I’m currently writing the new Total Anabolism book and wanted to share with you the following which will become one of the early chapters…
The most important statement to be made regarding intensity is this: You should ALWAYS train to muscular failure! Why?
Because muscle growth literally has to be FORCED!
There is a point in a set where the body’s ‘Growth Mechanism’ is activated; stop before this point and NO muscular growth is stimulated. You can liken this to a switch that’s flipped when you cross a certain threshold of pressure.
This point is also sometimes called ‘Overload‘.
The necessary stimulation to force adaptation (growth) occurs in the last rep of a set.
In order to force the body into making your muscle fibers thicker, you need to give it a damn good reason! Training WITHIN your existing strength levels does NOTHING to produce this change.
Let’s put it simply: If you know you can get a maximum of 12 reps on a given set and you stop at 11 or lower, you did NOTHING to stimulate a size and strength increase because you merely trained WITHIN your existing strength level.
It is pushing to that 100% level that forces the body to say, “Hey, I need to make these muscles bigger and stronger so that if he/she does this again, it won’t be such a strain”.
You must drill this into your mind once and for all: muscle growth is a DEFENSE MECHANISM. The training you perform must be seen as a THREAT by the body so that it not just compensates for what you did, but OVERcompensates and puts more muscle back than was there before the workout.
The Best Way To Gain Muscle
Stopping at a rep before failure is like training WITHIN the blue circle above. It is only by hitting the outer edges of that circle that your set was of sufficient INTENSITY to force the body to adapt and grow bigger.
In order to grow bigger and stronger, you need that blue circle to continually expand larger and larger. This means training to 100% intensity i.e. muscular failure. What do I mean by “failure”?
Failure is that point in a set where you cannot possibly complete another positive repetition unassisted
Any program (and there are a lot of them) that has you stopping before failure is not optimal for stimulating muscle growth. Furthermore, any program that has you lifting the same weight in every set, like 5×5 programs and so on, is also NOT going to produce growth at any where near maximum levels.
Because if you do 5 sets, and only the last set forced muscular failure, you just wasted 4 sets worth of growth potential!
People will often report AMAZING strength increases on such programs. Here’s the point: you can only say you’ve had a GENUINE strength increase if you can lift the same weight for more reps TO FAILURE than you did in your last workout (or lift a heavier weight for the same or more reps).
If you pick a weight and perform 5 reps, that 5th rep NOT being the last rep you could possibly do, you didn’t stimulate growth because you trained WITHIN your current strength levels.
On your next workout, you may perform this same exercise for 5 reps with a heavier weight and succeed – a progression, right? Wrong.
There was no progression or strength increase because you COULD have lifted this weight for 5 reps in the previous workout. This can go on for weeks until finally you arrive at a weight that brings you to a point of failure (or 100% intensity of effort) on that 5th rep. Congratulations, you’ve just stimulated growth! But it took you weeks to do it.
With THT training you stimulate growth from day 1, set 1, and in each and EVERY SET you perform!
All THT progressions in strength are REAL, not fake. THT‘ers from all around the world continue to report amazing progressions in strength UNINTERRUPTED by plateaus! The best thing is that these strength gains are matched by increases in muscle size too! (see testimonial section).
Heck, I could barbell curl 5lbs today and keep adding 1 pound every week for 2 years and tell everyone of the BREATH-TAKING progressions I’ve made. However, after 2 years you’d probably say to me, “Well how come you aren’t any bigger?” And you’d have a point! Those type of workouts don’t produce much growth, if any.
All intelligent muscle-building programs take the “100% Intensity” approach. THT, Max-OT, the various High Intensity (HIT) systems from Mike Mentzer, Ellington Darden, and so on. However, for reasons you’ll discover in the new Total Anabolism book, you’ll see why I think THT takes the prize for the best way to gain muscle mass.
So every THT workout starts at the top i.e. you’ll select the maximum weight that forces muscular failure within a given rep range. You don’t start at the bottom like “pyramid training” and others. Why waste your time? Yes you need to warm up, but once you’re warm, all your time should be devoted to igniting new GROWTH! EVERY SET | NO EXCEPTIONS!
Remember, if you do 10 sets, and only the last set forced muscular failure, you just wasted 9 sets worth of growth potential!
It is that last, most uncomfortable rep where the ‘growth switch’ is flipped. Bring a set to this point and you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done enough stimulate growth.
This is Mark McManus reminding you to TRAIN WITH INTENSITY!
Can I give you my free muscle-building workout?
Join thousands over the world who are packing on slabs of new muscle for free with Targeted Hypertrophy Training (THT)
Mark, I have transformed my body with THT. Both in fat loss and muscle mass. And yes I didn’t train to failure before I started, people told me not to. My workouts are intense but I love them!
Its just a pity I never took pics of the process 🙁
Keep it coming!
Excellent. Is there a set release date?
Thanks Mark, I love reading this stuff.
Just to be clear… if I do one set to failure, say 10 reps of 100 pounds on something or other, and come back for another set, am I better off doing 4 or 5 reps of the same 100 pounds to failure, or dropping the weight down to 70 or 80 where I’ll reach failure around 9-11 reps?
The number you usually put in the various programs is 7-11 reps… less than 7 and you’ve got too much weight, more than 12 and you don’t have enough… but does that same thing apply to sets beyond the first one?
Good article. I’ve been working on my mental focus and intensity at the gym lately. Been forcing out extra reps like never before. In the past, I would do my workouts, never feel sore afterwards, and never see any big results. Lately I’ve been sore and I know I got a good workout. Going to failure seems like common sense. If you aren’t giving your muscles more work than they can handle, your body has no reason to produce more. I love the mental challenge of going for one more rep.
@an00bis. Probably a couple of weeks – no fixed date yet.
@JC. Drop the weight to stay in the same rep range.
@Scott. That’s great to hear. It’s a mental game too. Yes, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to me but I’m always surprised when people are “enlightened” when I explain the necessity of failure to them. Like it never occurred to them before. It’s even worse when people who DO know wilfully choose an inferior program because it’s easier.
Yay I finally get to comment!
For one, this site is bloody awesome. Yes the programs as detailed take boatloads of discipline. Yes that OMG-I’m-gonna-puke feeling sucks at first. But avoiding that is why most of us damn Yankees are obese to the point of literally killing ourselves. Yet we eat diet food (aka high carb super processed crap) and buy every pill and supplement known to man (and some that man isn’t sure about) and for what? To stay fat because exercise is hard?
Well… muscle is also hard. So sign me up for some hard stuff, please and thank you. Already gone from obese to healthy. Next up: from healthy to built. And I cannot wait to finish this cycle on TA 3.0 so I can have that awesome feeling of freshly wrecked muscles in the morning 5 days a week on the 3.1 workout!
One question nags though… you finish the set at the current weight, like actually do all 12. You increase the weight the next time you’re at the gym and do, say, 10 or 11. This is as it should be, or the increment is too small? Is there an advantage or disadvantage to jumping the weight up enough that you fail at like 7 or 8 rather than just enough that you can’t do the whole dozen? This annoys me, and I can’t help but wonder if I’d get better results by going in larger increments, or if I’d end up stuck on a plateau that way. If someone knows so I can avoid learning the hard way that’d be awesome. 🙂
@Jo. Thanks man. Going up by enough to reach failure at 7 or 8 is absolutely fine. Yes you’ll love that 3.1 workout by the way!
i love your work you are the most honest bodybuilder out there and make a lot of sense but how many set and exercise per body part and also after doing the first set and say you get 8 reps and knowing you cant get 8 reps the next do you drop the weight or stay the same weight or is it just one set to failure.
Failure is good. Progression is good. Progressive failure = amazing.
Sort of like diet is good. Exercise is good. Diet & exercise = amazing.
I have also found that psychological factors can increase / decrease your failure level. Sometimes you think you have failed, and that causes you to fail.
When you are staring down that middle set, don’t think “oh god 4 more sets”. Visualize yourself completing a goal # of reps, get excited about it, get pumped, enjoy it, do it.
On the psychological end… totally hear you Johnny. Personally, I turn my brain off. Crank my tunes, quiet my mind, think of nothing and focus on my breathing and my form. To each his own, I just find looking at the logs for more than a couple seconds to be mentally disruptive, and this makes it almost like meditation for me–complete with the added benefit of less stress all day long. 🙂
Hi nice article
i train alone
so how is it possible to continue beyond failure with no one to help?
Hey Mark, Another great article! Been following your program a few months now and have had amazing strength improvement. I have always been skinny but had insane strength. I am 6ft and only weigh 175 pounds. Before I started your program I was 160 pounds. I was wondering how much strength you gain without an increase in muscle size?. I train the same muscle twice a week, increasing the weight by 0.5kg minimum each time, though lately I seem to hardly be able to gain any weight at all. Even with continuous strength gains.
Bicep curl 32kg 70pounds ( one hand )
Dead Lift 300kg 660 pounds
Dumbbell Shoulder Lateral raise 26kg 57.7 pounds
Did some research on neuromuscular efficiency, maybe mine is higher then normal?, thus requiring less muscle to gain strength?
Malcolm Calafato from Malta
hey mark. awesome stuff man. can’t wait for the new tht book. quick question regarding the last version of tht. if i was understanding it correctly, in that version, you were saying that there is minimal benefit from multiple sets to failure and that one set to failure would be plenty sufficient to stimulate growth. did i understand this correctly? mentally it just seems hard to walk away after only one set. i feel like i’m not getting the optimum benefit with only one set to failure. could you give a quick clarification on number of sets? thanks bro. this site is the best i’ve ever come across! thanks!
@Jim. If you reach 8 reps to failure on the first set, it’s unlikely you’ll get 8 in the next. You should therefore drop the weight for the next set.
In terms of reps, sets, and so on, this is all in my ebook Total Anabolism, you should download it free. Also, there is a full workout detailed here…
@Johnny552. True. Also, I did a series of articles on ‘mind hacks’ or mental tricks I use to ensure that I am actually using 100% of strength capability…
@Moony. I train alone and train to failure all the time. If you’re worried about your bench press, use safety pins if possible. Even when I didn’t have pins, I still bench pressed to failure – only had to do the ‘roll of shame’ a couple of times.
@Malcolm. I wish there was an easy answer to this but it seems to be different for everyone.
Anecdotally there seems to be a cyclical nature to strength and size gains for some people. They gain strength like crazy for months with little size gains. Then all of a sudden to pack on size in a short amount of time – it’s as if the size catches up to the strength every few months. This could be true in your case.
@Cliff. What I’m saying is that it has been proven that 1 set to failure does stimulate size and strength increases. However, in my opinion it is also true that multiple sets to failure will stimulate more growth but if you engage in higher volume training, the inter-training rest periods must also be longer to allow the body the make the adaptation. This is because it takes longer to recover from a higher volume workout.
So you 2 options…
Whole Body Workout | 1 Set Per Body Part | 2 or 3 Times A Week…or
1 or 2 Body Parts Per Workout | 5-9 Sets Per Body Part | Once A Week
The latter being a 5 day split.
I elaborated on this in this article…
The new TA book is about BOTH these workouts. You will revolve or cycle them over and over. At the moment, the TA book only includes the whole body cycle, and the 5 day split can be found at the above link – my advice is to do both.
Awesome – totally makes sense and I started training like this – let’s wait for the results!
One question: If training to failure is all we need, why would we do e.g. 8 – 10 reps? Why could we not increase wait until only doing e.g. 3 reps?
@David. That’s a good point and something I discuss in the article about the Anabolic Window…
Experience has taught us that very low rep ranges aren’t optimal for muscle growth. You will increase in strength, and in size to a lesser degree.
When creating THT I had to recommend the rep range that was optimal for hypertrophy. Growth is the number 1 goal of my program. A power lifter, for example, would be better off practising 1 rep max’s.
A natural lifter wanting to get bigger and look good will opt for THT.
not true… only works for the ones with good genetics.. Before i also belived that way but i realized after 3years of training that this was the thing that stoped me to become bigger and stronger.. THIS IS OVERTRAINING!! (don’t get me wrong.. i’m only talking for the ones with average genetics and hardgainers)
Training to failure and all is great when you have a spotter but how can I train to failure while doing squats alone? The last thing I want to do is get stuck at the bottom of my rep…
The statement about doing sets with the same weight really caught my attention. I’ve never looked at it that way before (the first 4/5 or 2/3 sets being wasted if you don’t go to failure).
Looking forward to the book.
Travis – you could do front squats. Or let go of the bar, or lean back and fall over… it’ll hurt, but not like being pinned in the throat would. Just a thought. Mark probably has better suggestions.
Thanks for the article. Im not sure you are quite right, though. My own experience: In the eighties I was training primarily for athletics (throwing events) and every strength session was a supplement to the “real training” and was supposed to never, ever interfere with throwing technique, plyometrics and sprinting. I mostly did squats, cleans and snatch with supplemental exercises (and a little benchpress now and then). My coach never allowed me to overdo things. After a couple of warm-up series, I went to 85-90 -95% and did very few reps. Never going for broke because I was doing technique work afterwards. The keyword was always quality. And I was ballooning from 85 kilos to 110 in 18 months. I ended doing 187 kilos in the cleans and 120 in the snatch at a bodyweight of 112 (which I find to be almost insane today, but luckily it was witnessed by the right people). And believe me there were no illegal substances involved. So you see – I am not sure you always have to train to failure to grow or be stronger.
You can use dumbells so no bar will tangle when you drop it. also plant a stool behind you to catch you if you drop. I did that until I outgrew my dumbells. Then I joined a gym and use a smith machine. Then all you have to do is twist the bar forward to catch in the hooks.
@Vla. Simply not the case; in fact the opposite is true. Only those blessed with super bodybuilding genetics can get away with sub-maximal lifts and still grow. Overtraining can be defined as doing too much work, i.e. VOLUME, to reach a certain goal. It can also be defined as exercising again before the body has had a chance to make the adaptations stimulated by that workout e.g. working the same body part 2 days in a row. Think of it like picking a scab before it has had a chance to heal. Taking a set to failure is far from overtraining, in fact, it’s necessary for the vast majority of ordinary people.
@Michael. Well 95% is pretty high anyway. But how do you know that your lifts wouldn’t have improved even further by going to max intensity? Would have been interesting to see what sort of physique you could have produced if you had have taken a full-on bodybuilding approach back in the 80’s.