Knowing what Training to Failure is, what it does, and how to use it
By Predator Nutrition
If youíve done any form of weight training for any length of time, youíll almost certainly have heard people talking about training Ďto failureí. Itís a controversial topic, and even the definition of Ďfailureí is much debated. For some people, failure occurs when you can no longer complete the exercise with good form. You should always perform every rep with good form, but for now, weíll use the other definition of failure Ė when your muscles actually temporarily fail, and you donít have sufficient strength to complete the rep.
So thatís what training to failure is. Now letís look at why some people recommend making it part of your workout and why others donít, and then when you should use it, and also when you shouldnít.
There is some evidence that training to failure can increase muscular hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the increase in the size of muscular tissue, or simply put, when your muscles get bigger (and stronger). The argument goes that by forcing your muscles to a state of failure, the body then works hard to repair them, in the process making them bigger and stronger. Sounds good, right? But letís look at some of the downsides of training to failure.
Poor form, over-training and injury
There are, however, some serious problems with training to failure. Everyone knows the risk of injury that comes with poor form. Take, for example, the deadlift. As a set progresses, the muscles tire and form declines, it is tempting to round the back to try and grind out the last few reps Ė itís a common sight in the gym, in fact. But this places enormous strain on the back and can lead to a variety of injuries, from muscular strain to damaged ligaments and hernias. But the problem runs deeper than that. Studies have shown that as muscles grow fatigued, joint stability rapidly reclines as the joints lose the support of the surrounding muscles. This, again, increases the risk of injury.
There is one final effect of training to failure to consider: overtraining. Remember we talked about your body working to repair your muscles? Muscle repair takes a lot of work from your Central Nervous System (CNS). The more muscles your body has to repair, the more work it has to do. It is very possible to overstress your CNS. At this point you are overtrained. It doesnít matter how many more workouts you try and do Ė itís largely pointless, because once your CNS is shot, your body simply cannot repair your muscles. Youíre just exhausting yourself and you wonít be seeing any benefits.
When not to train to failure
So, when should you really avoid training to failure? Compound exercises (the ones that use lots of muscle groups, such as the deadlift, bench press or squat) are particularly dangerous. Not only do they require a lot of effort from the CNS, increasing the risk of overtraining when training to failure, but they also usually involve heavy loads on the body. It is these types of lifts where training to failure can increase that risk of injury. This is also why having a spotter or at least a type of safety system is crucial when doing these lifts Ė no one wants to drop a heavily loaded bar on their chest. In addition, studies have suggested that volume, rather than maximum load, is better for maximising size and strength gains. It would be better to do more reps in a set, or sessions in a week, using a slightly lighter weight, than completely destroying your muscles and CNS in a single session.
When to train to failure
For some exercises, however, training to failure is safe and can be beneficial (if you remember, there is evidence that training to failure can maximise hypertrophy). Isolation exercises such as bicep curls or machine based exercises, and other relatively light load exercises, are perfect for safely taking muscles to failure. You wonít be placing great stress on your joints or on your CNS, and recovery will be much faster.
Conclusion Ė train smart
Yes, you donít get gain without pain. This isnít an encouragement to take it easy. Exercise should still be hard work, make no mistake.
But this isnít to say that the only way to make progress is to destroy your body. Itís very easy to slip into the thinking that training is going all-out in the gym, every single time. Weíre all guilty of this, from beginners to experts. But this simply isnít true. Avoiding complete muscular exhaustion by training to failure can minimise risk, and indeed can be very beneficial Ė more so than simply red-lining it with every set.
Some days you might want to bust out a personal best on the deadlift, or really take things heavy. Thatís fine, thereís no harm once in a while. But you have to train smart Ė you shouldnít be doing this all the time. Itís simple maths. You have to weigh the benefits against the cost. The risk of failure in certain exercises is too great. Why push for marginal gains when thereís a good chance that it will lead to you having to take two weeks out with injury, or so exhausted your muscles arenít repairing in time for the next pummelling?
So mix things up a bit. Use training to failure sparingly. Safety should always be your top priority in the gym. Train smart, train appropriately. Your body will thank you for it Ė and trust us, you will too!
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