Recently there has been a lot of talk about how to avoid overtraining. There are countless articles and recommendations about holding back (guilty!) to facilitate proper recovery to ensure long term progress. But what about making sure that you ARE training hard enough? What do you do to make sure that you're training hard enough to make optimal progress? Below we will go over a few of the things you can do to make sure that you are not under training.
Stay in the correct intensity threshold
The first thing you need to do to make sure you're not under training is to avoid performing junk sets. A junk set is a set that does not meet the intensity requirements needed to force the body to adapt and become bigger and stronger. Current research points to a specific intensity zone that is required to generate muscle hypertrophy and strength adaptation. This intensity zone is recommended to be 4 repetitions of failure or closer.
Each set that you perform should fall within this intensity threshold, otherwise, the set has done little to nothing to in terms of strength and hypertrophy. Every working set that you perform with the intention of generating progress towards being bigger and stronger MUST be performed within 4 repetitions or closer to failure.
A good way to do this is to use the RIR (Reps in Reserve) scale, which is used to determine the subjective difficulty of a given set. RIR represents how many reps you had left in you when you stopped a set. So an RIR of 3 would mean that when you stopped your set, you could have actually gotten 3 more reps. Practice it and get used to it, because using the RIR scale can be a great way to ensure that all of your sets are an RIR of 4 or lower. The longer you use the scale, the more you'll know how each RIR feels.
Perform adequate amounts of volume
If you're bringing the right intensity, then your next step is to make sure you're performing enough volume. Volume levels are highly individualistic, so recommendations are not perfect for everyone. However, it is typically recommended that for hypertrophy a good starting point is 10 sets per muscle group per week. Hypertrophy has a strong dose-response relationship with volume, so the more volume you can perform in a given time frame and recover from, the more muscle you'll build (up to a point due to diminishing returns).
You can discover how much volume you can handle for each muscle group by slowly increasing volume until you find it hard to handle or recover from before your next training session. This can take a lot of trial and error but is worth learning so you can optimize your training around your individual needs.
Recover no sooner than just in time to train again.
Another important factor to look at and consider is whether you're recovering much sooner than you you should expect to. If your training is set up optimally, you should only be recovering just in time for your next training session and not much sooner.
If you trained biceps two days ago and today is your rest day, but you feel like your biceps are already fully recovered, then this means that you're likely not training hard enough or frequent enough. Your training must be set up so that you're training a muscle close enough to failure, performing enough per session volume, and spacing out your sessions with the correct frequency to allow you to only barely recover right before your next training session for that muscle group.
When training intensity and per session volume are already relatively high, training frequency can be increased for muscle groups that still seem to recover extra fast, no matter how much intensity and per session volume you throw at it. Though how fast each muscle group recovers is highly individual, it's common for smaller muscle groups such as shoulders and biceps to recover extra fast. This means performing higher frequency, such as 3 times a week or more may be beneficial to make sure you're training these muscle groups often enough to maximize the weekly volume you can train them with.
The Quick & Simple Summary
To make sure that you aren't under training, make sure you can check off each point below:
- You should be recovering only just in time for your next session and no sooner. This requires that you train with the correct intensity threshold, perform adequate amounts of per session volume, and a frequency that allows you to consistently perform this amount of volume without wasting time on recovery when it isn't needed.
- All sets should be taken at least 4 repetitions or closer to failure. The only sets that should meet this threshold are warm-up sets. Once you start your working sets that are aimed at generating strength and hypertrophy, you must stay within 4 repetitions of failure or closer.
- You should perform at least 10 sets per muscle group per week and should be hitting every muscle at least twice a week. These are basic recommendations and may not be optimal for everyone, as volume tolerance and response are VERY individualistic, however, this is a good starting point for most.