'Common sense' tells you that you should be training as hard as possible in the gym. 20 straight sets. Panting; red-faced; a tear escaping from the corner of your eye as you squeeze out one last rep on overhead presses 😢
Well … here’s the thing. Common sense can be wrong.
Take, for instance, the fact that we used to think the Earth is stationary. And that we must, therefore, be at the center of the universe. Look how that turned out.
But enough about that.
Back to our topic on hand: how hard should you be training – really, for optimal muscle growth? Plus, how would you ever know if you’re indeed training ‘hard’ enough (whatever the definition may be) for muscle hypertrophy?
Find the answers to these questions right here.
Signs you’re training hard enough
The critical thing to realize here is that 'hard enough' isn't simply a feeling. It isn't about struggling to catch your breath, tripping over your feet because you're so tired, or falling down the stairs thanks to jelly legs.
You can’t just say that you’re training hard enough because you believe it. You have to do the following instead.
You’re hitting your optimal training volume
Going to the gym as and when you wish? Going to the gym for 1 week – then skipping on the next?
Bad news: you’re not training hard enough. For optimal muscle growth, you’re going to have to be consistent with your training routine. There's also an 'optimal training volume' (which differs based on your lifting experience) per muscle group you need to hit weekly.
- Beginner lifters (<a year of consistent lifting): 6 to 10 working sets
- Advanced lifters: 16 to 20 working sets
Let’s say your goal is to get bigger arms.
Take a look at your current workout routine. How many sets of arm-specific exercises – both for biceps and triceps – are you doing? There you have it. One of the easiest ways to tell if you’re training ‘hard enough’.
Make sure to repeat across all muscle groups you wish to grow.
Bonus tip: you should also be spacing out your training volume appropriately. Research shows that your muscles experience the most growth when you hit your required training volume AND train them at least 2-3 times a week.
Meaning? You definitely shouldn’t be doing 20 straight sets in a single session per muscle group. In fact, the maximum you should do is 10 sets; anything more than that is ‘junk volume’.
You’re pushing close to failure
Want to know how you can tell if you’re training hard enough for optimal muscle growth?
Monitor your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during every set. This is a scale between 1 to 10 commonly used by personal trainers: 1 is easy, while 10 is extremely difficult.
You want to make sure you’re using a rep range and weight that allows you to hang around the 7 to 8 region. This means you should be pushing close to failure (keyword: close! Do not go to failure!)
Wondering why you can't go to failure? Well, remember how you have to hit a particular training volume that's specific to your lifting experience? Yep.
Training to (actual) failure can make recovery tricky.
Muscle soreness could last for a long time – throwing your planned weekly training sessions into disarray. And that'll mean leaving gains on the table since you wouldn't be able to achieve your desired training volume.
Yes … knowing just how hard you should be pushing yourself in the gym is pretty challenging.
Signs you’re training too hard
That said, there are a few tell-tale signs that you’re pushing too hard in the gym. If any of the following sounds familiar to you, re-evaluate your training program and scale back on its intensity as necessary. Do not try to grit your teeth and bear it (it’s not worth it!)
Feeling like death, personified
Falling sick more often? Feeling super unmotivated to get to the gym, when you used to wake up at 5 am – looking forward to crushing your PBs?
Yeah … you could be suffering from a phenomenon known as ‘overtraining’.
This is where you see a decrease in performance because you've been working out too much and too intensely while failing to give your body adequate recovery time.
So, what should you do if you feel like you’re overtraining? Here are a few tips:
- Implement a deload week: Take it easy for the next week. Drop your training volume. Chances are, you’d feel better. And be able to get back onto your regular programming soon after.
- Restructure your training program: Still feeling meh about training even after you’ve taken a deload week? Consider taking a hard look at your current training program. It’s likely too much, too soon for you (and your body!) Revamp it – and make sure you plan for recovery days, plus deload weeks.
- Implement lifestyle changes as necessary: You can avoid overtraining by minimizing stress, getting adequate sleep nightly, and making sure that you’re eating right (including taking care of your calorie, macronutrients, and micronutrients intake).
Unable to progressively overload safely
You know progressive overload is a good thing. Challenging your muscles overtime is necessary for growth.
But, sometimes, you may not be ready for it. If your form starts breaking down the moment you go heavier on a movement, put it down – there are plenty of ways you could place a greater stimulus on your muscles without opting for a heavier load.
- Go for more reps
- Put your muscles through a greater range of motion
- Reducing your rest times
Bottom line? Form and safety first.
Struggling to find the right training intensity?
As you can probably tell by now, there’s a fine line between training ‘hard enough’ and not. Facing difficulties locating the sweet spot between the two?
Then you’ll appreciate GymStreak. It’s an AI-powered workout planner that knows (precisely) when you should be increasing – or maybe even decreasing – your workout intensity.
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Morgan, W. P., Brown, D. R., Raglin, J. S., O’Connor, P. J., & Ellickson, K. A. (1987). Psychological monitoring of overtraining and staleness. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(3), 107–114.
Morishita, S., Tsubaki, A., Takabayashi, T., & Fu, J. B. (2018). Relationship between the rating of perceived exertion scale and the load intensity of resistance training. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 40(2), 94–109. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000373
Set Volume for Muscle Size: The Ultimate Evidence Based Bible. (n.d.). Weightology. Retrieved August 13, 2021, from https://weightology.net/the-members-area/evidence-based-guides/set-volume-for-muscle-size-the-ultimate-evidence-based-bible/