Effort is King: Increase Hypertrophy and Strength by Training HARD

Written by Matt Webb

Something my clients will hear me ask them ad nauseam is this question: 

How many more reps do you think you could have been able to perform on that last exercise?

This question is important for my understanding of how to manage a trainee’s session with me so we can maximize the results they are getting. Effort is king when developing strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth). High effort, specifically. 

Reps in Reserve and Autoregulation

Training to absolute failure is typically not what we’re after. Ideally, we will be training close to failure. Close to failure can be categorized by a reps in reserve (RIR) number of 1-4, with 2 or 3 being the sweet spot. Without training close to failure, our muscles will not be provided enough of a stimulus to elicit significant benefits. And well, that is why you are here after all! This question and the accuracy and honesty of your answer is an important skill we need to develop so that we can optimize our time in the weight room. 

An important feature in all this effort talk is the concept of autoregulation. What is autoregulation? It is the trainee’s qualitative understanding of their bodies and minds that day. Some days a set of bench press at 185 Ibs for 5 repetitions may feel like a reps in reserve score of 0. You physically could not perform one more repetition even with someone next to you offering a million dollars for you to lift that weight one more time.

Other days, those exact same sets of bench press may feel to you like an RIR of 5. Why is this? Strength and growth is not always a simple linear progression. Along the way to developing your strength, there will undoubtedly be peaks and valleys. Some days you may come into the gym with little sleep, not enough water, food, or mental focus to perform at your best. That is okay! You are here and going through the motions is usually better than skipping the workout altogether. We’re still going to perform the exercises, but we will modify as needed to meet you where you are on that day. 

In contrast, there will be days you come in and feel like the Hulk. You slept well, ate well, you’re hydrated, and your intrinsic motivation is sky high! On these days we are going to push it harder. Those are the days where we will confidently add weight, repetitions, volume, etc. to get everything out of the training session and expand your current capabilities. 

For additional information, I am linking an excellent research article from PubMed that further highlights the strengths and limitations of the reps in reserve concept.


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