Your eyes are not deceiving you; the title does indeed say training to failure. While “failure” isn’t a word we would normally want to associate with one's fitness regime, this method is increasingly popular among weightlifters. In fact, you could even go as far as to define it as the ultimate goal of specific sessions. But what does it truly entail? Is it really so harmless? And if not, what are the implications?
In the following post, we’ll try to examine this popular training approach and outline its good and bad aspects. Let’s get started!
What Is Training to Failure?
The term itself entails training to muscle failure, that is — doing reps with the weights you've chosen until your strength gives out. In this manner, you are going to accomplish the so-called concentric failure. If you can still lift and maintain good form, then you haven’t achieved muscle failure.
Now, what does it mean when one’s muscles “fail”? Well, it all circles back to ATP or adenosine triphosphate, which is the chemical responsible for fuelling our muscles and helping them contract. Maintaining normal ATP levels is crucial to avoiding muscle fatigue. However, once we use up our supply of it, and lactic acid starts to accumulate, the muscles need a break before we can do another rep.
It’s important to note that we shouldn’t confuse technical with muscle failure. Namely, the former term refers to the point where you cannot do another repetition while maintaining form. You’d need to give your body some time to recover so you can do another set and reach technical failure again. This way, you can easily manipulate the period between two reps until you find a comfortable interval.
Muscle failure means you cannot do the target rep at all, irrespective of form. Its purpose is to grow muscle in an effective way by pumping the maximum amount of blood to the target area. Now, which of the two sorts of “failure” we should strive to achieve is an ongoing debate to this day.
How Effective Is It?
Most individuals resort to training to failure because they want to gain muscle mass. But is it really all that necessary? According to certain research — no. Based on the findings of the study, which included young adults, it was concluded that this workout method isn’t really needed or more effective for individuals looking to gain strength and muscle.
Therefore, if you’re an average gym goer, weight training to failure might not be for you. It can be painful, and there’s really no need to strain your body like that. On the other hand, those looking to apply for a powerlifting or bodybuilding contest might find this method beneficial.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Training to Failure
Every exercise regime has its pros and cons, and to failure workout is not an exception. Let's examine each category in more detail.
Many personal trainers swear by training till failure, and there is a good reason for it. Even those with limited knowledge have probably heard that the method is crucial for anyone interested in weightlifting.
Several studies indicate that this type of training expends more motor units (MU). A motor unit is made up of motor neurons, which travel from the brain to your muscles. When a neuron fires, all of the fibers in that MU contract under the condition that the neuromuscular signal exceeds a certain threshold. As a result, with consistency, your neuromuscular function will improve over time.
In layman’s terms, that means — the more MU you use, the more increase in muscle and strength you get. Therefore, if you are an advanced lifter, you might benefit from training to failure, as it will help you break through training plateaus and get to the next level. Again, highly trained individuals may also experience an increase in muscle mass or the so-called muscle hypertrophy.
Even though it’s become an increasingly popular training system, muscle failure is not without flaws. First and foremost, it’s somewhat uncomfortable. Therefore, you might lose your motivation to work out pretty early on. Moreover, certain studies have indicated that exclusive reliance on training to failure may increase your levels of cortisol, better known as the stress hormone.
However, its biggest shortcoming is that there’s simply insufficient research to prove its merits. In fact, some scientific findings indicate that training to failure may even be detrimental to your progress because it reduces the effectiveness of the remaining workout.
Moreover, you really shouldn’t go for this activity without the supervision of a trainer, as it can lead to muscle damage if performed inadequately. This will, in turn, increase your recovery time, so you won’t be able to hit your next workout when planned.
The final takeaway here is to train smarter, not harder, if you want to achieve optimal results. Experts recommend the regime of training 3–5 reps short of failure in order to build muscle.
As you can see, the jury is still out on whether training to failure is as effective as everyone says it is. There’s simply not enough evidence to support such strong claims. However, if you decide to give it a go, make sure to consult and work with a professional first.
Once on your fitness journey, you’ll want to stay on top of your progress. Whether you’ll keep a journal or sync your Eros Scale with your training app — it’s up to you. Whenever you notice a certain kind of workout isn’t for you, take a break and consider other options because there are more than enough of them around.