Train Easier in the Gym to Get Stronger

Never do a max effort rep in the gym to make more progress for contests.

Firstly, I plead guilty to doing something I now understand is a hindrance to progress in the gym. I would hit a many max singles during the year that sucked every last bit of energy from my body and one that cost me a triceps tendon. Having a big ego, a lot of energy, and being ultra-competitive would far too often convince me to empty the common sense portion of my brain and replace it with a brutal single or back to back to back sessions that really did more for my own self-importance then it did for my progress. The more I coach (and study coaching of other sports) I realize that the gym and bro life pushes more of us to leave science in the dust and go for some glory that actually winds up hurting us in the long term.

A max single by definition is giving 100% effort to a lift to achieve a new record or personal best. These efforts (and other close to complete failure efforts) should be saved for the stage. It’s not just maxes either, it’s workouts day in and day out that require total effort that leave us less able to compete at our best. So then, why do we do it?

Most high schoolers try to bench a max every week, and are quite often rewarded (for a while) due to hormone surges and beginner gains. This puts in our mind that we should be making constant linear progress, and that just isn’t going to happen. A few months ago I watched a video explaining how endurance athletes should do the bulk of their training in the green zone. The new approach has athletes doing about 75 to 85% of their workouts in an easier sector. By studying what happens to the body under the extreme stress and then comparing lower effort training exercise scientists concluded that pushing the limits beats the body up so much that over the long term you lose ground.


  • Training at near max effort consistently causes burn out of your recovery system
  • Training lighter leaving a little in the tank improves recovery
  • World class athletes have walked away from the “no pain no gain” mindset

The Soviets knew this and they produced some of the best lifters of all time. Gym maximums were not used and athletes would routinely set a new world record at meets by one kilo. Now I know the video I provided speaks about endurance sports but the body has very similar responses to all stress, and you must eliminate as much of the negative as possible. While you want to cause just enough damage to get a positive adaptive response (stimulate muscular growth and increase of strength) you want to stay away from chronic moderately high stress (inflammation, ligament and tendon damage, mental burnout).

So how is this accomplished? Often your training program is already good, you may just need to adjust the poundages and save all the yellow and red training for just prior to contests, or for mini peeks during a training cycle.

Back off on the pounds you move during your sessions. The further away from a meet you are the lighter you should be training. If you are working three rep sets on the log, and are struggling with the last rep consistently, back off! I would go as far to say scale back 10 percent and make your sets work for you, not against you. Let’s look at a program that is 12 weeks out from a contest.

For the first six weeks of training the athlete should be working the appropriate strength, power, and endurance reps of their program, but I would advocate backing off a bit and leaving something in the tank on every set. Never miss a rep, feel comfortable on every set, and know you could get one or two more if you had to. You can move the weight up every week if you feel that you can and maintain the same level of comfort as you had the week before.

Now let me stress this, you must still be training. You aren’t going through the motions but instead working on perfecting them and learning how to stay away from coming close to failure on every set. Work hard; but not too hard. Make it just enough where if your coach was watching they would praise your form and could see that you could go just a bit harder if necessary.


  • The first half of a training cycle should be working on your form and technique
  • Move up in weight when ready but only a little at a time
  • Don’t mail it in, but just stay away from hard or brutal sessions

In weeks seven through ten you can now pick two or three movements a week that need a bit more attention and push yourself a bit more on them but still make all your reps. Just move yourself a bit closer to failure, but don’t miss yet! Save your push for weeks 11 and 12. This is the time to work harder and get close to max weights. All that smooth and easy work has added up at this point. You should be feeling healthy, strong and not beat up. This will help you have a better performance in the contest that is entirely run in the red zone.


  • The middle of your program takes it up a bit, but still keep the majority of your movements in the green zone and only push a few movements a week
  • The last few weeks of the program work at close to contest conditions
  • Save your full effort for the contest itself

By giving the body adequate stimulation, (but not too much) you will begin to feel like that high school athlete again. Your body will begin making forward progress on a regular basis and you will be amazed to be making consistent advancements again. Remember, sometimes you must go slower to go faster, or lift less to lift more!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.