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Sometimes when I'm at the gym, I am not motivated enough or I don't feel energetic enough to really push myself and force myself to really struggle with those last 2-3 reps in each set. Times like these I'll find myself sticking to what I can complete 3x10 in pretty comfortably, needing moderate effort in the last set but always being able to complete it.

With the goal of putting on size - is there still going to be a benefit in weightlifting if I'm not pushing myself to my limits? I know for example with strength training that you really need to push yourself and be consistently increasing your lifting weight to make strength gains, but I'm not sure if the same applies to a goal of muscle mass gains.

I am of course sticking pretty close to edge of struggling (I'm not just doing a low weight that requires no effort whatsoever), I just find often that I'm not adding that extra 3, 4 or 5 kgs to make it difficult for myself.

It's probably important to note that I like to stay just under my lifting capacity to allow slower movements and perfected form as well. I feel like form and slower movements would be preferred over quick jerky movements with more weight, but I could be wrong considering I see a lot of big guys at the gym doing this.

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Perhaps this answer to another question would help? fitness.stackexchange.com/a/10210/3778 –  FredrikD Mar 25 '13 at 12:46

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted
+50

All the complicated science, Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome, super compensation curves, etc. point to one simple fact: unless you are doing more, you won't get bigger. If you only ever spend 15 minutes at a time under the sun, you are only going to get so tan.

It would be better to restate the question like this:

How can I can I increase size without killing myself in the process?

To answer your original question, yes you can get bigger without going to failure all the time. In fact, that's how you stay at it longer and avoid injury. The important concept to understand is progressive overload. As Kirk Karwoski puts it: "if you put more weight on the bar, you're stronger".

Rating of Perceived Exertion

Runners have been using this indicator for years to help their training. Mike Tuchscherer (a power lifter) came up with a way to apply it to weight lifting. If we were to reinterpret his RPE scale for body builders it would look something like this:

10) Set to failure.

9) Last rep is tough, but still 1 left in tank

8) Too heavy to go fast, but not a struggle; still have 2-4 reps left in tank

7) Can use maximal force to move bar quickly

6) Can use moderate force to move bar quickly

5) Warmup

4) Rehab work: 20+ rep sets designed to get blood moving

1-3) not worth worrying about (i.e. life)

If I understand you correctly, you want to live in the RPE 8 world, and increase the weight used for that over time.

Progressive Overload Without Maximal Work

You will need to alternate your target RPE from 7-9. For example, over a month you would do something like this:

  • Week 1: RPE 8
  • Week 2: RPE 8
  • Week 3: RPE 9
  • Week 4: RPE 7

The way you break up the sets/reps is up to you. If you want 3x10, 3x12, 5x8, etc. at the end of all the work it should feel like the RPE rating above. One strategy to help ensure you hit that if you under-estimate the weight you need is to turn the last set into an AMRAP set. In other words, As Many Reps As Possible to hit your target RPE.

If the weight you used this time was too low to hit your RPE target spot on, then increase it next time. The purpose of hitting RPE 9 at least once a month is to force your body to adapt to something heavier. Following it by a week at RPE 7 helps your recovery, so you can spend most of your time at RPE 8.

A good strategy is to use much heavier weights and shorter sets for RPE 9 work. Let's say you can bench 225 3x10 with an RPE of 8. You might decide to do 250 3x3. The next time you get to RPE 9 work, you'll want to increase the weight, even if it's just 5lbs. It should be possible for a while.

Summary

Yes, not pushing yourself to physical exhaustion and failure is a good thing. Failure takes a lot more out of you than it's worth. As long as you keep increasing your work load over time (progressive overload), you will get bigger/stronger. Changing rep ranges also helps toward the goal of getting your body ready for heavier weight.

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You can still put on mass without lifting to failure every time. I will say though, you get out of exercise what you put into it. If you are constantly adding 2, 3, 5kgs often, you are doing something right. I am a big fan of perfect form over sloppier form to get up a little more weight. Note: I am not a power lifter.

Try doing some "negatives" your last few repetitions. After lifting the weight (lets take biceps for example) to your shoulders, SLOWLY lower the weight back to the starting position at your hips. You can perform whole sets like this, or just the last few repetitions in a set. Your muscles will fatigue a lot quicker and it might give you the extra "oomph" to your workout that you have been looking for.

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