The Not So Sexy Truth About Training To Failure

The Not So Sexy Truth About Training To Failure

Coaches and athletes love arguing about everything training and nutrition, from low carb/high carb, to calories/hormones, to squats/hip thrusts. Most of these arguments have nuanced answers despite the human desire for concrete black and white answers. The question: “Should you train to failure?” Is no different.

Training to failure is one tool among many. Understanding the components of muscle growth helps direct the use of failure training. A combination of mechanical tension, volume, metabolic stress(think pump), and muscle damage all drive muscle growth. They’re all interrelated though metabolic stress and muscle damage being more concurrent effects of a lot of mechanical tension and volume, than themselves being primary causes of muscle growth.

You’re also managing training volume and intensity against the fatigue you accumulate across your daily and weekly training. You aim to maximize muscle growth from your training within what you can recover from.

Taking every set to failure and beyond rapidly accumulates more fatigue than training effect. You’ll look brutal and hardcore for social media but your results suffer. Not only are you more fatigued across the rest of your workout, you add injury risk disproportionate to the rewards of your training. Greater fatigue often means pushing through less than perfect form. You might get away with this on smaller isolations but you can expect to eventually suffer if form breaks down under fatigue on big technical barbell compounds. Going to failure on every set of squats, bench press, and deadlifts would crush you with fatigue, unnecessarily risk injury, and just be outright unpleasant to do every training day.

What does the research say?

People love to ignore research by saying “Arnold never waited for the studies, he just figured it out”. This made sense in the 1970’s when we didn’t have as much evidence to go on. We no longer have excuses to hold onto outdated methods, long debunked by good research. This research has validated much of what Arnold and his contemporaries figured out on the gym floor.

With failure training, the research aligns with our best intuition. You optimize your training and muscle growth by maximizing the volume of “tough sets”. Tough sets means taking your sets within a few reps of failure. Consistently hammering against failure doesn’t have an advantage over consistently getting close. This isn’t an argument against ever going to failure. It’s an argument for sustaining the greatest intensity you can recover from in your training. Too much failure and your fatigue interferes with effective training volume. Too little failure and you don’t develop the stamina and mental toughness to achieve greatness with your physique.

There’s a sweet spot for enough “tough sets” to optimize progress before more sets becomes time and recovery prohibitive. There are limits to how much time most people even have to train in a day and across a week. There’s also a limit to how much you can recover from. Dr. Mike Israetel calls this maximum recoverable volume, or MRV. Your MRV will grow as you adapt to higher volumes of training and stamina improves. The answer can’t be distilled down to a one size fits all formula, but to help find your sweet spot, track your work and adjust repeatedly until you find a volume and intensity you’re making your best progress from.

Another important reason to consistently train within a few reps of failure is to recruit the largest motor units. As we lift and perform motor tasks, the smaller slow twitch fibers engage first. The larger fast twitch fibers only kick in when needed, requiring significant load or training stimulus to activate. Those large fibers won’t get out of bed for anything shy of hard training near failure. Though we also want to maximize growth of smaller slow twitch muscle fibers, it’s essential to bring the large fast twitch fibers to the party to maximize muscle gain.

8 time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney famously said “Stimulate don’t annihilate.” Lee continues to look great and train in his 60’s, so he was onto something in being the best in the world for nearly a decade while sustaining longevity and health. Dorian Yates once uttered this hardcore mantra: “You must be willing to surrender what you have, train harder than others dare, to sweat with blood and guts for what you could become.” Dorian approached his training with legendary brutality leading to 6 Mr. Olympia titles and a reputation for excessive post failure training. Dorian like Lee is still in the game today as a coach.

Despite the outward appearance of taking everything to failure, Dorian was strategic and surgical in his approach to failure. Dorian took his working sets past failure with a series of post failure strategies. The collective effect was still a lot of tough training volume, and taking the sets that mattered to and beyond failure. Dorian wasn’t doing 25 sets per body part per week all to failure the way some modern lifters imagine they need to. Dorian applied his training effort, stamina, and recovery to maximize his results.

Are You Really Training To True Failure?

In theory true failure isn’t when you can’t do another rep of your set of 300 lbs. True failure would be dropping the weight and continuing until you could no longer bend over and pick up an empty bar. This is clearly an absurd notion, but illustrates that failure doesn’t actually occur when you can’t do another rep of your working weight. You can drop the resistance or take a short rest and continue to do more reps. Whether by drop sets, forced reps with a spotter’s help, rest pausing before cranking out a few more reps, or any other tactic to “go past strict failure”, technically we can push past our strict notion of failure. This was how Dorian Yates and his mentors Mike and Ray Mentzer attacked their training.

Despite Yates and the Mentzer brothers’ success with this approach. The legion of successful bodybuilders who trained higher volume more akin to Lee Haney is strong evidence aggressive post failure training isn’t the only or optimal way to train, especially for the non-elite bodybuilders among us. Instead look for the tactics consistent across the board among successful bodybuilders. Nail your sleep, nutrition, recovery, training intensity, work ethic, volume, and most of all consistency. Not to mention genetics, which you can’t influence, and the assortment of over and under the counter supplements synonymous with high level bodybuilding. Then strategically layer in more advanced tactics like targeted training to failure. Failure training fails when it supersedes or interferes with more basic training and recovery principles.

Are You Actually Training Hard Enough?

Should you even be worried about whether or not you should train to failure? Most beginners and intermediate lifters have no concept of what training to failure feels like. Your mind wants to quit long before your body hits the wall. Often we give in when this mental governor says to shut it down. This is partly why we see to few truly great physiques walking around. Few people are willing to do the hard work day in day out, like Haney, Dorian, Arnold, Flex Lewis, and Big Ramy did.

People want shortcuts, magic potions, and biohacks. Anything to avoid doing the actual work or confronting the reality that if you want to build a truly standout physique, you need to show up and do incredibly hard work each day. You need to consistently train near failure, then maximize your recovery.

The goal of your training is to live on the bleeding edge of optimal training. Step over that edge and get hurt and you lose serious time in the gym, the greatest thief of training progress in our world. Failure pushes you closer to, but often over this bleeding edge. You might feel like you’re crushing your workouts, but you may instead by crushing your progress. Training to failure is like the perfect seasoning on a steak, not the steak itself. Too much and the outcome suffers.

References

  1. Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training. Dr. Mike Israetel, et al
  2. Carroll, et al, “Divergent Performance Outcomes Following Resistance Training Using Repetition Maximums or Relative Intensity,” Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2018
  3. Carroll, et al, “Skeletal Muscle Fiber Adaptations Following Resistance Training Using Repetition Maximums or Relative Intensity,” MDPI, 2019
  4. Sundstrup, et al. “Muscular Activation Strategies During Strength Training With Heavy Loading vs. Repetitions to Failure,” J. Strength Cond, 2012
  5. Moran-Navarro, et al. “Time Course of Recovery Following Resistance Training Leading or Not to Failure,” Our. J. Appl. Physiol, 2017
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Andrew Coates
Andrew Coates is a trainer who is focused on strength development for everyday people and young athletes. He is the cohost and writer of The Fitness Devil podcast.