Should you train to failure?

Recovery | Sports Performance


Jimmy Pritchard

Jimmy Pritchard is currently the Director of Strength & Conditioning for Ski & Snowboard Club Vail in Vail, Colorado. He holds a BSc in Exercise Science from Colorado Mesa University and is currently working on his MSc degree in Exercise Science from Edith Cowan University. He is certified through the NSCA with both his CSCS and RSCC certifications.

A common misconception in strength training is that each and every set must be taken to failure in order to yield positive adaption.  When it comes to high rep hypertrophy and endurance training, the body will ultimately discontinue work as a result of your intolerance to bear the high level of hydrogen accumulation or “lactic acid”.  This is a natural process, as the body is protecting itself from excessive muscle damage. When it comes to low rep maximal strength work, (1-3 reps) the body discontinues work in your inability to adequately recruit muscle fibers for the job.  In certain situations, carrying sets of exercise to repetition failure are advantageous, such as 1 rep max testing or short microcycles aiming to acheive maximal strength. In most cases however, training to failure is both unnecessary and detrimental to performance.

// What’s the issue?

Unfortunately, the notion that training to failure is necessary has come about in the past few decades.  Advocates often cite that it is necessary to drive adaption and push the limits. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the most effective methods are often less complicated than you’d believe.  The issue with training to absolute failure in the sense of maximal strength is that it causes neural fatigue and disruptions in resting hormonal concentrations. Athletes and recreational gym goers pushing to the point of failure in one session set themselves up for the inability to properly recover and repeat performance over the next few days.  In a phase where one is seeking to gain strength, they will find that they are fatigued and becoming weaker if they consistently push to failure. Additionally, this leads to injury and retraction from strength training all together, with the label that lifting heavy makes them stiff, tired, and hurt. When seeking hypertrophy or muscular endurance, reaching absolute failure is less detrimental from an injury, hormonal, and neuromuscular standpoint however it is still not necessary.  It can lead to overuse, excessive muscular damage, and other similar peripheral issues.

// Training Smarter

If you resist the urge to bury yourself and always push for that “last rep”, you will find the results rather pleasant.  The most effective method of training is the incorporation of the idea “reps in reserve” (RIR). What this means is that when you are working at a percentage of your one rep max, say 85%, you should theoretically be able to complete four reps with the attempt of a fifth resulting in failure.  Rather than pushing for four reps at 85% of your 1 rep max, the idea should be to aim for two or three technically sound reps. This is a continuum that can be implemented with nearly any rep range. In 2011 the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science for Sport presented a study that displayed two subjects both doing squats at ~80% of their 1 rep max.  Subject one quit squatting with the weight when his movement velocity decreased by 20% (leaving more RIR) and subject two quit squatting when his movement velocity decreased by 40% (leaving less RIR).  These two subjects followed the program for several week and the results were astonishing. Despite subject two completing more overall work and pushing himself closer to failure, he encountered a significantly lower gain in strength than did subject one who quit each set earlier to failure.  This and many other similar research studies have displayed the same result.  

What this means is that strength training should always be performed with technical proficiency and that in most cases pushing to failure is unnecessary or even detrimental.  Obviously, certain situations will be different in the cases of novice vs. experienced trainees, however the general takeaway is the same. Remember to train intelligently and understand that sometimes the old adage that “less is more” can still reign true.  Thanks for reading!

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