How Hard Should You Train?
More than any other variable, training intensity can be the most challenging to pinpoint. It is a lot easier to determine the number of sets and repetitions for an exercise because you can quantify and scale them. How hard those repetitions are can seem a bit mysterious. If you’ve been training for any amount of time, you know what a difficult set feels like. But today, we are going to discuss EXACTLY how difficult is appropriate.
But before we get there, we first need to cover some basics of exercise programming. We are not going to get into the weeds with this, but we need to establish some basics. When writing a program, there are three variables we need to keep in mind.
First, there is intensity, which we are discussing today. As we mentioned before, intensity measures how difficult a set is for a given exercise. There are a couple ways to understand this. One way to measure intensity is based on weight lifted, which is coined "external load." This is by far the simplest approach as it is very scalable.
In order to make an exercise more intense, all you have to do is add weight. However, one thing you’ll realize is that you can’t add weight forever. There will come a point where you cannot continuously add weight every single session. Otherwise, we would all be squatting 10,000 pounds by now!
We need another approach to understand intensity.
Another way to understand intensity is reps away from failure. For example, let’s say you can squat 100 pounds for 10 reps. But those 10 reps are the most difficult thing in the world. In other words, there is no way that you could get 11 reps. You are maxed out at that weight. This is called reaching failure.
Most of the time, training at this intensity is not very productive. For that reason, we decide that you should only use 80 pounds instead of 100. That way, you have a couple of reps in the tank. With this kind of approach, the weight is only a tool that we use to get you to a certain intensity.
This method of rating intensity is generally referred to as "auto-regulation." If you have worked through any of our recent programs, you are probably familiar with this approach in the form of RPE, or rate of perceived exertion.
Think back to a time when you had to study really hard for something. If it was coursework of some kind, you first had to get very familiar with the learning material. Either by reading books, taking lecture notes or using study guides, you probably know that it’s best to start with something easy and ramp up the difficulty as you progress. This is why most course material is spaced out based on the subjects covered.
Then, when you get closer to your final exam, you’ll probably spend less time reading the actual course material and more time putting yourself into a testing environment. This might involve mock exam questions or anything that would prepare you for your final examination.
The approach that we take in strength training is not all that different. When you start a program the difficulty level of each set is relatively low. Not that it isn’t challenging in any way, but compared to where we’re going to be at the end of the program, we’re starting off moderately. Then, as the program goes on, the intensity will ramp up as we get closer to the end.
The second variable is volume, or total reps performed over time. To give a simple example, let’s say you squat twice a week, and for each session you perform three sets of five reps. Your session volume would be 15, your weekly volume would be 30, and so on.
As far as increasing volume, there is a lot we can do. We could add sets, increase the reps per set, or you could squat more than twice a week. There are good reasons behind each of these decisions, but this gives you an idea of what goes into volume.
The last variable is frequency, or total sessions per week. Frequency is inextricably linked to volume as adding sessions per week will inevitably increase volume. However, it is a variable of its own for a couple of reasons. First of which is fatigue management. For example, if you train more often throughout the week, you can space out exercises so that you have more time to recover. Secondly, you now have more time to introduce more variations to your training routine.
These three variables are in a balancing act: they work together in a program. So as we go further discussing intensity, we need to keep in mind that it is not the whole picture, but it is a big part of it.
But Hayden....how hard should I train??
I'm glad you asked!
As Hard As You Need
The first answer to the question of how hard you should train is as hard as you need! This might sound really simple, but sometimes it is. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
If you’re continuously getting stronger, gaining muscle, and recovering well between sessions, you probably don’t need to change anything. There is no evidence to the contrary. However, if your progress is stalling, then we need to reassess.
As mentioned before, there are other variables that we could manipulate. In order to figure out which one, you need to remember what your goals are. If you are trying to get as strong as possible and you want to put up a big number on the squat, you need to train with weights that resemble your goal or get you close.
This is why “as hard as possible“ is not always productive because you’ll burn out quickly. But training too easy won’t get you anywhere either.
The salutation is trying something new, seeing how you respond, and making changes accordingly.
3-4 Reps From Failure
Another way to answer this question is to look at what the exercise science literature has to say. Generally speaking, for strength and hypertrophy, 3 to 4 reps from failure is a minimum cut off. This will get you headed in the right direction and is incredibly useful! The majority of your training should not stray far from it.
But isn’t harder always better? Not really! Every time you lift weights, you get a certain stimulus from the training. On the flipside, the stimulus comes with a fatigue cost. If you train at maximum intensity all the time, the fatigue you have to fork out is greater than the benefit the stimulus provides.
A few reps shy of failure still gets you a great stimulus, but keeps the fatigue down. There are times when training to failure is appropriate, but it should not be the majority of your training.
Lastly, your training intensity will greatly depend on where you are right now. If you just started strength training for the first time, you should probably stay within the minimum range for a while.
Going back to our “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” motto, going super heavy probably isn’t necessary. Because the training is so new, your body will most likely have a very sensitive response even if the intensity is lower.
On the other hand, if you’ve been training for several years, your average training intensity will depend on what you have been doing and what you have done in the past.
In order to tie all this information together, let’s take a step back and think about this in terms of a program.
As a general rule, when starting out a new strength program, the intensity is usually at its lowest. Your working sets will start out at the low end of the effective range. As you work through it, the intensity will slowly ramp up as you develop your strength.
And if you are going for a one rep max attempt at the end of the program, then the volume will slowly drop off as the training gets more specific to your end goal.
With this kind of approach, the intensity only increases as needed, remains within the minimum effective range of 3 to 4 reps from failure, and factors in your training history.
When putting together a program, intensity is only one piece of the puzzle. But hopefully now you can see the thinking that goes behind it. We hope that this has been helpful and will put you started you in the right direction!