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Work Sets to Failure

Q: I bought your “Real Muscle” and seminar DVDs and your book Natural Bodybuilding. I really enjoyed all of them because you give real information that’s been tested through trial and error, and your physique shows the results. I’ve been training for about two years, trying to gain as much muscle as I can, but no matter what I do or how hard I try, my body just doesn’t respond—it still looks the same as before I started training. I’ve tried full-body workouts three times per week and split routines that train each bodypart twice a week with anywhere from six to nine sets. I eat six clean meals a day and get a lot of calories, so nutrition isn’t a factor. My question is: When I train a muscle group, I do two warmup sets for 15 to 20 reps with a really light weight. Then I take all of my work sets to failure with good form. My strength hasn’t gone up either. When you perform three to four sets per exercise, do you go to failure on each set, or do you only go to failure on the last set? Also, is the “Real Muscle” training split only for advanced people, or would it suit someone like me?

A: The key to making the muscles bigger is progressive resistance. In other words, you need to impose increasing amounts of stress on the muscles slowly and consistently. The muscles will adapt to the new stress by getting bigger.

The best repetition range for increasing muscle mass is six to 10 reps. If you’re using a resistance that forces the muscles to fail in that range, the muscles will adapt by increasing the size of the muscle fibers as well as increasing the fluid in the sarcoplasmic portion of the muscle cell.

As you’ve discovered, muscles do not grow easily. Although the stress needs to be imposed on them gradually, it takes a great deal of effort and work to get them to respond. You really need to force them to grow.

In the beginning it’s very important to increase your strength in order to use increasing amounts of resistance. The more weight you can lift for six to 10 reps with good form, the more you’ll force those muscle fibers to grow.

When I was in my bulking stages in my early 20s, I was constantly pushing myself to go heavier on the basic exercises. The more weight I could use on movements such as barbell bench presses, barbell rows, deadlifts, squats, military presses and shrugs, the bigger my muscles would get.

I was using a repetition range of six to eight. Because I was always trying to go heavier, if I could do eight reps, I would immediately add more weight to increase my strength. I wasn’t powerlifting, attempting to build my one-rep maximum; I was just trying to use the most resistance for six to eight reps.

When I was performing the basic exercises, I would often do my final set with a very heavy weight that gave me only three very difficult reps. From there I’d have my training partner help me do another two forced reps to push my body to get even stronger.

Eventually, I got to the point where I was squatting and deadlifting with close to 500 pounds, doing incline dumbbell presses with 140-pound dumbbells, barbell rows and T-bar rows with 350 pounds and similar poundages with other basic exercises. Using that amount of weight for the six to eight reps pushed my muscles to grow bigger and stronger.

In addition, I was eating a tremendous number of calories and carbohydrates. I was still very young, so my metabolism was fast, and I wasn’t getting too fat from all the extra food. I was using the calories in the gym by pushing myself very hard to lift heavier weights and get stronger. My workouts were extremely hard.

That’s an important point because I was basically tailoring my diet to my workout. I wasn’t just eating a lot of food to gain weight. I was using the extra calories in the gym in a very productive way: The calories and carbs I was getting were designed to make me stronger so I could use more weight to build more muscle

The way I planned my workouts was to do a light warmup set for the first set of the first exercise. For example, if I was doing bench presses, I’d do my first set with 135 pounds for 15 reps to get some blood into my joints, tendons and muscles. For my next set I’d choose a weight that I could do for 10 easy reps. For my third set I would use a weight that would give me eight reps. For my last two sets I would use a heavy weight for six reps. Only the last two heavy sets were taken to failure. The sets leading up to them were more moderate—I stopped them before I failed.

When I moved to my second exercise, I would begin with a moderately heavy weight that gave me eight reps. For the next two sets I used a heavier weight that I took to failure at five or six reps. You won’t need to do as many warmup sets for the second and third exercises because the target muscles should already be warmed up and pumped from the first exercise you did.

You said that your diet is good and that you eat six clean meals a day. You might have to take it a step further and begin counting your calories as well as the grams of protein, carbs and fats. When I wasn’t getting stronger, I would increase my calories and carbohydrates so I could use more weight in the gym. Remember, you have to force yourself to get stronger and push your muscles to do more reps or more weight than the last time. When you’re using more resistance for the six-to-eight-rep range, your muscles will have no choice but to get grow.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to or to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at  IM



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