You may sometimes wonder how you can tell if the sets you’re doing in the gym actually “count” and are driving you closer to the gains that you want. No one wants to find out that what they’ve been doing all along has been for nothing. So how do you know if what you’re doing is actually driving you closer to your goals? What do you look for in the short term? The long term signs are obvious, because you're going to get bigger and stronger if your workouts are adequate, but we want to know that what we're doing now is not wasting our time and will actually produce results.
There are a few things we can look at to determine whether or not a training set is contributing to your body adapting and becoming bigger and stronger. We’ll start out with what current research says about the correlation between a set’s proximity to failure and hypertrophy.
1. You’re training close enough to failure
The closer you get to failure during a set, the stronger the stimulus will be. This rings true for any type of exercise, be it a bench press or body weight push ups. Training all the way to failure, however, can come with some drawbacks, since the closer you get to failure, the more training fatigue you will accumulate. I go into greater detail about this in my article Should you train to failure? An introduction to RIR, but long story short is that as long as your sets are taken at least 4 reps from failure or closer, you can be sure that you’re contributing to muscle growth.
So try your best not to stop your sets before this point or you may be training too easily and not stressing the muscles enough to generate an adaptive response. No matter how many reps it takes you to get to failure, if you stop too short of only having four reps left in you or less, you need to push harder. If you do a set of 40 push ups when you can actually do 50 push ups, this will be a weak stimulus for muscle growth and strength because you're still capable of doing 10 more when you stopped.
Another common problem is that many people will train hard at the beginning of their workout, but after getting tired out and moving on to their accessory work, they’ll get lazy and stop their sets too early to get an adequate stimulus out of them. Don’t do this. Push for those gains!
2. You’re performing an exercise that you can actually feel in the targeted muscle.
Another thing we can look for is whether or not a given exercise you are performing is actually stimulating the intended muscles. Sometimes, especially when following cookie cutter routines, people may perform an exercise that is intended to target a specific muscle, but they never really feel this muscle being worked and they never get a “pump” in this muscle when finishing a set.
This is why it’s extremely important to be very selective with your exercises and to not subscribe to the dogmatic thinking that exercise x, y or z are a “must”. Find exercises that you can feel working the muscles you want to work. One example is that many people who perform the bench press have a difficult time feeling their chest being worked and mostly feel their shoulders and triceps getting worked instead. Because of this, the bench press may not be an optimal movement for the specific purpose of working their chest and may need to either be replaced or another chest exercise needs to be added to your routine. For higher repetitions, you should feel lactic acid buildup which causes a "burning" sensation in the muscle you're trying to target.
3. You're resting long enough between each set.
Rest times are an often overlooked factor that can determine how effective a set of an exercise is. It's common to see people doing circuit type routines or very short rest periods in order to rush out of the gym expecting to build lots of muscle. While this is a good way to burn a lot of calories and increase your endurance, it's sub optimal for building muscle and strength due to the short rest periods between exercises. Too short rest periods can reduce performance on subsequent sets, which directly affects hypertrophy.
Studies show that short rest periods of 1 minute or less can produce as much as 50% less hypertrophy when compared to longer rest periods 3 minutes or longer. This means that if you want to produce as much muscle per set as possible, you need to make sure you're resting adequately and are ready to push the next set.
4. Your muscles feel tired and weak, may even be sore within the next couple of days.
A muscle that is adequately stimulated will have a feeling of tiredness or fatigue in the following hours or days after a workout. While not a guarantee of a successful workout, you may also feel a bit of DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) in the following days after a workout. DOMs is a sign of muscle damage and while muscle soreness itself can occur for multiple different reasons unrelated to hypertrophy, there is still some correlation between muscle damage, muscle soreness and muscle growth.
It's important to note that as you adapt to your current training stimulus, you will sometimes stop getting soreness in the muscles or it will be much less pronounced. This does NOT indicate that your training is no longer adequate, which is why feeling muscle soreness by itself is not a good indicator of a successful workout. But if you know that you're ticking off all of the other boxes, such as training close enough to failure and getting a nice pump in the muscle you wanted to target, then feeling fatigue and soreness in that muscle in the following hours and days after a workout can be another great indicator that you're doing things right.