Saturday, March 10, 2012

Should I Train to Failure?

We all know that to gain muscle, you need to lift with intensity. If you aren't pushing yourself in the gym then you can't expect to make progress. Progressive overload is the key factor in determining if your training will yield muscle gains. Progressive overload is just a fancy term for gradually increasing the stress placed on your body during your workouts over time either by increasing the amount of reps you can do with the same weight or increasing the amount of weight you can handle. Basically, if you bench 185 for 10 reps on January 1, 2011 and still bench 185 for 10 reps on January 1, 2012, you haven't made progress.

The question that remains is whether or not you must be training to failure to grow. So many professional bodybuilders preach that if you aren't training until absolute failure then you aren't working hard enough. They say that the last rep is the the only one that matters since it's the one that pushes you the most and recruits the most muscle fibers. Well, if professional body builders say training to failure is best, then it must be true, right?


It makes sense that if intensity is important, there is nothing more intense than pushing your body to the point where it physically can't do another rep. However, pushing your body like this every workout can do more harm than good. Not only does repeated failure increase your body's release of catabolic hormones such as cortisol, but it puts greater stress on the CNS which can lead to longer recovery times. Longer recovery times mean that you can't train effectively as often. You may think you are ready to train but your CNS is not. This will cause your progress to stagnate which goes against the goal of making continued progress for the long term.

You may be thinking that professional bodybuilders like Branch Warren and Dorian Yates train to failure and it has worked for them. The issue here is that they are using copious amounts of drugs which significantly helps their body recover faster. If you are natural, your body can't recover at nearly the same rate.

Think About It

Manual laborers such as construction workers often develop a decent amount of muscle just by working their job. Construction workers don't dig with a shovel until they physically can't keep digging. They don't swing an axe until their arms give out yet they still develop muscle. This is evidence that failure is not a necessity for growth. Instead, they perform these activities short of failure but for extended periods of time. This shows that multiple sets short of failure produces results.

Look at it this way. Let's say that right now,you know with 100% certainty that your 10 rep max on bench press is 185 pounds. You cannot do an 11th rep. A week later, you bench 185 again. After your 10th rep, you know with 100% certainty that you can do an 11th rep. What benefit is there to doing the 11th rep if you know for a fact that you can do it? Other than just proving to yourself you can do it, there is none. You have increased your strength by being able to do that 11th rep whether you physically perform it or not. If you do that extra rep, you will fatigue yourself and the rest of your workout will suffer. Instead, you can stop a rep or two shy of failure and then bang out another few sets with the same level of intensity. Once you hit one set to failure, it's impossible to finish your work out with the same level of intensity.

Let's look at one more example similar to manual laborers. Olympic lifters have very developed physiques yet they don't train to failure because it will alter their technique. Also, a lot of Olympic lifts don't have an eccentric portion which makes it almost impossible to reach failure. Despite Olympic lifters not reaching failure, they still grow which is just another piece of evidence that failure is not necessary for growth.

So What Does This Mean?

I'm not saying training to failure is bad and shouldn't be done. I'm just saying that training to failure isn't the secret formula that it's made out to be. Training to failure can and should still be done but not every set and not necessarily every work out. It's more effective to stop 1 or 2 reps short of failure for most sets. Then, either on your last set of your exercise or last set of your entire workout, you can hit failure. If you accidentally hit failure on your first set is that a big deal? No, of course not. The key point here is that training to failure isn't bad. It produces great results. It's just not required or recommended to do all the time in order to grow. Progressive overload is the real key to success and doesn't require reaching failure to be achieved.


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