Research suggests that in order to gain strength and size you have to overload your muscle by pushing it beyond it’s present capacity. From this theory of what is called the overload principle, we know that intensity is the key to gaining muscle. This is where muscle growth occurs.
I conclude that one set to failure is not only all that it takes, but the most optimal. Does that mean you only do one set in your entire workout? No! You need to perform warm-up sets to prime the muscle for that one all-out set along with cool-down sets to flush out the ammonia, toxins, and lactic acid that built up from the stress you placed it in during that one all-out set to failure.
However, your definition of failure and my definition of failure are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
Failure does not occur when you put 225 pounds on the bench press, lift it for 9 times, and because you can’t get it up for the 10th rep, you stop. Many people refer to that as failure. However, do not get confused because of the misuse and misunderstanding of this commonly used term. Too often do I see people refer to their cowardly sets as reaching failure. It is just that they are either a) uneducated on how to properly perform an adequate failure set; or b) their mental constraints were too tight to allow their bodies to experience failure. They may be uncomfortable at that present moment in time but definitely not realizing what their muscle is actually capable of once they unlock their minds to allow their bodies to experience such pain. They have not reached complete exhaustion to the point where there is a total cessation of performing potential additional work.
So let’s refer back to the previous example of the 225 pound bench press. Stopping after 9 reps may mean you have failed to perform 225 anymore, but think logically here. Isn’t it possible that you could perform 220 pounds for 1 rep? And then 210 for another? And then 200 for 2 additional reps? And so on down the line? The answer is yes to all of the above. That means your muscle technically has not reached absolute failure when failing to complete rep 9. Your muscle still has juice left in it to continue to work. Therefore, theoretically, failure would have to mean that you’ve worked your muscle so hard that you couldn’t lift 1 more pound off of your chest for one more rep. Obviously that is unrealistic but do you get my point? That should be the standard for what you are trying to achieve when attempting to reach failure. You’ve got to apply more effort than what you are currently doing. That one set to failure needs to be the definition of living hell if you want to see the best possible results.
Focusing on quality, not quantity is what is important here.
Stimulation occurs when you’ve gone to failure. However, that does not suggest to you that you should go to failure each and every set. Studies show that stimulation occurs with just one set to failure and that anything more than that provides no further stimulation. The muscle fibers are completely torn with that one failure set. Going to failure set after set is going to damage them to the point where overtraining occurs.
There is such a thing as overtraining and overstimulation to the point where repair cannot adequately take place. Once a muscle has been thoroughly stimulated, anything applied further beyond that can actually hurt you, hindering growth, rather than supporting it. Think about it. If you damage the fibers properly then they are forced to repair. However, if you stress it further than that, you are damaging the already torn fibers to the point where it takes that much longer to repair them just to reach the level that they were at prior to exercise. Now logic may tell you that the more they are damaged, the more they are going to rebuild past their normal level. However, this is not the case. Once the muscle fibers are torn, that’s all the muscle requires to stimulate growth of the muscle to develop stronger and bigger. Damaging of these torn muscles is just going to hinder your growth.
8x Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, known by many to be one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, always preached to “train to stimulate, not annihilate”. He also believed that “it doesn’t take a ton of weight to stimulate a muscle to grow, just the correct stimulus.
You will want to choose one set of one exercise per muscle group where you will go all-out for that set using one of the following to do so:
When you cannot complete another rep on your own with the weight you currently are performing, drop the weight down and bang out some more reps without any rest in between. In a two set drop set, decrease the weight so that you can perform at least 8 reps on your second set.
This is a drop set, but performed multiple times. Perform a three, four, five, or six set drop set, where you continually lower the weight upon each successive set. In a strip set, the range of reps is up to you, but make sure you mentally push through to get as many done as you can with strict form.
When you cannot complete another rep on your own, have a training partner assist you by applying only the required help necessary for you to keep the weigh moving for extra reps. Shoot for 5-6 more reps with the assistance.
Using heavier weight than you are used to, lower the weight very slowly on the negative portion of the rep (it should take 4-5 seconds to complete that half rep) and have a partner help you as much as necessary on the positive portion of the rep. For instance, aim for 6-8 total reps on a weight that you possibly could only do for 2 reps with your partner’s assistance.
Take brief rest periods during a set to squeeze out more reps. For instance, if you use a weight you can lift for 6 reps, only do 2-3 reps. Take a brief rest of up to 20 seconds at most and try for another 2-3 reps. Rest again and repeat the process. You will essentially lift the same weight for more reps in this one set.
5, 5, 5
This set consists of 5 fast reps (explosion of only 1 second for both the negative and positive portion of the rep), followed by 5 very slow reps (5 seconds on each the negative and positive portion of the rep), then followed by 5 normal reps (2 seconds on each the negative and positive portion of the rep). This works all twitches of the muscle fibers. Keep the same weight for all 15 reps, but make sure a proper weight is chosen, where you are really struggling to get those last 5 in. Have a spotter help you. Also, you can vary it so you start out with a heavy weight for the first 5, then immediately after with no rest, use a low weight (around 40% of your 1 rep max) for the 5 very slow reps. Then raise the weight for your 5 normal reps (around 60% of your 1 rep max) for the 5 normal reps.
Using multiple exercises that focus on the same bodypart, one set consists of performing at least 3 exercises in a row without rest. For instance, during back you could do a pull-up straight to a bent over barbell row straight to a wide grip lat pulldown. Ensure that there is no rest in between the set.
Slow and Controlled Reps
Take 4-5 seconds on each portion of the rep. Have a spotter help you just enough when you’ve failed.
Pause Contraction Reps
Pause at different phases of the movement to realize an incredible contraction. For instance, during a squat throw on 50% of your one rep max and pause halfway for 3-5 seconds then pause at the bottom position at parallel for 3-5 seconds and then back up halfway with a hold and then at the top with a hold (that is one rep). Complete it as many times as you can. Once you can’t hold it anymore, bang out as many normal reps as possible with the help of a spotter. You can switch up the times you are paused. For real intensity, hold it at the bottom, midway, and top positions for 20 seconds at a time.
Peak Contraction Reps
Hold the peak contraction for up to five seconds on each rep. Squeeze the muscle as hard as you can before starting the next rep.
Instead of performing your normal rep range, which most people keep within the 6-15 rep range, you are going to shoot for 30, sometimes, 50, and even up to 100 reps. Choose a moderately heavy weight but one where you can perform a good amount of reps. Keep focused and keep pushing them out for an incredible amount of reps. It’s really all mental. For instance, put 135 pounds on your back for a squat. Bang out 10 at a time, hold at the top position for 5 seconds and breathe, then bang out another 10 reps, and another 10 reps and so forth until you’ve reached failure.