24 January 2019
TRAINING TO FAILURE PART 1 – IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK…
Ahhh… Training to failure. The one topic that continues to infiltrate fitness discussions and is often the center piece of debate as to what is and what is not, effective training. From gym floor banter to elaborately designed scientific research, examination of the efficacy of hitting a brick wall during a set remains a highly contentious subject and one that I believe is widely misunderstood and misapplied…
Which is why I’m writing this article, duh…
This piece will be broken down into two parts.
In part one of this series I will discuss:
- What training to failure is;
- Understanding the spectrum of intensity;
- What we know about training to failure; and
- The benefits and drawbacks of training to failure.
Part two will be somewhat more conceptual in nature and cover:
- Whether or not training to failure is necessary for maximal muscle growth;
- Why training to failure is an important skill; and
- The contexts in which maximal training efforts aka to failure are warranted as a means of overload.
Before we get into things, I wanted to discuss an important concept related to any discussion in fitness, especially when there are differing opinions.
Typically, opinions are dogmatic or extreme and viewpoints are often blindsided by personal bias. Our individual beliefs of what constitutes ‘effective’ based is always limited to our personal experiences, and I want this to be a reminder before we delve into things… Many coaches, experts and brothers/sisters of the iron discuss such topics in a vacuum, isolate a specific detail and fail to think conceptually or pragmatically, and training to failure is no exception.
Much like a pendulum swings from side to side, when looking to answer questions in ‘fitness’, opinions on training are no different.
It’s easy to grasp extremes and look at things in black and white. It require’s less brain power and very little critical thinking.
Walking the middle ground is somewhat dull and onerous. It requires a degree of intellect, a thirst for knowledge, a knack to discern and dissect information and the ability to integrate that information into any given context.
Using the example of training to failure and answering the question of whether or not it is necessary for maximal growth and strength opinions vary and over the years have shifted back and forth between two opposite extremes…
Camp One: Training to failure is required for effective stimulus as it yields maximal motor unit and muscle fiber recruitment, achieving maximal training effect and if you don’t train to failure you’re a wimp.
Camp Two: Training to failure is unnecessary and should be avoided as hypertrophic and strength adaptations can be achieved with near maximal training. Reaching failure in a set will hurt subsequent training performance, increase the risk of injury and potentially lead to overreaching or worse, overtraining, avoid failure unless you want to die…
But wait, there is indeed a third camp…
The middle man, who postulates him/herself smack bang in middle of these two extreme positions.
Camp Three: The ‘It depends’ crowd. Use training to failure sparingly and intelligently, assign harder training efforts to single joint movements or machine exercises and only reach failure if meeting a progression as part of a program, when testing strength or in the final microcycle of a training block before deloading.
So which is correct?
Well, being a middle man myself, I would agree for the most part that training to failure has its time and place, however it’s application and some theoretical underpinnings and practical application should be viewed with a critical eye, and in that’s what this article is all about…
Whilst each of the aforementioned viewpoints on training to failure have merit, and are technically correct (to a degree), the esoteric nature of these discussions leaves a lot to be desired and often misses the forest for the trees.
With countless moving parts (variables and contexts) that influence the intensity at which one should train for maximal gains, it appears that the majority of lifters fail to fully understand, address and take into consideration how to best approach intensity when it comes to program design, which has led me to writing this series.
When honing in on one specific detail of training, it is important not to overlook the overarching concept and principles of program design variables such as intensity, and it is essential to give context to their application.
So what are the overarching concepts relating to training to failure?
Overload and the application of training intensity.
1. WHAT IS TRAINING TO FAILURE – UNDERSTANDING TRAINING INTENSITY.
Before we go full steam ahead and get into the nitty gritty, first some important background on what training to failure is and outline some definitions and distinctions between three different types of ‘failure’.
(A) Mechanical Failure:
“Taking a set to ‘failure’ simply refers to the point where momentary mechanical failure occurs, i.e. the incapacity of a muscle(s) to complete a repetition in a full range of motion due to fatigue.
(B) Technical Failure:
The inability to complete further repetitions without form breakdown.
(C) Volitional interruption:
A third component of ‘failure’ is ceasing a set as you think you cannot complete another rep, most commonly stated as an RPE 10.
Training to failure is not a training strategy, it is (and should be) a function of progressive overload, whereby intensity is manipulated to exceed prior training stressors. The increase in intensity towards or to failure should therefore only be necessary to maximise the training effect to ensure progress occurs and adaptations are made.
Therefore, intensity is the variable being manipulated when taking a set to failure, nothing more, nothing less. And to best understanding the implications of different intensities in the context of building muscle, we need some further background on what intensity actually is.
Defining training intensity as it relates to resistance training can be broken down as follows:
Intensity Load: the absolute weight on the bar, commonly referred to by powerlifters and is usually measured as a percentage of one repetition max.
Intensity of Effort: the proximity to failure, commonly referred to by bodybuilders, typically measured using Rate of Perceived Effort or Repetitions in Reserve scales.
Both of these definitions provide a useful means of measuring intensity and fundamentally will need to be overloaded over time to continually elicit a training stress and further adaptations aka gains.
In a practical sense, this means intensity should be increased by:
- Adding load (increasing absolute load and magnitude of tension)
- Adding reps with the same load (increasing effort, the duration of tension and proximity to failure).
APPLICATION OF INTENSITY
Scientific research and anecdote have shown that hypertrophy can occur with a broad spectrum of intensities (as measured by loads) and rep ranges.
Whether you lift lighter loads for high reps or heavy loads for low-moderate reps, intensity must be present.
That is, light loads must be taken to (or very close to) mechanical failure in order to provide a stimulus that recruits all motor units within a muscle, whereas heavy loads for low-moderate reps will by proxy of a higher magnitude of tension and force production, recruit all motor units even in the absence of failure.
If you enjoy heavy loads, then training to failure likely isn’t a good idea.
If you prefer higher rep ranges, then training to failure will be a necessity to maximally recruit all the muscle fibers within a given set.
Both are viable means of building muscle and a matter of preference for the most part, but nonetheless, intensity is a fundamental variable and there is no escaping the fact that training must be sufficiently hard in order to make progress.
VOLUME, FREQUENCY & INTENSITY – THE TRADE OFF.
When discussing intensity, it is imperative to discuss two other inextricably related variables – volume and frequency. Whilst intensity will determine the type of adaptation from training, training volume (the amount of work performed) can be seen as exposure to tension and frequency is how often that work and tension is performed.
With higher intensities, frequency and volume must come down, and the primary reason for this is recovery. The greater the tension you expose the body to, the greater the stress and fatigue that is accrued, meaning less total work can be performed.
SPECTRUM OF INTENSITIES
What is central to understanding training intensity is that its application occurs and should be viewed on a spectrum. Training hard every session from the beginning of your training career isn’t a good idea, nor is it necessary for building muscle.
Training to failure can be seen as a maximal effort and anything below this is either near maximal or submaximal efforts.
Over the course of a lifters training career, training intensity will and should be manipulated in order to bring about certain training effects and adaptations in alignment with training age, goals and injury status. Sub Maximal Efforts
Training with low intensities has its time and place. Lower intensities allow for learning and skill acquisition. Sub maximal loads allow lifters to move slow and learn fast, improve motor learning and allow for establishing a greater mind muscle connection and confidence within a lift.
The primary potential draw-back of sub maximal lifting in this sense is that regularly training far from failure may not facilitate a maximal adaptive response.
Near Maximal Efforts
When increasing the effort within training but not training to failure, strength and hypertrophy gains can occur…
Training with near maximal efforts – that is training with sufficient absolute loads (greater than 70% of 1RM) and in close proximity to failure (RPEs of +6), there is a sufficient amount of tension stimulus to recruit muscle fibres leading to adaptations in myofibrillar size and strength.
But what about maximal efforts?
Are you leaving gains on the table by not training with higher intensities?
2. WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT TRAINING TO FAILURE.
With greater intensities, there is an increased magnitude and duration of tension as discussed earlier in this article.
When you train with heavier loads and apply tension for longer durations (closer to failure) the amount of force production required is increased and subsequent muscle fiber recruitment. This can elicit far more disruption and overload, bringing about a greater training effect when compared to lower intensity training.
To spare you any further complexities, let’s gloss over what we do know and what we don’t know about training with maximal efforts.
What we know about training to failure:
- Increases muscle fiber activation in order to maintain force production.
- Ensures maximal fiber unit recruitment for a single set.
- Increases peripheral and central fatigue.
- Causes increased muscle damage and recovery time.
- Can hinder subsequent training performance.
- May lead to less total training volume.
- Potentially non advantageous for strength adaptations when compared to non failure training.
- Potentially non advantageous for hypertrophic adaptations when more volume is accrued by not avoiding failure
- Can lead be more time efficient as an effective training stimulus is achieved with fewer total sets.
- May decrease training frequency due to an increase in recovery time between workouts.
- It increases the accuracy of gauging perceived effort.
What we know about near maximal training:
- Loads of 80% or more will recruit all motor units, irrespective of whether they are taken to failure or not.
- High velocity training with lighter loads and maximum concentric effort also recruits maximal number of motor units.
- Multiple set training without failure can increase metabolic stress and cause fatigue which in turn recruits a greater number of motor units.
- Taking a set ‘near’ failure with moderate loads (RPE +6 or RIR -4) will elicit an effective training stimulus.
- Taking a set ‘near’ failure with light loads will not elicit an effective training stimulus.
- Training that doesn’t take a set to failure allows for greater accumulation of training volume which is potentially advantageous for hypertrophy.
- Training that doesn’t reach failure will lead to improved training performance in subsequent sets.
- Stopping a set short of failure will ensure technique does not break down, which is important for motor learning.
- Even with high frequencies and volumes, training with low efforts frequently will hinder long term progress.
- It may lead to inaccuracy in gauging perceived effort.
So, what intensities are best for making gains?
A good case can be made for both near maximal training efforts, no doubt.
If you hold back just enough, you can continue to improve performance and still make decent gains and if you take multiple sets to failure, more fatigue is accrued and there is indeed a greater risk of injury and over training.
However, if you take a set to failure, there are no stones unturned when it comes to how much effort was applied to that set and you walk away knowing that you got what you came for, despite some inherent trade offs.
As I mentioned, walking the middle road may seem like your best bet – that is most of your training is near maximal with some sets taken to failure from time to time.
However, muscle growth is a little more nuanced than many realize and if it were that simple, these types of discussions wouldn’t exist.
To recap, here are the pros and cons of high intensity training and hitting failure:
3. THE BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS OF TRAINING TO FAILURE.
- Guaranteed motor unit recruitment
- More effective training with lower volumes.
- Teaches hard training and the importance of recovery
- Idiot proofs training
- Increased muscle damage and recovery time.
- Reduces training performance of subsequent sets, exercises and workouts
- Increased risk of injury
- Increased risk of Non Functional Overreaching
- Efficacy is dependent on personality types
- Increases the requirement of volume.
The application and efficacy of maximal efforts and training to failure is to a large degree predicated on one’s desired training approach and personality type. However context is vital and to fully understand the implications of failure to your gains, further discussion is required.
Hopefully, you now realise that training to failure is not a training strategy in and of itself and is simply a means of applying an overloading stimulus that requires greater efforts aka intensities.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where I will discuss in depth whether or not training to failure is necessary for maximal muscle growth.