Take your sets beyond failure to build more size and strength. It’s often said (by me, at least!) that easy workouts don’t build muscle and strength. By nature, your body is incredibly lazy and would prefer not to waste energy on making you bigger and stronger. Therefore, it needs a compelling reason to spend its resources on muscle growth. That’s why most training information recommends that you take your sets close to failure. It’s only by exposing your muscles to such a high degree of tension and fatigue that you trigger the cascade of reactions responsible for hypertrophy. This is called the effective reps theory, which suggests the final part of each set is the most productive, and the reps leading up to that point are merely unavoidable stepping stones. Of course, once fatigue sets in, your set inevitably comes to a halt. As such, the productivity of each set has limits. But what if you could go beyond failure? Would that make your workouts more productive? One way to achieve this seemingly impossible task is with forced reps. This training method involves using a partner to help you push out a few more reps, taking your set beyond its usual termination point. Theoretically, this means more effective reps and better muscle size and strength gains. In this guide, we reveal why, how, and when to use forced reps and the alternative methods you can use instead.
What Are Forced Reps? Watch almost any thriller, military, spy, or courtroom movie or TV show, and you’ll invariably hear the words, “Failure is not an option.” This tired old trope suggests that failing is a bad thing and it’s best avoided. While that may hold true in life-or-death scenarios, it’s a different story in the gym. In fact, not only is failure an option during strength training, it may also be desirable. After all, getting close or hitting failure is what drives many of the adaptations that make your muscles bigger and stronger. It’s the spark that ignites your gains. That’s not to say you HAVE to reach failure to build muscle and strength. However, the further you stop your set from failure, the less productive it will be. Subsequently, going beyond failure may theoretically lead to better growth and strength gains. One way to exceed failure in strength training is by using forced reps. But what are forced reps, and who uses them? Let’s take a look! Forced reps, also known as assisted reps, are a technique that bodybuilders use to ramp up workout intensity. A spotter assists the lifter to complete extra reps when they can’t muster the strength or energy to continue on their own. The spotter provides just enough assistance to allow the lifter to overcome the sticking point of the exercise and complete the repetition, thereby extending the set beyond its usual termination point. Usually, 1 to 4 forced reps are done at the end of a regular set. This technique creates significant fatigue and muscle tension, both of which are prerequisites for muscle growth and strength gains. It’s important to note that studies suggest forced reps might not offer a significant advantage over training to failure when it comes to muscle growth (1). However, bodybuilders have been using this technique for decades, which suggests it does have some merit. After all, if forced reps didn’t work, they’d have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and they’d have fallen out of favor. However, any advantages offered are minimal. Moving on, in the next section, we reveal how to do forced reps, both with a spotter and when training alone.
How to Safely Perform Forced Reps Forced reps can be risky as they push your muscles several reps beyond failure. As such, you will invariably reach a point where you could become trapped under a heavy bar, e.g., during bench presses or squats. Because of this, you must learn how to use this training method correctly. After all, you will lose any potential gains if you need weeks or months off training because of an otherwise avoidable injury. Safety first, folks! Follow these guidelines to maximize the benefits of forced reps while minimizing risks. Forced Reps with A Spotter Forced reps are typically done using a spotter. Ideally, this should be someone experienced with forced reps and who knows how to effectively safeguard the person they’re working with. However, the spotter must also understand that their job is to provide as little help as necessary, as giving too much help will negate the benefit of doing forced reps. This is a fine balance that can take time to learn. With forced reps, practice makes perfect. Warm up to ensure your muscles and joints are ready for the challenges of your workout. Select the required amount of weight. Tell your spotter how many reps you plan on doing alone and how many forced reps you want to perform. Agree on what signals you’ll use if you need to change your plan mid-set. Start your set and rep out as usual. Use good form throughout. Continue until you are unable to complete further reps unaided. Your spotter should remain nearby, closely monitoring the progress of your set and ready to step in when needed. As you reach failure, your spotter should then help you past the sticking point of the exercise being performed, assisting just enough to keep you going. They should only need to help you lift, and you should lower the weight under your own muscle power. Continue for the desired number of forced reps, typically 1-4. The spotter may need to increase their assistance as you become more fatigued. On completion of your set, the spotter should help you rerack or put the weights down. Keep in mind you’ll be very tired and may struggle to control the weights alone.
Forced Reps When Training Alone You can be your own spotter when you do unilateral or single-limb exercises. For example, you can lift and lower the weight with one arm or one leg, meaning you can use your free hand or leg to assist the working limb during forced reps. This is a safer option than using a spotter for bilateral exercises like bench presses or squats. However, it’s not as effective as having a spotter, as you can’t provide as much assistance to yourself as someone else can. Still, it’s better than not doing forced reps at all. Here’s how to do forced reps when training alone: Warm up to ensure your muscles and joints are ready for the challenges of your workout. Select the required amount of weight. Start your set and rep out as usual. Use good form throughout. Continue until you are unable to complete further reps unaided. At this point, use your free hand or leg to assist the working limb. This assistance should be just enough to help you overcome the sticking point and complete the repetition. Continue for the desired number of forced reps, typically 1-4. On completion of your set, carefully rerack or put the weights down. Keep in mind you’ll be very tired and may struggle to control the weights alone.
In conclusion, forced reps can be a valuable tool for taking your sets beyond failure and pushing your muscles to new limits. Whether you have a spotter or are training alone, using forced reps can add an extra level of intensity to your workouts and potentially lead to better muscle size and strength gains. However, it’s important to use this technique safely and responsibly to minimize the risk of injury. Always warm up properly, use good form, and listen to your body. And remember, while forced reps can be effective, they are just one of many training methods available. Feel free to experiment with other techniques and find what works best for you. Happy lifting!