Is Your Training Intensity Limiting Your Muscle Growth?

Nick Byom, MS, CSCS

Training Each Set Until Failure

One of the most common thoughts in the gym – how many reps? We’ve all sat there, wondering whether we are doing enough reps or not. Maybe the exercise doesn’t feel right. Maybe the weight is too light or too heavy. Maybe you just feel extra strong today? No matter how great your lifts feel, you will likely always wonder if they are in the correct rep range for their goals. That is, until you start taking EVERY SET to failure.

Taking an exercise to failure is something everybody experiences at one time or another. But taking every set to failure? Is that even possible? You’ve probably gone too heavy too early and regretted it later in the workout. So how do you do this? Is it even safe?

Not only is it safe, I would argue that it is 100% necessary for your muscle growth goals.

Failing The Right Way

If I absolutely had to sum up what you do in the gym in one sentence, I would say:

“You apply a specific stressor to the body in order to elicit a specific response and change in your physiology.”

This sentence sums up one of the most commonly missed aspects of training – lack of intensity. Each day that you enter the gym, your goal should be to stress the body enough so that it says “Wow, that sucked. I wasn’t ready for that. I need to be stronger, faster, bigger, etc. in case I encounter that situation again.” Only then does the body undergo a change in response to your workout.


This is not unlike learning to budget money as a young adult. If you mismanage your money and end up short on your rent payment, you learn very quickly how to manage better the next time. However, if you mismanage your money but mom and dad always bail you out, you never experience an adequate stressor that gives you a reason to change your ways.

Therefore, your main goal is to stress the body, whether that be cardiovascular, strength training, hypertrophy training, etc. Regarding training for muscle growth, it is best to train until TECHNICAL FAILURE. Technical Failure should be defined as:

1). Loss of Adequate Range of Motion

2). Loss of Muscle Isolation

3). Unsafe Movement is Present

These rules will keep you from going to full muscle failure, however will allow you to stress the muscle into changing.

“Loading the Move vs. Moving the Load”

When you walk into the gym, you have two choices as to how to attack your workout. You can either “Load the Move” or “Move the Load.” To understand the difference, you must remember that your body will recruit muscles differently depending on fatigue level and other factors. If you want to isolate your pecs during a bench press, you should limit the involvement of the triceps, shoulders, and other muscle groups. However, throughout each set, your body will begin to preferentially recruit those other muscle groups to complete the reps as you fatigue.

At the end of the day, your body doesn’t give a damn if you want to avoid recruiting those other muscle groups. The body just wants the path of least resistance! Therefore, you must keep close focus on whether you are truly isolating the muscle group that you intend to target. If you attempt to just “Move the Load,” then your focus is upon finishing each rep, regardless of the recruitment of other muscle groups. The person who is “Moving the Load” is the person that tries to beat their best weight each time they enter the gym. Their interest is in how much weight they can move, with little attention paid to muscle isolation. This method is necessary when training for strength increases, but can have a negative impact on muscle growth and puts you at risk for “ego lifting.”

If you attempt to “Load the Move” then your focus is on maintaining muscle isolation and a specific movement pattern. An appropriate load is applied to that movement pattern, placing stress on that specific muscle. If the load is either too heavy or too light, it is then adjusted to perform the exercise in the desired rep range. This method is very effective when training for muscle size, but can also be used for strengthening certain movements. By “Loading the Move” we can apply stress to certain muscles in a much more specific manner, which is vitally important for developing the muscle size and shape that you desire.

Changing How You Train

Amateurs try to make heavy weights feel light. Professionals try to make light weights feel heavy…

Training until failure on each set will likely cause you to change how you have traditionally approached each workout. Let’s look at a few examples:

Same Weight, Same Reps

Exercise: Dumbbell Bench Press

# of Sets: 4

Reps: 8

1st Set: 55 lbs, 8 reps, Feels Easy

2nd Set: 55lbs, 8 reps, Feels Easy

3rd Set: 55lbs, 8 reps, Fatigue Begins

4th Set: 55 lbs, 8 reps, Struggle Through Last Two Reps

This method is extremely common, however the stress needed by the muscle is not developed until the 4th set! 3 sets are used up simply trying to build enough fatigue by set 4. This method has applications in some strength/power development programs, but is sub-par for pure muscle growth.

Same Reps, Increasing Weight

Exercise: Dumbbell Bench Press

# of Sets: 4

Reps: 8

1st Set: 50 lbs, 8 reps, Very Easy

2nd Set: 55 lbs, 8 reps, Still Pretty Easy

3rd Set: 60 lbs, 8 reps, Fatigue Begins

4th Set: 65 lbs, 8 reps, Struggle Through Last Two Reps, Form Breaks on 6

This method is also extremely common, however it causes most people to start with a very low weight in order to end with a weight that can be accomplished in full. This method basically wastes the first two sets and often times causes the 4th set to be too heavy for a person’s current fatigue level.

Training to Failure

Exercise: Dumbbell Bench Press

# of Sets: 4

Rep Range: 8-12

1st Set: Aiming for 8 reps. Attempt 50lb dumbbells. Realize that the weight is too light on rep 4. Do you stop at 8? Hell no! No set left behind! Get as many reps as you can before form breaks. For this example, let’s say you get 14 reps. Excellent. Time to go heavier. But we did not waste this set.

2nd Set: Aiming for 8 reps again. Attempt 60lb dumbbells. These feel heavy. You get 9 reps total before form breaks. Once again, excellent. You pushed your limits 2 sets in a row. Maintain the same weight for the 3rd set.

3rd Set: Aiming for 8 reps. Attempt 60lb dumbbells. Fatigue sets in. You get 6 reps before form breaks. Still a great set. Adjust to a lower weight to get back into range for the 4th set.

4th Set: Aiming for as many reps as possible. Attempt 55lb dumbbells. You get 9 reps before form breaks. All done!

Now THAT is how you maximize each set of your workout. It is important to note that form breaking should be your major indicator of failure. Just because you are fatiguing or because the muscle begins to burn, that does not mean you are done. Play with this method and try to be honest about how much weight you body can handle without compromising the movement pattern. And as always...


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