You’re on your third set of 5. The last two sets were pretty heavy. You managed the second set, but just barely. You’re not exactly sure you’re going to get your last set of 5 here but that’s what spotter bars are for, right? 1 and 2 are grinders, 3 feels like death, 4 barely get’s up and 5? Probably the most intense lift of your life. But you got it! You got all 3 sets of 5! Awesome, right?
Every time you’re doing your working sets, you should be fairly confident that you’re going to get every rep. Sure, sometimes you’re going to misjudge things and miss a rep here and there, especially when you’re new to lifting and still kind of figuring things out.
But as you progress and learn your capabilities, maxing out with the heaviest weight possible is a short route to burn out, stalling and plateaus if you’re lucky. If you’re really unlucky, you might even cause a pretty serious injury that will not only leave you feeling like crap while you recover, but it will also set back your progress.
If you’re always lifting at that point of “That was really heavy” and never leaving anything left in the tank, you’re just not setting yourself up to keep progressing and to keep growing stronger.
If you take nothing else away from this post, think about this: Are you really going to make that much more progress lifting 205lbs rather than 185lbs?
The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is yes, you might make an immediate larger difference as clearly, 205 is larger than 185. However if that 205lbs was close to a maximal effort, you might not have been engaging your muscles properly, instead contorting yourself out of alignment to finish the lift. Or you might try to add 5lbs the next week or two and find it impossible to complete your working sets. So while you might end up stuck at 210-215 in just 1 or 2 weeks if you had started with 205, you’ll easily get to and surpass that if you start at 185.
This is the entire basis of the RPE scale: most of the work you do in the gym should be about an 8 on the scale, especially when it comes to barbell movements.
This ensures you’re both working hard enough that you get stronger and in better shape while leaving enough in reserve that you progress steadily over time.
Here’s another thought experiment: Say you lift 225 x 3 sets of 5 reps. That equals a total tonnage of 3375lbs (15 reps x 225lbs). Next time, you add 10lbs to the bar and do the same 3 sets of 5 at 235. That’s a total tonnage of 3525lbs compared to the previous 3375lbs. If you had instead done 225 x 4 sets of 5, you would have lifted a total tonnage of 4500 pounds. Or you could have done 225 x 3 sets of 6 reps for a tonnage of 4050lbs. Adding weight isn’t the only way to get stronger; you can lift the same weight for more reps, lift the same weight with less rest between sets, lift the same weight with flawless form on every rep, and much more.
Yes, at the end of the day, you do have to add weight to the bar to get stronger. However, that’s not always the best option and it’s certainly not the only option, especially if you seem to be stuck at a certain level. In short, always focusing on putting more weight on the bar will make you advance more quickly in the short term but can lead to set backs, stalling and even injury if that’s all you focus on. Taking a step back, lifting submaximally and not focusing so much on what’s on the bar will allow you to advance safely and steadily for far longer.
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