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Are You Lifting Heavy Enough?

May 19, 2024

Why you’re not getting stronger: part one.

This is the first in a six-part series.

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Last week, I wrote an article on why your program is stopping you from getting stronger.

I wrote it because it’s incredibly common to see dedicated gym-goers experience great progress initially, only to find their gains stalling over time.

I’ve been there, and I know how frustrating it is.

In that article, I outlined five of the most common reasons I see for why that happens.

Today, we’ll explore reason #1: not measuring effort.

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In order to understand why measuring effort is important, you need to understand muscular failure.

Muscular failure refers to the point in a set where a muscle can no longer contract, and you can’t possibly complete another full rep with good form. The weight just isn’t coming up again.

The research is pretty clear now — it doesn’t really matter how many reps you do.

This analysis of 21 studies found muscle growth muscle can be achieved across a spectrum of rep ranges when sets are taken to failure.

In other words, when the total amount of work you do is equal, the biggest predictor of muscle growth is how close you get to failure.

So if you’re consistently lifting weights that are too light or not challenging enough, noticeable growth won’t occur.

So the question becomes — how can you measure proximity to failure, and make sure you’re training hard enough to stimulate change?

The answer? RPE.

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Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, is a subjective measure of exercise intensity.

In other words, it’s a way of gauging how hard your set was based on how many reps you had left in the tank.

RPE’s pretty simple in principle.

After each set, you rate that set on a scale from one to ten.

An RPE 1 would be extremely easy, like a gentle walk. An RPE 10 means you couldn’t possibly do another rep.

So for example, you might take an exercise to an RPE 8, which would mean you had about two reps left in the tank by the end of your set. If you had done another two reps, you would have reached muscular failure.

Likewise, an RPE 9 means you could only do one more rep.

RPE is useful because it provides a measurable way of getting close to failure and guaranteeing effective training.

So long as your set is above an RPE 6–7, you can be confident that you’re lifting heavy enough to stimulate progress.

The problem is that a lot of people don’t have a good grasp on how close to failure they are.

In my experience, most new lifters think they’re closer to failure than they actually are, and as a result, they stop their sets well before providing any real stimulus to their muscles.

This is a huge reason why so many people aren’t seeing progress, and feel like they’re putting in all this time and effort for no return.

Now, you don’t have to be one of those people.

Here’s how.

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The best way to make sure your RPE is relatively accurate is by taking some of your sets all the way to failure.

After all, how can you know how close to failure you are if you’ve never felt what failure feels like?

You can do this in your current training by adding in a set of As Many Reps As Possible, otherwise known as an AMRAP set.

Here’s how it works:

  • Pick an exercise that you are skilled at and can fail on safely. Machines work well here. Barbell back squats do not.
  • Find a weight at which you can complete a set of 6–10, and stop at what you think is an RPE 8 — meaning two reps left in the tank. If you get to 10 before hitting an RPE 8, count that set as a warm-up, add some weight, and try again.
  • Rest for 2–3 minutes, and then complete your AMRAP set.

If your RPE was accurate, you should only be able to achieve two more reps on your AMRAP set before you reach failure and that weight doesn’t come up anymore.

If you’re achieving a lot more than that, keep practising — as with anything, the more experience you have, the easier it will get.