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If longevity and continued long term gains are what you want from your physical training then this article may help. Many years ago I thought that as long as I killed myself every time I trained then I was doing it right. After all I had read the ‘muscle mag’ type articles and this seemed to be the general theme for Macho-meganess!

Now that I have educated myself a bit I still feel that in order to be the best you can be within your genetic make up some ‘smashing it’ is indeed needed, but as I hope to show here this is not always the case.

Strength gains

Most athletes want to become stronger. As a mentor explained to me years ago ‘there is no substitute for strength’. So in order to train for strength we need to lift heavy stuff up. The general consensus is that this should be in the region of 1-5 times (reps) and approx 90-100% of your 1 rep max RM (the amount of wt you can lift for 1 all out rep). This is tried and tested and works fine. What I want to discuss is when to cut the sets or change the exercise or indeed rest.

To avoid ‘wasted training’ if our rep range drops by 5-7% for strength gains work then stop that particular exercise. For example, if you planned to do a standard 5 sets of 5 reps of squats with 3mins recovery (a basic strength protocol) but the reality when you lift is that the sets go as follows:

Set 1 x 5
Set 2 x 5
Set 3 x 4
Set 4 x 3
Set 5 x 2

It would have been more beneficial in the long term to have stopped that exercise after set 4 because you have achieved what is known as ‘critical drop off’. Note that I said in the long term i.e. for continued and sustained development. For short term gains the rules are different, as a bit of ‘smashing it’ can reap benefits so long as there is imminent recovery.

Clearly it is difficult to judge 5-7% when we are only lifting 5 reps so keep an eye out for reduced speed on the ‘up’ eccentric part of the lift or as seen above, an obvious drop in reps. Of course this doesn’t mean that its home time! Keep progression and working hard but smart by changing the exercise from the above mentioned squats to walking lunges / step ups or something equally as fun! Note: if you are using  a more advanced strength protocol e.g. eccentric lowering and your planned lowering time was 20 secs but on one of your sets you hit the bottom range after 15 secs then stop and move on to something else.

Don’t be tempted to lighten the weight in order to meet the target number of reps. In my view this is a mistake as it teaches the body to be weaker. We want to be stronger don’t we!?

Hypertrophy gains

It is nice to be a big old beast! So to illicit growth and bigger muscles (hypertrophy) then the ‘critical drop off’ margin is wider, in fact it is up to 20% for a standard metabolic muscle building method. By standard I mean straight sets, not advanced training like drop sets, tri-sets, burnout sets etc. Here we want to keep the tension in the muscle high, certainly over 30 secs, most agree that this tension (time the muscle is under load) is between 45-75 secs, painful!

Let’s have a look at a basic hypertrophy set / rep plan: i.e. 6 sets of 8-10 reps (same weight being used for each set) with a 90 sec rest between sets. However here is what happened on the lifts:

Set 1 x 10 reps
Set 2 x 10 reps
Set 3 x 9 reps
Set 4 x 8 reps
Set 5 x 7 reps
Set 6 x 6 reps

Set 4 was the ‘critical drop off’ point…having said that personally I’d have done the 5 set as I’d what to know if I managed 8 reps on set 5. Lightening the weight to achieve the desired reps isn’t as bad here as for the strength protocol. Remember the goal here is to get bigger not necessarily stronger, although the 2 can go together but not always.

If we choose to continually ignore these general guidelines we will make gains initially but these may slow down and stall over time (of course different individuals can handle different levels). Continual progress is best achieved with a long term approach. These considerations should avoid sustained over training as this will simply fry your adrenals quickly and at best lead to a poor return for your effort and at worst decline and ill health and miserable-bastard-istis! And a whole lot more besides!

So train hard, but train smart and keep your eye on what you want to achieve. Longevity is the name of the game for most of us. Having said all this please do not take this ‘drop off’ business as an excuse to train like a pussy