Many years ago when I first started lifting weights, I thought that I had to train to complete muscular failure in order to make significant progress. In fact, in many cases I trained beyond muscular failure and performed forced reps with a workout partner thinking that I was unlocking new muscular growth. I had read about these training methods in all of the popular bodybuilding magazines at the time and figured that if it worked for all of the professional bodybuilders that it would definitely work for me.
Let me tell you that I was dead wrong.
All of that failure training amounted to nothing more than sore joints and a perpetually achy, tired body. I hardly made any progress at all.
Fortunately, I learned rather quickly that you do not need to train to failure in order to make consistent progress in the weight room. In fact, training to failure too often will actually HINDER your progress, not spur it.
What do I mean by training to failure?
Training to failure means that you cannot perform another repetition of an exercise without significantly breaking or altering your form. I’m sure you’ve seen examples of this in the gym when guys are contorting their bodies into weird shapes and are grunting and grimacing with all of their might in order to complete a lift. That’s what I mean by training to failure.
Here’s a visual example:
In this example the lifter could not complete a proper rep with good form and had to significantly alter his technique (hitching) in order to lockout the deadlift.
I can assure that if you tried to train the deadlift in that fashion on a routine basis you would not make a whole lot of progress in the weight room.
The problem with training to failure is that it unnecessarily taxes your central nervous system. Not only that, but the constant heavy stress is a nightmare on your joints. Constantly pushing your body to the brink also means that you increase your risk for injury. As you can see, none of this is going to help you out in the long run.
The important thing to remember is that strength is a skill. It is something that you practice and develop over time. When you are training for strength you are actually training your nervous system to become more efficient. This is accomplished most effectively when you train just enough but not too much that you impair recovery – which is what happens when you constantly train on the nerve (i.e. train to failure).
So exactly how much training is just enough?
Although this is a highly individual question, generally speaking, most of your working sets should be in the 70-90%range of your one rep max. In more practical terms, when you are doing your working sets you should feel that you can get an extra 1-2 reps if you really gritted your teeth but instead you stop short of that.
You’ll notice that with our program that this is precisely the intensity range in which you will be working in most often. This type of training will keep your central nervous system fresh, allowing you to make continual progress and avoid injuries.
However, just because you are not training to failure doesn’t mean that your workouts should be a complete cake walk. You should still feel that your training sessions are difficult and stress your body but not so much that they impede your recovery. This is something that takes a little bit of experience to get right, but you can tell if your training is effective if you are making progress in the gym. Are you continually adding weight to the bar? Are you consistently getting stronger? If so, then your training is effective. If you find yourself continually hitting plateaus or progress stalls frequently, chances are your training sessions are outpacing your recovery capabilities and you will need to adjust accordingly.
With that said, is there ever an appropriate time to train to failure?
The best time to train to failure is when you are competing. It sounds kind of funny when I say it like that, but when you are competing you are displaying or testing your strength, not building it. This is an opportunity where you can and should go “all out” in an effort to move the most amount of weight as possible. At all other times you should be developing and honing your skill and avoiding failure training as much as possible.
Another opportunity where I can see some merit to failure training is with bodyweight exercise or higher rep, isolation movements. Typically, these movements are done with much lighter resistance and therefore are not nearly as taxing on your central nervous system as heavy compound lifts. As such, you have a little more leeway with training them to failure. Even still, I’d recommend most guys to leave at least a rep in the tank.
In previous articles I discussed the importance of the principle of progressive overload and the principle of specificity. In adding to these fundamental principles, I discussed the merits behind failure based training in this article. Quite frankly, you want to avoid training to failure as much as possible. I understand this goes against most conventional or mainstream advice, but it is sound advice nonetheless. By not constantly training “on the nerve” (aka to failure), you will make better progress in the gym, sustain fewer injuries, and just feel better overall. Remember that it’s all about training hard AND training intelligently!