Developing Strength in Team Sports: The Value of Sub-Maximal Training

Developing Strength in Team Sports: The Value of Sub-Maximal Training

In the realm of Team Sport athletic development, many high-level Strength and Conditioning Coaches recognize STRENGTH sets the foundation for many other athletic qualities to be built off of (Speed, Jumping, Power, etc.). With that in mind, developing an athlete’s strength in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t detract from developing other necessary qualities over their entire athletic career is very important.

Speed power and strength

While maxing out and sets to failure can provide an effective stimulus for strength development, they also come with a higher fatigue-cost, potentially robbing recoverable resources that could be reappropriated to training other qualities and may not provide any greater strength improvements than sub-maximal training. Primarily training the youth-high school population with Long-Term Athlete Development in mind, it’s important to recognize potentially more sustainable options for athletic development. In this article we will define maxing out and sets to failure, provide the scientific principles that govern strength development, highlight example methods for sub-maximal training and give a glimpse into how we program our strength training at EForce.

Defining Maxing Out, Sets to Failure & Their Effectiveness

Before diving into assessing their effectiveness in strength development, we think it’s valuable to define these terms. Although you will see they’re similar in regard to end results, there are some nuances to address.

Maxing Out: In the most classical sense of the term, we will define maxing out as lifting a true 1 Rep Maximum.

Sets To Failure: While there are many different sets to failure protocols (Myo-Reps, Drop Sets, Burn-Outs, Rest-Pause, etc.), for this article we will primarily be talking about one set to failure at any given rep range >1rep. In other words, a rep max i.e. 2rm, 4rm, 6rm, etc.

Now having defined these terms, let’s look at their effectiveness in developing strength compared to sub-maximal efforts.

  1. A recent 2021 meta-analysis by Vieira et al. looked at whether failure vs non-failure training was more effective at developing strength. Their research concluded that neither failure nor non-failure training was better for strength development.
  2. A 2019 study by Carrol assessed the strength outcomes between one group training sets to failure and a sub-maximal strength group. The finding of this study showed greater strength improvement for the sub-maximal training group. Interestingly enough, this study also had all participants perform sprinting, making it even more representative of the Team Sport training environment.  

The Underlying Principles Of Strength Development

Now that we’ve defined terms and highlighted some research around strength development, we want to take a deeper dive in looking at the principles that support strength development.

  1. Progressive Overload: The principle of overload dictates that training must be sufficiently difficult to drive adaptation and must get more difficult over time. This means training that is hard enough to stimulate an adaptation, but light enough that athletes can recover and increase workload the following week. Training must get harder over time to support strength adaptations, and taking sets to failure and maxing out too frequently violates the principle as you can’t go harder than 100%.
  2. Fatigue Management: Properly managing fatigue means that you are balancing both fitness vs fatigue to train hard enough to raise fitness (strength), while making sure fatigue doesn’t get too high, which will lead to diminished performance (non-functional overreaching and overtraining). While training with sets to failure and maxing out may provide a valuable stimulus to improve fitness (strength), using these strategies too frequently will violate this principle as there is a high fatigue-cost that can’t be sustained over the long-term.
  3. Phase Potentiation: Phase Potentiation is the strategic sequencing of programming phases to increase the potential of subsequent phases and increase long term adaptive potential. Violating the principle of progressive overload and fatigue management can often lead to violating the principle of phase potentiation. This is because the long-term fatigue-cost will limit your recoverability leading into the next phase, which is typically actualized as strength plateaus.
Chart for performance and time

Sub-Maximal Strength Training Methods

Now that we’ve demonstrated the value of sub-maximal training, we want to provide various training methods to train sub-maximally.

Sub-Max Top Sets: In this method you will build up to one top set at any given rep range, but building up to an RPE of 6-8/10, or leaving 2-4 reps in the tank.

Back-Offs: If you’ve done the sub-max top set method you can pair it with back-off sets. This is where you reduce your top set load by 5-20% and perform 2-5 more sets at that given rep range.

Straight Sets: Simply put, this is like back-off sets, minus building up to a top set first. You will do 2-5 sets at any given rep range with leaving 2-4 reps in the tank on every set, or an RPE of 6-8/10.

Cluster Sets: In method you will pick a rep max weight between 2-10 reps (i.e. 2rm, 4rm, 6rm, etc.) and instead of doing it for one set you will split it into micro-sets re-racking the bar and resting 30sec to lower the acute fatigue and keep quality high.

Dynamic Effort: For this method you will pick a load between 40-70% of your 1rm and do 6-12sets of 1-3reps with 60-90sec rest between, with the goal of moving the bar as fast as possible. The goal of this method is power development.

** RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Effort.

It is a 1-10 scale with 1-2 being very easy/light and 9-10 being maximal intensity**

Below you will find a table with examples of these methods:

Examples based off 1rm back squat of 315

How We Train Strength At EForce

While we use the max out and sets to failure methods in our training at EForce, it is only with our higher level athletes who have been training with us for a while… and we use it sparingly. In one 4wk 3x per week training phase only 1 of the 12 sessions (8%) are designated as max out or set to failure method (Technical Failure), and these sessions are followed up by a deload week to allow for complete recovery. This means that the majority of our work comes from sub-maximal training sessions (92%).

Periodizing our training this way has allowed us to increase strength both sustainably/significantly (Avg HS Squat increase in 4mo of training is 60lbs), and in a way that doesn’t detract from developing other necessary qualities over their entire athletic career (Speed, Jumps, Power, Energy Systems, etc.) through low fatigue-cost methods.

Man holding a metal

**Bonus Info**

A 2005 Meta-Analysis by Dr Rhea, Uni of Alabama Football Sport Scientist, found that for untrained athletes (<1yr of consistent weekly weight training) the biggest strength improvements came from using 55-65% of 1rep max. They also found that lifting greater than 85% of 1rep max lead to insufficient improvements for untainted athletes.

One reason is because training at greater than 85% requires maximal recruitment of high-threshold motor units, which is developed by lifting with sub-maximal loads... remember that strength is a skill that needs to be practiced.


As a younger developing athlete (Youth - Early HS) or one with <1yr of weight training, a large portion of your lifting should be between 55-65% of 1rep max to develop the necessary qualities/skills to maximize adaptations that can come from higher intensity strength training.

Erik Jernstrom Director of Sports Performance @ EForce

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