The concept of effective reps is that some reps of a set are more effective than others. Essentially, the theory goes that reps performed when closer to failure are more effective at stimulating muscle gain than those further from failure.
For this reason, they are also known as stimulating reps.
For something to be effective it needs to be;
“successful in producing a desired or intended result.”
The fact is that, the way many guys train is NOT effective. Look around most gyms and people don’t train hard enough to force their body to adapt. That’s why they never build muscle.
You DO NOT have to train to failure all the time to build muscle, but you DO have to train hard enough to overload the body if you want it to respond by building bigger, stronger muscles.
That’s not rocket science, but it is a limiting factor for a lot of people who think they can just do loads of sets and get big because of a large overall workload.
The major culprit for this high (but not that challenging), workload approach is probably the publicity that training volume (sets x reps x load) has got in recent years. Yes, training volume is closely correlated with the amount of muscle you build, but junk volume is not going to get the job done. It isn’t how many total sets you can do, but rather, how many hard sets you can do.
The problem with doing lots of easy sets is that there is both an intensity and volume component to building muscle. You need to work with a high enough intensity to represent an overload before you should worry about volume. Once the intensity is in place you can then pursue volume as a driver of muscle mass.
Relative intensity is the key in this scenario.
Relative intensity is a metric of how close to failure you take a set. It is often reported as Reps in Reserve (RIR). So, stopping a set with 3 reps in the tank is 3RIR.
With that preamble/grumble/rant/explanation out of the way, let’s look at a study that gives a greater insight into effective reps…
Two groups of students performed the same exercises (lat pulldowns, shoulder press, and leg extensions) using the same weights and training volume. The study was 12 weeks long.
- Group one did straight sets of 10 reps.
- Group two took a 30 second mid-set rest.
- Group two didn’t train close to failure.
Group one gained almost three times as much muscle AND gained more strength than group two. The researchers also reported increased muscular endurance benefits for group one over group two.
While one study does not mean a great deal in isolation, a series of studies with similar findings do allow you to make more concrete conclusions. This paper supports the body of literature that you should train close to failure to build muscle mass.
What counts as close to failure?
According to the existing literature, within 4 reps of failure. I would advise you keep it to within 2 reps of failure.
Why do I say that?
Well in a research setting you have a group of researchers screaming at you and pushing you to give your absolute best. This is not the case in the typical commercial gym. You know, like the one you probably train at.
As a result, true failure is probably further away than you think. If you stop 4 reps shy of what you think failure is, the chances are you’ll be more like 5 or 6 reps away. Remove this error margin by pushing yourself that little bit closer.
Training to a true two reps from failure on compound lifts like squats, chins, rows, bench, leg press etc. is extremely challenging. This is good. If your training isn’t challenging then it isn’t effective.
Building muscle is simple. It just isn’t easy!
TLDR; If your goal is to build muscle, you should train close to failure. You don’t need to go to complete muscular failure, but doing most of your training 1-2 reps from failure will probably give you the sweet spot of effectiveness and recoverability to do it all over again a few days later. That means you can cram in the most effective muscle building sessions per year. More effective training per year equals more muscle.
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Goto et al. The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005;37(6):955-63.