- Richard Ulm
Max Effort vs. Repeated Effort
There are dozens of loading strategies one can use in the weight room - wave loading, pyramid, drop sets, etc. Broadly speaking; however, there are really only two main strategies out there: Max Effort & Repeated Effort. No doubt many variations of these two exist, such as the aforementioned loading schemes, but when you boil them all down, they will typically fall into one of these two categories.
Coaches will typically use a combination of these throughout the year - sometimes intentionally and sometimes haphazardly, or even unknowingly. Fortunately, it is not like you have to pick one and stick with it. Knowing when to use which, however, is the question I would like to answer today.
What is Max Effort Method (MEM)?
The MEM is a loading scheme with the goal of working up to a max effort attempt in a given movement, such as the back squat. For example: 4 sets of 1 repetition (4 x 1) with 2 minutes rest between sets, working up to a max effort (305, 325, 335, 345). With MEM, there are typically less sets and the emphasis is on the intensity of the final set, which is expected to require a maximum effort for that day. The MEM requires a maximal contraction of the muscles involved.
In its purist form, the MEM will take very few sets so the athlete will not be in a fatigued state for their final attempt (e.g. 3 x 1 is a more pure example of ME than 6 x 1). Also, the MEM tends to be used with lower rep schemes. It is much easier to find a workout with 5 x 5 in the back squat working up to a maximal set than it is to find a workout with 3 x 15. That doesn’t mean that the MEM cannot be applied to higher repetition schemes, it just typically isn’t.
What is Repeated Effort Method (REM)?
REM loading scheme is one which has the athlete perform multiple sets with a sub-maximal load, usually performed with the same load. While the REM most certainly can involve maximal effort, the last set does not require it. With the REM, being able to execute a maximal contraction is typically not necessary. For example, an athlete with a 1RM of 405 in the back squat performing 6 sets of 1 with 330. Here, the emphasis is on the average load. The fatigue of the athlete is achieved over more sets. The final set of 330 would not likely require maximal contraction. Unlike MEM, which is typically applied to lower rep schemes, the REM is often applied to low, middle, and high rep schemes.
Both rep schemes are useful, but not in all situations. Good coaches need to know when to use each of these loading strategies and on which athletes to use them. It is not as if you can apply one to all athletes in all situations.
Time Requirement (sets)
Assuming the same work to rest ratio, ME will take less time simply because there will be less sets. RE will take more time because it requires more sets, often many more. This might not be a problem for everyone, but whether you are a university strength & conditioning coach or a 35 year old accountant who wants to get in the best shape possible, you likely have time constraints. In the university setting, coaches often only have 45-60 minutes with each group. They simply don’t have time to program 10 sets in the back squat. Here, ME may be easier to implement because it takes up less time and will still yield results.
Because the MEM uses higher intensity loads, there is a larger stimulus on the nervous system. For athletes that need to be able to express maximal contractions in their sport (PowerLifting, CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting), this type of stimulus is absolutely necessary. That is not to say that it should be used continuously through the year, but it must be applied periodically, particularly at times closer to competition when the nervous system has to be sharp. For athletes who’s sport does not require maximal contractions, performing workouts that simulate a high neural drive can be useful to increase the athlete’s repetition maximum, but they are absolutely not necessary.
The REM in general does not stimulate the same neural drive as the MEM. It for sure stimulates the nervous system, but because the load is less, the neural drive is reduced. The REM can produce a high neural drive when the last set is near maximal, but the neural drive is still not as high as the MEM. For athletes that do not need to express maximal contractions, the REM is quite useful and can be applied continuously throughout the year.
The MEM comes with a higher risk of injury than the REM for two reasons. First, the intensity of the load is maximal. Maximal efforts are harder to execute with good technique, which naturally raises the risk. Because REM is performed with sub-maximal loads, injury is less likely. Second, the MEM typically involves fewer sets, which means the athlete has less opportunity to acclimate to the load, increasing the likelihood that the effort is not executed with good, safe, technique, thereby, increasing the risk of injury. In the REM, the rate of fatigue increases more gradually, giving the athlete more time to acclimate to the load, thereby, reducing the risk of injury. (See image A)
Just because the MEM comes with an increased risk of injury does not mean that the REM is superior in all situations. As mentioned above, the MEM is absolutely necessary for athletes who need to execute maximal contractions in their sport. It is up to the coach if the risk is worth the reward.
For me, the MEM is the most prevalent. But I think it is overused. This is likely due to a combination of time commitment and enjoyability. The MEM you come in, get intense, hit some lifts, and get out of there. It’s fun. It’s quick. The REM feels much more like a grind. The workouts are longer and often repeated over several weeks, which is both boring and more time consuming. I also think that many coaches perceive the MEM as more effective, when this is just not the case, particularly with athletes who do not need to execute maximal contractions in their sport. For these athletes, and even athletes who need need max contractions to excel, the REM should be the predominant loading strategy. First, unless the athlete must express max contractions in their sport, the risk is not worth the reward. At the end of the day, the game of training is to get the athlete in as good of shape as possible for their sport without suffering an injury to their passive tissues. Every injury reduces the ceiling of the athlete’s potential. Often because the coach and/or athlete are impatient, they speed up the development process by using the MEM too frequently, which often leads to injury. With the REM, the athlete is able to acclimate to the load over a longer period of time, which 1) increases the likelihood that the set is performed with good/safe technique and is able to see their fatigue point present farther out so they can shut the exercise down before that get injured.
No only is the REM safer than the MEM, but it is easier to properly dose the athlete with the REM. Athletes are different every time they walk into the weight room. Sleep quality, previous training, diet, stress, etc. all affect the athlete’s ability to perform that day. With the ever changing state of the athlete, accurately dosing is rather difficulty with the MEM. With the REM, you can actually account for the athlete’s current state, dosing them more accurately. What I suggest is actually programming a set range where the athlete can be instructed to cut the sets off when they reach a certain level of fatigue. You could define this line by rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or by how many more sets the athlete can perform for the given rep range at the given weight. For example, 6-8 sets of 5 in the back squat at 80%. The athlete can be instructed to stop when their RPE is 8/10 or when they could likely only execute 1 more set with good form. Even with the same instructions, some days the athlete will get only 6 sets in, some days they may need to push to 9 sets. It all depends on their performance status.
For me, this how the REM is best implemented. You have more sets, so the rate of fatigue is slower, thereby reducing the risk of injury. And, you are factoring for the daily fluctuations in the readiness of the athletes, so you can dose it more precisely.
I am not saying that the MEM should not be used. It most certainly should, especially with power athletes who need to express maximal contractions in their sport. If it is not, the performance will be lacking and the risk of injury during competition will be higher. What I am saying is that the MEM might be a tinge overused. If you haven’t tried out a loading scheme with a constant load and rep scheme, but with a set range, allowing the athlete or coach to tailor the training load of the day to the athlete’s readiness, I suggest that you do. You will find that it not only empowers the athlete, but gets them in better shape with less risk of injury.
Best of Luck!
Dr. Richard Ulm