This is the one thing most people lack in the gym. They think they are pushing themselves. They are lucky if they are tapping into 70% of what they are capable of. Without the proper level of intensity, your body will not be forced to adapt and change. It has no reason to.
Your intensity level is not only how hard you work your muscles but how hard you mentally push yourself. Your body will naturally make physical tasks easier by incorporating other muscles to help perform a movement. Your mind set can do a similar thing, only with negative or lazy thoughts that make you stop prematurely.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect someone walking into a gym for the first time to start grunting and spitting all over the place to get through a set. You will obviously build up your intensity level over time. When you first start, you want to take your time to learn the exercises and develop your technique. I don’t want you pushing too hard and hurting yourself. After approximately 4 weeks of consistently working out (about the time you start to feel confident with your technique) you should start to kick up your intensity level.
Most people (myself included) will tend to stop a set a couple reps shy of where they should. They will often give in to the burn or the fatigue setting in instead of pushing past it. I usually get mad at myself if I finish a set and I know I could have done more. When this happens, I will make sure I give it my all for my next set.
You should do whatever you have to do to get you past that point. Think of something to inspire you. Think about the hottie across the gym looking at you in the mirror or think about someone who has a body you admire. Sometimes thinking about something that gets you mad will help squeeze out a couple extra reps. Then again you could always refocus on the goal that has you there in the first place!
Use whatever it takes to motivate you and if your intensity level drops for one set, don’t let it drop for the next.
Most people I watch in the gym don’t reach muscle failure. As a matter of fact, they don’t come close. As I stated earlier, you must fatigue the muscles when you work out. By fatigue, I mean annihilate them! It frustrates me when I see people perform their last repetition and it looks like it was no more of a struggle than the first rep.
Your last rep should be exactly that, your last! You couldn’t perform another if someone offered you a million dollars for one. This is how we force the muscle to adapt, to grow, to become stronger and more toned. If we fail to reach this point, our muscles have no reason to adapt. They are already capable of performing the task required at their present level.
If you are not hitting at least concentric (when the muscle contracts, or when we are lifting the weight) muscle failure with each set, you are not challenging that muscle. For absolute muscle failure, you must reach eccentric (when the muscle stretches under stress, or when we are lowering the weight) muscle failure. This shouldn’t be done on a regular basis as it is so taxing on the body and a spotter is a must with certain exercises when performing absolute muscle failure. Performing absolute muscle failure on a regular basis can definitely lead to over training.
Bottom line, when it comes to muscle failure, it is to make sure you can’t perform another rep in good form if your life depended on it. You should make sure you use a weight heavy enough to hit this point before you reach the end of your target rep range.