Are You Lifting Hard Enough?

Getting results in the gym is typically a matter of checking a few boxes.

  1. Are you eating in accordance with your goals?
  2. Are you sleeping enough?
  3. Are you doing enough volume?

The first two questions ought to be addressed in their own posts, but for now I want to focus on the volume aspect.

Traditionally, volume has been described as the total reps X average weight per rep. A slightly more nuanced, supplemental description has come up that defines volume as number of total challenging sets. Challenging sets are defined as sets that put you within 0 to 4 reps shy of failure (no longer able to complete a rep with proper form).

You might wonder, “How am I supposed to know what failure feels like though? Isn’t that dangerous?”

In some contexts, like doing deadlifts as a beginner, yes, that would be dangerous.

Fear not, my friendly beginner example, because there’s plenty of safe ways to experience failure that won’t leave you in existential dread, pondering the “what-ifs” that may have changed your life entirely.

Failure may feel a bit different depending on person and/or body part you are taking to failure. So instead of getting under a heavy barbell or something else that relies on coordination alongside strength, use a machine or something similar!

Some upper body exercises:

Lat Pulldown
Seated Machine Row
Machine Chest Flies
Machine Chest Press
Machine Shoulder Press
Tricep Extensions
Bicep curls with literally anything

Some lower body exercises:

Lying Hamstring Curl
Seated Leg Extension
Standing/seated Calf Raises
Adductor/Abductor machine
That one glute machine that makes you put your leg in the air and push back while simultaneously threatening to kick your ass out of that sorry excuse for a chair while the whole gym watches
Horizontal Leg Press

Take any of these exercises to absolute failure and you will be just fine! As long as you set up properly (don’t do a handstand and try to use your feet on the chest press), you can fail with impunity.

Once you know what it feels like, try to keep most of your sets within 1-3 reps from failure, the sweet spot being 2 reps from failure. As a beginner, this will help ensure you stay safe and get some solid muscular and strength gains while starting out.

Curious about a more in-depth scientific look at the topic? Check out Greg Nuckol’s article here, where he talks about the many ways people have tried to make sense of volume and its relationship to hypertrophy and strength.

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