Two simple ways to make better progress
written by Philip Stefanov | JUNE 28, 2022
We all enjoy discussing new, advanced, and exciting tactics for eating and training better. While many ideas can be practical, it pays to go back to the basics from time to time.
To that end, I’ve dedicated this week’s newsletter to a couple of simple but overlooked tactics you can use to start making better progress in the gym. Let’s review.
Tactic 1: Train Harder
In one study from 2017, researchers put together 160 men with at least six months of training experience (1). Each participant also had the bench press as a regular movement in their training. Researchers asked all the subjects one question: “What weight do you usually lift for 10 repetitions on free-weight bench press exercise?"
The load didn’t necessarily have to reflect their 10-repetition-maximum, but it had to be heavy enough to feel challenging on a 10-rep set.
Researchers then had the participants warm up and lift the self-selected load to failure. They wanted to determine how accurately participants would select challenging enough loads and how many reps they leave in the tank. Here is a breakdown:
- None of the participants did fewer than 10 reps
- 22 percent did 10 to 12 reps
- 31 percent did 13 to 15 reps
- 21 percent did 16 to 18 reps
- 26 percent did 19 to 20 reps
The average number of reps across all subjects was 16. Slightly more than a fifth were relatively accurate with selecting a load, but over a fourth did twice as many reps with the weight they chose.
No study is without limitations, but this experiment points out something interesting: many people aren’t training as hard as they think or picking heavy enough loads. The problem is that leaving too many reps in the tank could stop you from causing the necessary growth stimulus.
So, my first recommendation is to take a hard look at your training and ask yourself if you’re genuinely training hard. You can even do a similar experiment for yourself to see how accurate you are with your estimations. Of course, I recommend having a spotter if you test the bench press or squat.
Tactic 2: Do More Work
Training volume - the amount of work you do inside each session or training week - is one of the most important factors for muscle growth. Numerous studies suggest that doing more sets and reps leads to better progress, so long as you recover well.
According to a meta-analysis from 2017, 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle group seems to be the sweet spot for most people (2). Schoenfeld and colleagues found that subjects doing more than 10 sets per week experienced significantly more growth than those doing 9 or fewer sets.
So, if you’re struggling to make progress and feel well rested, one of the most practical solutions is to start doing more sets. For example:
- Add a set or two to some of your exercises
- Introduce an extra activity for some body parts
- Start training each body part two times per week instead of one
It’s important to note that not all exercises are created equal, and you should be careful when adding sets or new movements to the equation. For example, adding a couple of extra sets to your cable flyes likely won’t impact your recovery much but adding chest dips might.
We also need to consider overlapping exercises when adjusting training volume. Many muscle groups work together on various movements, and you need to look at your training to avoid adding too much work for any particular muscle. For instance, if you’re doing 20 sets for your back per week, your biceps likely don’t need more than 6 to 9 direct sets for optimal growth. They are involved in each set for the back and don’t need much isolation work to grow.
Thank you for taking the time to read! Until next week,
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