If you’ve been with me for a while, you know I preach not training to failure. However, there are a lot of training to failure proponents out there.
So who is right and who is wrong?
Of course I’m not going to throw myself under the bus, so let me elaborate on why I’m an opponent to training to failure, and what you should be doing instead.
What Does The Science Say?
First of all, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that proves training to failure leads to more muscle growth or increased strength levels.
For every study that you can point me to that says failure works in those realms, I can point you to a study that shows it has absolutely no positive training effect.
A lot of training to failure advocates will justify this practice with the positive hormonal response that you get when training to failure, such as an elevation in growth hormone. But if you’re training properly in the first place, you’d get these responses anyway and any additional response to training to failure would likely be negligible.
Others will point to how training to failure will signal the fight or flight response, particularly when it comes to strength training rather than hypertrophy. While fight or flight is indeed important to making adaptations, especially for your psyche, there are other (better) ways to trigger those adaptions than training to failure. Besides, fight or flight is an anticipatory response, not a reactionary, meaning you don’t trigger fight or flight during a rep anyway. It’s neurologically initiated prior based on a perceived challenge.
Advocates of training to failure may counter, “Tank, to make gains you have to stress your body. If you aren’t training to failure, you aren’t forcing yourself to adapt!” Well, that’s just flat out wrong. The most scientifically proven strength training principle is the principle of progressive overload, but that principle calls for “overload over time”, not every session, every set.
#1: People Train To Failure Too Much
I’m not naive to the fact that every now and then we will fail on a lift. Shit happens. But it should not be the norm. While science will tell us that training to failure can produce positive hormonal responses, science also tells us, without a doubt, that training to failure elevates cortisol (catabolic hormone) and CNS fatigue.
What’s more important? A negligible elevation of growth hormone, or the prevention of CNS fatigue that can lead to overtraining and required time off from training?
Training to failure with any sort of regularity will lead to the latter. Based on the pro/con analysis of the science, it’s not worth it.
#2: Increased Injury Risk
By definition, training to failure is training until muscular fatigue prevents you from doing another rep, which means your last rep is probably a long, grinding, ugly rep, or an utter failure. Those reps spike negative hormones and are usually the culprits of stupid injuries.
Grinding, technically-inefficient lifts go against your long-term goals of training. You have to look at the bigger picture. Your end game is to put on more mass or put up bigger numbers. You’re never going to remember that one Friday that you hit 13 reps instead of 12 on dumbbell bench press at 5 pounds above your normal sub-maximal effort. Train to your end game, not your daily ego.
#3: Missed Reps
This is mostly important for a strength athlete and not so much for bodybuilders. Bottom line is missed reps fuck with your mental state. They are disheartening, lead to second guessing, and really have no positive effects physiologically. (This will not trigger fight or flight by the way).
This is where some nuance comes in.
While I don’t advocate training to failure in the traditional sense, I do advocate training to “technical failure”. This means training to where you can no longer perform good, clean, technically sound reps. When you can’t perform another perfect rep, you’ve trained to technical failure. No more long, grueling grinder reps.
Training to technical failure really only applies to lifts less than 85% of your 1 rep max (which means only on your assistance work). These are lifts that require less technicality in the first place and don’t pose as much risk as the big barbell lifts. Even in this vein, you don’t need to hit technical failure on every set. (Footstomp for progressive overload here).
Max Effort Lifts
So what about lifts above 85% of your max?
Easy answer: Don’t train to failure.
A common mistake I see is people failing on their max effort lifts. This usually comes down to two things.
- Trying to set new PRs every session. This is a good attitude to have and you should be aiming to do that actually, but the truth is that by the time you get to around 80% of your max in your warm-ups, you’ll probably have a good idea of where your effort will land that day. Above 90%, you will know whether or not you can hit a PR. I never let people fail lifts in training, especially leading up to competition.
- Basing their efforts on percentages. Using percentages in your training is a flawed concept. Look, I know it’s necessary for training programs, and I use them all the time when I talk about training intensity. But in reality, they are just guidelines. Percentage of effort changes on a daily basis due to a myriad of factors, including daily energy levels, outside distractions, previous days recovery, etc. etc. What this means is that just because I hit a 500# deadlift a month ago as a new PR doesn’t mean I can hit that again today. So if my training on a given day calls for 90% of my “1 rep max”, it’s not an accurate representation of my abilities. What it should be is 90% based on whatever happens to be your maximum effort that day.
Fight or Flight
Even by not training to failure, the strength athlete can still trigger the fight or flight response. As I mentioned earlier, fight or flight is an anticipatory response, meaning your body initiates it based on a perceived challenge or stress.
If you approach the bar loaded with a 95% maximal load (based on your ability that day), your mind will recognize that as a stress. Psych up procedures, visualization, and enhancing your arousal state will all help trigger fight or flight.
By no means do you need to fail on a lift to trigger fight or flight. In fact, failure in my experience has far more negative emotional consequences.
- Scientific evidence that training to failure produces strength and mass gains is inconclusive.
- There are multiple negative aspects of training to failure, that based on my experience, far outweigh the negligible “possible” benefits of training to failure.
- Instead of training to failure based on the traditional definition, train to technical failure on sub-maximal lifts.
All the best Primal Nation,