leg workout” but don’t really understand it.
Have you ever wondered why so many training routines in magazines typically prescribe 3 sets of 10? or why that person over there is doing 12 sets and that other person is doing 18? Is 4 sets better than 3?
Rather than given specific recommendations on how many sets to do, the key point to understand from all this is that volume you do will depend largely on both the intensity and the amount of effort you put into your sets as well as the individual’s tolerance to training stress.
As a trainer, I rarely like to prescribe a “fixed” number of sets or percentages for my clients when I’m training them face to face for the simple fact that it largely depends on the current physiological and mental state of that person or what we call “physical preparedness”.
Of course, there are certain guiding principles I abide by, especially with written programmes, but perhaps the biggest mishap of traditional training programmes is the assumption that if you can prescribe the total workload or volume on paper, you can prescribe the training effect it will have on a person.
For example – if I tell you to do 5 sets of 5 with 100kg – that gives you a total workload of 2,500….but that does not mean that this particular workload is going to have a positive training effect for you.
Even for the exact same individual, different levels of volume and intensity will cause different levels of stress on different days and this is something that requires a certain amount of fine tuning on the individual’s part or observation if you’re a trainer/coach/PT.
Say you only got two hours of sleep last night, go stuck in a massive traffic jam on your way from work and then had an argument with your better half when you got home.
Do you think that you’re going to be able to handle the same amount of volume and intensity as usual? And even if you can, do you think it will cause the same amount of fatigue/stress? – Clearly not.
Simply put – the amount of volume you do – that is, the number of sets and reps….should ideally be a sliding scale based on the intensity you’re working at, the effort you’re putting into those sets as well as your physical preparedness. A training programme can only give you guidelines…it’s a map, but not the territory itself.
HIGH VOLUME Vs HIGH INTENSITY
Much like philosophy – there are often competing schools of thought when it comes to strength training….
Some people advocate high frequency, others believe volume is the most important parameter and others will say intensity is the key….
So who is right?
The truth is – there is a relationship between each of those parameters and it’s important to understand how each of these effects the other – they’re all moving parts of the same big puzzle.
It would be foolish for me to sit here and make blanket statements like “squatting 3 times per week will work better than squatting once per week” or “high volume is better for muscle growth” without defining the context in which I am applying those suggestions or taking into account the individual’s needs.
Now, if you’ve been around a while you’ve probably heard the maxim, “You can train hard or you can train long, but you can’t do both.”
You have to decide on which of those variables – the volume, intensity and frequency – that you need to push and what you need to scale back on.
As a general rule…
Higher Volume based schemes – generally use more sets, reps and exercises
High Intensity based schemes – tend to use less sets, heavier weights and or/maximal effort.
Let’s look at both styles of training to clarify this point further….
- High Intensity/Low Volume Training
“High intensity/low volume training” has various definitions. Either way, it usually means keeping the total amount of sets per muscle group/exercise low and pushing sets to, or extremely close to, muscle failure or maximal effort.
The idea behind this “lower volume” training approach is you have at least 1 “top” set each workout where you go all out and your goal during that 1 set is to do either more reps or lift more weight than you did last time.
You monitor strength gains by increases in reps or weight lifted and the focus is setting PRs on a very regular basis – ideally almost every workout if possible.
Simple put – the basic idea behind this methodology is that by narrowing your goal down to relatively few exercises and few sets with a focus on setting PRs on a regular basis….you can’t help but progress.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you only do one set and you can certainly do more than one exercise but you’ll have relatively few sets each workout that really “count”.
Let’s say you’re doing squats and you want to hit one top/maximal effort set for somewhere between 8-10 reps. At your last workout you did 110kg for 6 reps and you want to improve on that number. Your entire squat workout might look like this:
40kgs x 10
60kg x 5
80kg x 3
100kg x 2
110kg x 8 reps (or as many reps as possible…goal is to beat 6 reps)
The idea is you do enough warm-up or build up sets to get fully prepared for that one maximal run at a PR.
Also, notice how there are several warmup sets but the reps are kept lower to avoid excessive fatigue from building up. The goal here is focused on that “top set”.
Would that be the only thing you did that workout? Typically not.
You might do one or 2 more max effort sets of a different exercise or even a second set on squats with 10-15% less weight for a repeated effort…etc.
Advantages & Disadvantages
If you warmup properly and are as fired up as you should be it’s really difficult to do more than 1 or 2 truly maximal sets per workout for each muscle group, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
It’s an advantage because it keeps your focus where it should be – training hard while adding weight or reps to foundational exercises = progressive overload.
It’s a disadvantage because it inherently limits your volume, which again is an important component to training. This style of training is also very mentally draining and much harder on the nervous system.
There are ways around these limitations, but most people can’t truly use this method optimally from the get go because they haven’t taught themselves how.
True max effort set training fosters a mind-set and attitude that will rapidly increase the rate and extent you are capable of fatiguing yourself on a set to set basis.
If you ask the average person to do a 100% maximal set they may go after it hard but they’ll most likely be able to repeat that set 1 or 2 more times with the same weight. But if you take someone who has lots of high intensity experience try this they likely be able to wear themselves out with one set.
There are exceptions with lower rep sets (which I don’t recommend using this method with) because they don’t create the same amount of muscular fatigue, but for most part, this principle holds true.
Bottom line: If you’re REALLY pushing these top sets you shouldn’t be able to duplicate a truly maximal effort more than once or twice in the same workout and as a result, you’re total volume must be kept lower.
- High Volume Training
Again, the definition of “high volume” depends on who you ask.
For some it means the typical bodybuilding split that consists of multiple exercises for several sets for each body part, performing anywhere from 50-100 reps per exercise/body part.
In the end, it means using several sets per exercise and thus more volume.
For example, if someone is doing 5 sets of 10 on dumbbell presses, they won’t typically get close to failure on any set. They may be using a weight that allows them to perform 15 reps, but they do sets of 10 with it.
A general recommendation for higher volume training is to keep each set 2 reps shy of failure/maximal effort, most of the time.
If you’re doing 5 sets on a particular exercise the first two or three sets will be submaximal but the last set or two will be tough due to accumulative fatigue.
Advantages & Disadvantages
The main advantage of this type of training is that by keeping most sets shy of maximal effort it allows you to get a lot more quality work in.
The bad thing about it is you’re rarely ever truly training at 100% effort.
A lot of people that train with a high volume tend to lift the same weights and do the same reps workout to workout, week to week, and month to month, because the focus on improving workout to workout isn’t the same. There’s some truth to the mind-set that you’ll instinctually hold back earlier in a workout if you know you have a lot of work and multiple sets to do.
On the flip side, you don’t need to mentally psych yourself up for lifts and you can potentially train with a higher frequency – which is yet another variable to consider.
There is less nervous system fatigue with this style of training and it’s generally a little more joint friendly. This means you’ll likely recover quicker (as long as total training volume isn’t too crazy).
The main disadvantage I can see with this type of training is that, for some people, it’s difficult to hold yourself back when you know you can do more reps or use more weight. This isn’t really a con, but it can be difficult for certain people mentally.
A second disadvantage is that if you’re using a much higher training volume that could mean more time in the gym, which means that for some people, if you’re going in the gym, doing the same exercises over and over for several sets, you may find yourself getting bored and struggling to focus on the task at hand.
NOTE: I should also point out here that training doesn’t have to be limited to one method or the other and there are several ways in which to find a happy medium between the two methodologies I’ve discussed here – which would take too long to cover now.
WHAT TRAINING STYLE IS BEST?
What method or style of training you choose depends on your training status, your goals, your lifestyle….even your personality.
People often over-estimate how much a person’s mind-set can have of the effectiveness of their training. Everyone seems to be looking for that magic routine or programme or exercises, when the reality is – the best programme is the one you’ll actually stick to and put the most effort into consistently.
You should always make a training routine or programme fit you, not you trying to fit the programme.
This will take a certain amount of fine tuning and experimentation to figure out, but the key point I want you to take away from this is…
Don’t blinding follow someone else’s training programme without first considering all these points I’ve discussed!
Like diets, there are many different training programmes and training philosophies out there – some even have fancy names – so it generally helps to understand and learn about these basic principles in order for you to decipher what is what.
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not – add what is essentially your own” – Bruce Lee
SUMMARY: KEY POINTS (for those who tl/dr)
Training “Hard” – is subjective. Are you trying to accomplish a goal? Or simply training to cause fatigue. There is a difference between exercising and training!
The level of discomfort of a workout does not determine its effectiveness. Pain and discomfort are both by products of training, but not the goal of training. Strive for results, not how much pain you can inflict.
Efficiency won’t always be defined by quantity of work done, but by the quality of work done.
Volume, Intensity, Frequency & Effort – The rate of adaptation to training is determined by these basic variables and as long as recovery needs are met = you will make progress.
Remember there is a sliding scale between each of them. Higher volume will mean a drop in intensity and a lower volume will require a higher intensity in order to achieve a similar training effect. Frequency will also depend on the volume and intensity of your training.
This will take time and a certain amount of experience to figure out what works best for you and what style of training you actually enjoy.
Progressive overload is key – It doesn’t matter how many sets or reps you do or going #beastmode if you’re not making continual progress.
Small, incremental progressions, consistently over a long timeframe will always produce better results than short bursts of over enthusiasm and blowing your load prematurely so you can post hashtags on social media!
Don’t be the person who talks about “blasting chest 3 weeks before Marbs!”
It takes a long time to build a physique or strength and that requires consistency. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Passion and Enthusiasm! – Someone could give you the most perfect training plan based on studies and science – but if you hate it, the results will be less than optimal.
Enthusiasm and passion is an intangible part of training that science and studies can’t account for.
There is a huge mental aspect to training that is often overlooked. You must develop a training style/methodology that resonates with your goals, needs, and who you are.
If you have any questions or would like more information on specific subjects related to resistance/strength training you’d like me to cover, please fire away in the comments box on FB.
Until next time…..