Do you need a better strength training program or do you just need to work harder?

Research conducted by scientists at Solent University may help you answer that question. 

After parsing 18 studies examining how hard people habitually train, the researchers found that when people were told to perform several (usually three) challenging sets of a certain number of reps (usually ten), they consistently selected training weights that were too light for optimal results.

For example, in one of the studies reviewed, scientists asked participants to do three sets of 10 reps of the bench press, leg press, and biceps curl with enough weight to make the sets difficult. 

On average, the participants selected weights that were equal to 53% of their one-rep max—significantly lighter than their 10-rep max of about 75% of one-rep max (that is, regardless of the exercise, most people can do about 10 reps of 75% of their one-rep max and 20+ reps of 50% of their one-rep max).

Although some people may describe sets of 10 reps with 53% of one-rep max as “difficult,” research shows they’re not difficult enough to maximize muscle and strength gain, especially in experienced trainees. 

Specifically, studies show that working sets (hard, muscle-building sets) must come to within 1-to-4 reps of muscular failure to produce a powerful training stimulus (that in turn can produce a powerful anabolic response).

Put differently, if you end a set of any number of reps with more than 3-to-4 good reps left (“in reserve” in the literature), it won’t cause nearly as much muscle growth as a set that ends with 1-to-3 good reps left. 

Consequently, it takes several “far-from-failure” sets to achieve the same effects as one “close-to-failure” set.

This is one of the primary reasons many people spend hours in the gym every week for months or years with little change in their strength and muscularity—they don’t come close enough to muscular failure in most of their sets and don’t do enough total sets to compensate for this lack of intensity (which could require doubling or even tripling the duration of their workouts).

So, to ensure you’re not leaving too many reps (and thus gains) “in the tank” in your workouts, get in the habit of asking yourself the following question when a working set is getting difficult: “If I absolutely had to, how many more reps could I get with good form?” 

Then, trust your intuition (it’ll be fairly accurate, especially if you’re a seasoned weightlifter), and keep going in the set until the answer is between one and three. 

Additionally, it can help to occasionally continue sets to muscular failure (where you can’t perform another rep with good form) so you can calibrate your perception of difficulty to reality. A caveat, however: don’t do this with any type of barbell squat or deadlift because the risks (of injury) outweigh the benefits.