How Hard Do You Really Need To Train?

by Dean McKillop 2056 views Training

How Hard Do You Really Need To Train?

If you have ever been confused about how to achieve the best possible results in the gym and you’re not sure on how ‘hard’ you really need to train in order to grow muscle or burn fat than this is the article for you.

Walk into any gym around the world and you will see handfuls of different training methods being implemented, yet one can assume that the large majority of these people are all trying to achieve one thing.

They are trying to achieve progression…

Some are trying to burn fat, others build muscle and then there are those who simply just want to enhance performance.

Regardless of this, the unified goal in all 3 types of people is they need to progress in order to become better at what they are trying to achieve.

The need to burn more fat, build more muscle and perform more effectively is apparent in all of them.

But…Does one group or the other have to try harder? Better yet, what really even determines what is considered hard and what is considered easy? What may be hard to some may be easy to others and vice versa.

You see, the problem with discussing how ‘hard’ you have to train is that it is inherently subjective and because of this, it is very difficult to gauge what is enough and what isn't.

So how can we improve this otherwise subjective measure?

Well, first we need to create a system that allows us to measure our performance with less subjectivity. In doing so, having a measurable and scalable system allows us to make calculated decisions on what protocols are working and what are not, as opposed to simply guessing.

And similarly, when we measure performance / work ethic we can then stay on the front foot of preventing over training as well.

My point here is that, the difficulty or how ‘hard’ something needs to be should be based upon some form of objectivity where possible.

Otherwise, we can just thrash someone in the gym like your run of the mill PT does in an attempt to make them “feel the pain” because apparently pain is what determines success (yes that is me being HUGELY sarcastic).

Pain means nothing…Actually, that’s not true.

Controlled pain experienced as a result of measurable progression is ideal. But pain felt purely just because of a modality change, is meaningless pain and potentially more damaging than positive as well.

Ok, enough waffling… how can we measure how hard we should train?

3 variables to consider

1.    RPE - Rate of Perceived Exertion

In its simplest format, the RPE scale can be used with the following approach in order to measure effort:

  • 10 - No viable effort left to give with complete volitional failure achieved. Eg there is no way you could do more.
  • 9 - Bordering on complete volitional failure with 1 maximum effort remaining
  • 8 - Extremely difficult performance with 1-2 ‘efforts’ left prior to failure

Then, as the scale continues to go down, the level of perceived exertion or fatigue also goes down alongside it. The great thing about RPE is that it is measurable in all aspects of exercise and is not specific to any one type.

2.    RIR - Reps in Reserve

RIR, as the name suggests refers to how many repetitions of a given exercise you have left before you achieve complete volitional failure. Almost as if being an inverted version of the RPE scale, having an RIR of 0 means you achieved complete failure.

RIR is more specific to weight training performance as it is easier to use when measuring the performance of expected repetitions at a given weight.

3.    MRV - Maximum Recoverable Volume

Coined by Dr Mike Isratael and colleagues, your MRV refers to the maximum amount of lifting volume in regards to reps, sets and lifting poundage that you can maintain and then overreach on before your ability to recover efficiently enough becomes diminished.

MRV is highly variable between individuals and is a good measure to be used alongside RPE and RIR when programming to achieve maximum workload with maximum recovery, as this will achieve optimal results and a reduced risk for injury.

These 3 aspects work well together as the RPE / RIR are still largely subjective, whereas the MRV can be more closely monitored through training numbers.

The unfortunate aspect of MRV however, is you can only find out your true MRV by going beyond it, where you will experience an acute phase of diminishing returns.

In essence, you won't know what your MRV is until you go beyond it. With all that being said, let's get back to the question at hand…

How hard do you really need to train?

hard training

You need to train hard enough that you sit between an RPE of a 7-10 for a consistent amount of time, with some exercises at an RIR of 0-1 and some at 8-9 in order to allow you to achieve your MRV without impacting your ability to progress in the rep ranges that suit your end goal (strength/endurance/hypertrophy) in the most consistent manner possible, without over extending yourself too frequently.

Easy right? Let's clarify a little more...

You most certainly DO NOT need to achieve volitional failure on all exercises…That is a fast track way to obliterate your MRV and put a halt on your ability to progress.

Instead, you should be working to an intensity level that allows an RIR of 1-2 in your final sets for your primary compound movements and an RIR of 0-1 at the end of each workout for more isolated movements.

Short, specific instances of complete volitional failure like this, after completing smart progressions in the beginning of your session, is the smartest approach to LONG TERM progression and that is where your results will be achieved.

So how hard do you need to train?

Hard enough to cause fatigue but not too hard that you can’t progress and recover. 

Dean McKillop

Exercise Scientist

I completed my Exercise Science Degree at the University of QLD and have worked in the fitness industry for over 8 years, including a short stint at the Brisbane Broncos in 2010 as a student. I also hold my Level 2 Strength and Conditioning Coach accreditation (ASCA) and have competed in 1 bodybuilding season, placing 2nd at the IFBB u85kg Nationals.

View Dean's Articles