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Are you training or just working out? Chances are you’re not the best when it comes to assessing your own training intensity. It’s not a factor that should be brushed aside. Training intensity can be a big deal considering the most important factor for maximizing strength and lean muscle gain is—wait for it—hard work. Even experienced lifters have difficulty distinguishing between discomfort and the feeling of challenging their muscles to the point they are optimally stimulated.
Consequently, one of the biggest challenges on the fitness side that separates advanced athletes from lifelong intermediates is learning to go beyond these initial feelings of discomfort. Almost every athlete perceives discomfort as more significant than it really is. Our natural instinct is to avoid it at all costs, but if you want to reach your full potential, you better start prioritizing intensity and recovery!
Many lifters worry about overtraining, but the reality is most people quit too early. The “mental toughness” or ability to accurately gauge exertion that accompanies pushing your limits is a learned skill. This is good news because it can be learned. The issue then is finding the right balance between sufficiently pushing yourself to progress and assuring your ability to consistently recover from your training.
The main problem with many gymgoers is that gauging their training intensity is not intuitive for most people. New to intermediate lifters drastically sell themselves short on how much weight they can move or how hard they can go. Studies have shown that when given a standardized weight and asked to predict the number of reps they can complete before reaching muscle failure, lifters routinely underestimate their ability by about three reps on average. Sometimes, however their predictions are off by as much as 11 rep).
When allowed to self-select weight, athletes routinely choose significantly lighter loads than they are capable of. In one study, when trainees were asked to choose a weight they believed they could move for a 10-rep max on bench press to failure, they routinely completed close to five extra reps due to underestimating their ability. In some cases, the self-selection error was so far off they were able to complete 11 reps more than their target! They were attempting a load that allows more than double their intended reps.
As few as 20% of experienced lifters prove to accurately estimate their true limit within an acceptable margin of error. This leads to performing excessive volume or does not provide an adequate challenge when given a prescribed number of reps. Not only does this slow or stall their progress, it can actually make the issue worse because resistance training performed with a light load until failure induces higher degrees of effort, discomfort, and displeasure without increasing effectiveness. That’s all the pain for a lot less gains!
We have two issues at play regardless of whether our goal is to gain size or strength: We want to sufficiently push ourselves to near failure, but at the same time we don’t want to push ourselves so much that we hamper our ability to recover.
The old way of training used percentages of one-rep maxes (1RM) to give lifters a guide as to what weight to choose for each set, but this comes with many downsides, particularly how inaccurate it becomes the farther you move away from about three to five reps. Percentages do not consider individual variation or how you are feeling that day, and appear to be error-prone due to individual differences between not only the lifter’s genetics and their training backgrounds, but the specific exercise itself, tempo, focus of attention, and rest periods used.
Let’s simplify things! Assuming your program prescribes specific set and rep targets, a good rule of thumb is to make the base of your training shoot for 1-3 reps short of failure (each set) to hit that sweet spot of optimizing benefits without unnecessarily taxing your body. Luckily, there are some ways you can test this to make sure you are working in the right range for you.
One helpful trick is to take specific sets intentionally to failure in your first two weeks of a new training block to verify you have chosen the proper weight to progress for the rest of that cycle. Let’s assume you plan to train each set two reps short of failure. You select a weight you believe you can do for two reps beyond your prescribed number of reps (any subsequent reps should reach failure if you have chosen correctly).
You lift this weight for as many reps as it takes for momentary muscle failure. If you achieve more than two reps beyond your target number, then it’s time to add some weight because you undershot with your guesstimate. If you fail on the third rep beyond your prescribed number, then you are dead on. This is an easy, fool-proof way to test how far away from failure you are with any weight you have chosen.
If you are still concerned, most people that go to the gym are more than happy to be your spotter as long as you ask politely, and you know that powerlifter has the strength and time between sets to help you out! Many times, this is the only confidence boost you need to take lifting beyond your normal limits into the proper range. Ask someone for a spot and intentionally take yourself to momentary muscle failure. Now you have a rough gauge. Dial that back to whatever your targets are, then start progressing from there the next training session.
The important concept throughout all of this is that you are likely, at least initially, a lousy gauge of how capable you are. Dial in your training with a test period at the beginning of a training cycle. There are ways to test your absolute limits safely, so take advantage of those when you start a new training block to establish a baseline that is better than a guesstimate. Then get to lifting some iron!
Now that you have some tricks to identify a good starting point, you must take into account ways to monitor both effectiveness of your training and the fatigue it creates which directly affects your recovery from session to session. I suggest keeping four things in mind:
Many coaches use similar systems; I am certainly not the first to employ these. These are markers I’ve learned through personal experience and through observation of what has worked with my own athletes over time. It isn’t the particulars that matter, but finding what produces the most reliable results for you. Feel free to modify these as you see fit.
Just as scale weight doesn’t tell the whole story in a weight loss phase, each of these on their own does not tell the whole story of progress. But combined they paint a decently clear picture.
The flip side to this coin is pushing too hard for too long. Overtraining can be a significant issue that may present as systemic inflammation and subsequent effects on the central nervous system, including depressed mood, central fatigue, and neurohormonal changes. (11)
It is unlikely that most people will ever reach the point of overtraining. It is most common with extremely high volume or endurance training, but I’ve provided warning signs to help you monitor your recovery:
These range from minor annoyances that build to serious problems from the onset. Keep in mind, an off week is not a cause for concern. Sometimes life crops up and we have social, school, or work stress that drains our energy. If you are noticing one or more of these signs lasting three weeks or more, it may be time for some quality R&R.
Both too little and too much training intensity can prevent you from achieving your full potential. This means it is key to balance both pushing yourself hard enough and monitoring your recovery from session to session. Use the methods outlined here to find your starting point, and then monitor both progress and fatigue moving forward.
When you find that sweet spot, you’ll be blown away not only by how much faster you gain lean muscle and strength, but by learning how capable you really are. This will allow you to progress as effectively and safely as possible.