Home Body Building Supplements Effort-Based Hypertrophy Training – Bigger Stronger Leaner – COMMUNITY

Effort-Based Hypertrophy Training – Bigger Stronger Leaner – COMMUNITY

Effort-Based Hypertrophy Training – Bigger Stronger Leaner – COMMUNITY

Effort vs. Volume vs. Load: Part 1

What’s the best way to train for size gains? Effort, load, or volume-based training? Here’s what you need to know.

What works better for hypertrophy? High-volume training or low-volume/high-effort (intensity) training? What about “powerbuilding?” In short, what’s the secret to gains? Effort, volume, or load?

It’s an age-old debate, newly revived because of social media polarization. It’s hard to get an objective assessment because everyone is trying to make their own approach sound like the only one that works.

Let’s clear the air. In this series, I’ll objectively present all three approaches. Think of this as a deep into the logic behind my three-phase Hypertrophy training system.

First up, let’s look at effort-based training.

What is Intensity or Effort-Based Training?

The main idea: Milk every set for all it’s worth, ensuring the most growth stimulation possible from each work set.

It first became popular in the early 1970s with the work of Arthur Jones and later Ellington Darden. It continued gaining popularity with Mike and Ray Mentzer, Casey Viator, and Dorian Yates. For the younger generation, effort-based training is reflected by DC and Fortitude Training.

People associate effort-based training with low-volume training. In fact, low volume (and low frequency) is seen as the key principle of effort-based training, even by some of its proponents. It’s not! Yes, effort-based training is lower in volume than traditional training, but it’s not a principle. Rather, it’s the result of the type of effort given to each work set:

  1. Out of Need: If you push a set to its utmost limit, doing several of those sets is both counterproductive and draining.

  2. Maximum Efficiency: Only do what’s necessary to stimulate optimal growth. Once the optimal hypertrophy stimulus is achieved, any additional work only creates more fatigue and hurts recovery (and progress). The harder you push a set, the fewer of these sets you can do, and the fewer you need.

That’s why effort-based training has less volume. Doing more just isn’t necessary and could backfire, considering the level of effort given.

Parameters for Effort-Based Training

  • 1-2 maximum-effort sets to failure or past failure using methods like rest/pause and drop sets.
  • 1-3 warm-up/preparation sets.
  • 5-10 reps per set. This is the principle of efficiency. If you train to failure, you get 4-6 effective reps, regardless of the total number of reps performed. Doing high reps only increases work and energy expenditure and creates more central fatigue.
  • 1-4 exercises per muscle in a session.
  • 5-6 exercises per workout, although some effort-based authors use more.
  • Training each muscle once or twice per week. A higher frequency – hitting a muscle sooner than 72 hours after first training it – makes the second session slightly less effective because of a reduction in protein synthesis.
  • 2-3 minutes of rest before the work sets. To work optimally, effort-based training must get the most out of every set. With rest periods shorter than 2-3 minutes, you risk lingering central fatigue. This makes it harder to recruit the fast-twitch fibers, rendering the set a bit less effective. Shorter rest periods also decrease the amount of weight you can use.
  • Greater emphasis on machines, pulleys, and single-joint exercises. It’s safer to go to “task failure” on machine exercises. Also, the more stable exercises facilitate maximizing tension in the target muscle. This makes stimulating growth more effective.

Pros of Effort-Based Training

Cons of Effort-Based Training

  • Higher risk of injuries: This is mostly when using compound, free-weight exercises, which is why effort-based programs use a lot of machines, pulleys, and single-joint free-weight exercises. But even on those, going to failure is a bit more hazardous than stopping before the really hard reps.

  • If you use light or moderate loads, going to task failure is more critical: If you’re using heavy weights (4-6 RM), you can get adequate gains with effort-based training if you stop your work sets with one rep in reserve. But if you leave more than that, you’re not going to have enough effective reps with your planned work volume. With the light or moderate loads in an effort-based approach, reaching failure becomes critical to get maximum growth. Not everybody can truly train to failure. Many people hit “psychological failure” or fake themselves out. This is most common with beginners or overly cautious personalities.

  • Higher risk of technique degradation: This is another reason machines are preferred with effort-based training. When you reach the really hard reps (last 2 or 3) there’s a greater risk of using technical compensations, momentum, or cheating, making the reps (and sets) less effective.

  • For some, the low volume feels unsatisfying: Some people are stimulus addicts, unsatisfied if they don’t “train a lot.” This can decrease their motivation.

  • Greater importance of optimal exercise selection: Because of the lower volume of work, you can’t compensate for the lack of effectiveness of an exercise by doing more work. If you only perform a small amount of work to stimulate growth, everything needs to be optimal, including exercise selection.

  • It can play a Jedi mind trick on you: Some people who switch to effort-based training report feeling smaller despite getting stronger (certainly indicating muscle gain or, at the very least, not losing muscle). The main reason? Higher-volume work can increase inflammation more than lower-volume work. That swelling, likely from more muscle damage, creates the illusion of more size. If you get rid of the inflammation, you also get rid of that illusion, but you’re not losing muscle.

Are You Doing “Only One Set To Failure”?

No, you’re not. The main principle of effort-based training is not to train as little as possible. It’s to get the most out of your work, so you don’t need to compensate by doing a boatload of volume.

This means your work sets need to be optimized. You can’t reach maximal performance and stimulation without first preparing your body for that work set. You need both physical and neurological/psychological preparation.

How? You do preparatory sets prior to your work sets. Depending on the exercise, it can be 1, 2, or even 3 sets. But none of these sets are truly stressful.

A set progression can look like this:

  • Set 1 (warm-up): 8-10 reps with around 50% of the planned weight for your top set.
  • 60 seconds rest
  • Set 2 (feeler set one): 6 reps with around 75% of the top set.
  • 90 seconds of rest
  • Set 3 (feeler set two): 3 reps with around 90% of the top set.
  • 2-3 minutes rest
  • Set 4 (top set): 5-10 reps to failure.
  • 3 minutes rest

The purpose of the first set (warm-up) is to increase blood flow to the target muscle, raise its temperature, and release synovial fluids.

The role of the feeler sets is to first prepare you psychologically for the top set. Going straight from a light warm-up to a heavy top set feels overwhelming. Feeler sets also neurologically prepare you by increasing neurological activation and the sensitivity of the synapses/neuromuscular junctions.

Feeler sets also allow you to see if you need to change your planned top-set weight. If you find yourself stronger than you thought during the feeler sets, you can adjust the top set weight up, or vice-versa.

Note: On the second feeler set, I recommend 3 reps instead of 6. This reduces potential fatigue and reduces volume. The role of that set is just to get you psychologically and neurologically ready for the top set. You just need to feel a heavy weight. Volume is irrelevant at this point.

A lot of effort-based proponents use a second work set called a “back-off” set. It’s typically done either…

  1. With the same weight as the top set (normally if you got 8 or more reps on your top set).
  2. With 10-20% less weight (if you got 5-7 reps on the top set).

In both cases, it’s not necessary to go to failure, but you shouldn’t leave more than one rep in reserve.

Training Methods/Intensifiers

There are three categories of intensifiers. They might not all be needed for all training styles. Some methods might be beneficial for an effort-based program but might not be suited for a volume-based plan, and vice versa.

When you pick a training approach, it’s important to understand which methods can help you and which ones are a waste. Let’s look at the three categories:

  1. Set Extenders: The purpose is to increase the number of effective reps in a set, ideally without adding “junk volume” (reps that don’t stimulate hypertrophy). Examples: Rest/pause, drop sets, myo reps, clusters, range-of-motion drop sets.

  2. Density Methods: Here, the goal is mostly to “save time” – do the same amount of work in less time. The most common examples are supersets, antagonist supersets, and giant sets. Studies find that supersets don’t lead to more hypertrophy than doing both exercises separately. It gives the same results but takes less time to complete. The main benefit of this category is reducing training time when volume is high.

  3. Rep Style: This refers to changing the way you perform reps to make them harder. For example, you can use a slow eccentric tempo, add pauses during the movement, or perform 1.5 reps.

Which methods are more suited to a training style? Consider what the method provides and if your training approach also requires that.

Let’s examine effort-based training. What does that approach need? Does it need to shorten the workouts? No, it doesn’t. The volume is fairly low, so excessive/impractical workout duration is never a problem. As such, density methods aren’t very useful since they don’t provide more gains than doing the movements separately; they only save time.

An effort-based approach is more likely to need a few additional effective reps. So, set extenders are a much better choice.

Important: The last 4-6 reps in a set are the effective reps. All the reps performed prior to that are essentially pre-fatigue reps and have very little, if any, impact on hypertrophy. This is also true for set extenders. For example, look at this drop set:

8 reps / drop / 8 extra reps

After the drop, 2-3 of the added reps are junk volume. To make the training as efficient as possible and reduce central fatigue as much as possible, we want to avoid being able to do more than 5-6 additional reps. That’s why I favor rest/pauses over drop sets. And if I use drop sets, the drop will be small to allow only for an extra 5-6 reps.

If you want to add even more effective reps to a set, break the set down into three or more segments – a double rest/pause or a double drop set.

The third category, rep style, is most useful when you can’t add weight to the exercise for some reason (either you’re lifting the whole stack or you hit a strength plateau). It increases the training stress a bit without using heavier loads.

How to Progress

To keep making gains, gradually increase the strength of the training stimulus. Building muscle and strength is an adaptation to the training imposed on the body. So, the more muscle and strength you gain, the more adapted you are to your training, and the less effective the same level of stress becomes.

There are several ways of increasing stimulus strength:

  • Progressive Overload: Either adding weight to the bar (without changing exercise execution and repetition style) or adding reps with the same weight.
  • Volume Increase: Typically, adding more work sets.
  • Ramping Up Effort Level: For example, going from 2 RIR to 1 RIR to failure is a progression in effort level. So is going from failure to using a range-of-motion drop set and then using a rest/pause.
  • Making Reps Tougher: Changing the way you’re performing your reps (e.g., slow eccentric, pauses) to make them harder. If you do that while keeping the other parameters (load, reps) the same, the stimulus from your set is higher.

Obviously, with effort-based training, volume progression is out of the picture. That leaves us with progressive overload, ramping up the effort level, and making the reps harder.

With effort-based training, progressive overload should be your main progression model. You can then use the other two approaches when you can’t add weight to an exercise. It could look like this for a 12-week cycle:

If you use intensifiers:

  • Week 1: Go to failure on your top set

  • Week 2: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 3: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 4: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 5: Go to failure, then add lengthened partials to failure

  • Week 6: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 7: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 8: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 9: Perform your top set as a rest/pause set

  • Week 10: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 11: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 12: Same, but a bit more weight

If you change the rep style:

  • Week 1: Go to failure on your top set with a normal rep style

  • Week 2: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 3: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 4: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 5: Go to failure with a slow eccentric (4-5 seconds)

  • Week 6: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 7: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 8: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 9: Go to failure with a 2-3 second pause either in the lengthened state or the position of highest tension.

  • Week 10: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 11: Same, but a bit more weight

  • Week 12: Same, but a bit more weight

Or just stick to doing your work set to failure using progressive overload and changing an exercise if you fail to add weight for 2-3 sessions in a row.

Who Is Effort-Based Training For?

You do need a certain amount of training experience to benefit the most from effort-based training. Beginners lack the motor control, exercise technique, and neuromuscular efficacy and capacity to really push themselves hard to get the most from this type of training.

Intermediate and advanced lifters greatly benefit from this training style, either as a stand-alone training approach or as a phase in a training cycle to work on being able to train hard and better evaluate RIR in future phases.

This is also a good training approach for busy people and those engaging in other types of recreational physical activity while still wanting to get more muscular.

Up Next

Next, I’ll examine volume and load-based hypertrophy. Remember, all three are part of my three-phase Hypertrophy training program. Feel free to ask questions below or in my Community Coaching Forum.

Metabolic Drive Metabolism Boosting / Award-Winning Protein




  1. García-Orea GP, Rodríguez-Rosell D, Ballester-Sánchez Á, Da Silva-Grigoletto ME, Belando-Pedreño N. 2023. Upper-lower body super-sets vs. traditional sets for inducing chronic athletic performance improvements. PeerJ 11:e14636 Upper-lower body super-sets vs. traditional sets for inducing chronic athletic performance improvements (PeerJ)

  2. White, Jason B. Effects of Supersets Versus Traditional Strength Training Methods on Muscle Adaptations, Recovery, and Selected Anthropometric Measures. Ohio University, 2011.

  3. Kelleher, A. R., Hackney, K. J., Fairchild, T. J., Keslacy, S., & Ploutz-Snyder, L. L. (2010). The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(4), 1043-1051. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d09d2f.


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