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A common misconception in strength training is that every set must be taken to muscular failure to yield a positive adaption.
When it comes to high-rep hypertrophy and endurance training, the body will ultimately discontinue work due to your intolerance to bear the high level of hydrogen accumulation or the accumulation of 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 due to the inability to recruit muscle fibers for the job adequately.
In certain situations, carrying sets of exercises to repetition failure are advantageous, such as 1 rep max testing or short microcycles that aim to increase one’s maximal strength.
In most cases, however, training to failure is both unnecessary and detrimental to performance.2
Rarely, if ever, do I have my athletes or clients go to failure when training a heavy compound multi-joint movement.
Should You Train to Failure?
Unfortunately, the notion that training to failure is necessary for performance gains has surfaced over the last several decades.
Advocates of this style often cite that it is necessary to drive adaption and push the limits, paying homage to the old no pain no gain adage.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the most effective methods are often less complicated than one is led to believe.
The issue with training to absolute failure in maximal strength is that it causes neural fatigue and disruptions in resting hormonal concentrations.1
I see most 1 rep max tests from novices, intermediates, and even some advanced athletes. Their performance deviates far from anything I’d consider technical.
The range of motion often shortens dramatically, and they often end up looking like more of a survival attempt than a lift.
Athletes who push themselves to the point of failure, session after session, set themselves up for the inability to properly recover and repeat high performance over the next few days.
In a phase where one seeks to gain strength, they will become fatigued and weaker if they consistently push to failure weekly. Additionally, this can lead to injury and retraction from strength training altogether.
The label that lifting heavy makes them stiff, tired, and hurt when, in reality, they never followed a properly structured plan.
When seeking hypertrophy or muscular endurance, reaching absolute failure is less detrimental from an injury, hormonal, and neuromuscular standpoint; however, it is still unnecessary.
It can lead to overuse, excessive muscular damage, and other similar peripheral issues.
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 of RIR, Reps In Reserve.
- This means that when you are working at a percentage of your 1 rep max, say 85%; you should theoretically complete four reps with a fifth attempt failing.
- Rather than pushing for four reps at 85% of your 1 rep max, the idea should 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 and Exercise presented a study3 that displayed two subjects doing squats at ~80% of their 1 rep max.
- Subject 1 quit squatting with the weight when his movement velocity decreased by 20% (leaving more RIR), and Subject 2 quit squatting when his movement velocity decreased by 40% (leaving less RIR).3
- These two subjects followed the program for several weeks, and the results were astonishing.3 Despite Subject 2 completing more overall work and pushing himself closer to failure; he sustained a significantly lower gain in strength than did Subject 1, who quit each set earlier to failure.3
This means 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 novice versus experienced trainees; however, the general takeaway is the same.
How to Structure Training:
Once you can accept that going too heavy too often is a recipe for disaster, you are likely left wondering what to do instead.
Training with extremely light weights and low intensities is certainly not the answer either, as you will make no progress and eventually regress.
Training hard while training smart is what I preach to my athletes and clients.
Maintaining a disciplined schedule with perfect technical execution and a strong emphasis on recovery will yield the best results.
One of my favorite ways to layout training is through a method developed by Dr. Mike Stone of East Tennessee State University.
To keep his volume and intensity checked with his programs, he implements a system of loading prescriptions on a very light, light, moderately light, moderate, moderately heavy, heavy, and very heavy termed basis.
These terms are certainly not arbitrary, and instead, have a direct correlation to a range of load percentages as follows:
|Load Prescription||Load Percentage|
|Very Light||65-70% 1RM|
|Moderately Light||75-80% 1RM|
|Moderately Heavy||85-90% 1RM|
|Very Heavy||95-100% 1RM|
Dr. Stone then uses these numbers to lay out his program weekly, with each day being labeled appropriately to correspond with what the overall intensity for each lift will be that day.
Click the chart below:
As you can see in this picture, each week is displayed directly under each exercise, as well as the number of sets and reps that correspond with it.
- For example, taking the incline bench press, you can see that three sets of ten reps are prescribed at a moderately lightweight on week one.
- In this case, the person would perform the lift with a load equivalent to 75-80% of their 10-rep max, resting two minutes between sets.
This method does cater to the RIR paradigm previously discussed and allows the individual to work with a 5% range for that given exercise on that given day, depending on how they are feeling.
Furthermore, the intensity shows a steady increase over the course of three weeks, peaking at a moderately heavy intensity and unloading on the fourth week at a light intensity.
This is only one way to organize your training, but it is certainly a fundamental pattern to programming using a periodization strategy.
Remember to train intelligently and understand that sometimes the adage less is more can still reign true.
Training is not meant to break you; it is a tool to increase your capacity to perform.
There is a time and place to empty the tank and display your absolute end degrees of strength; however, nobody ever wins a weight room training championship.
They let it all out on the court or field.
Think about what your current training looks like and how you can implement a better strategy. Be honest with yourself and question whether you may be going too hard and falling prey to the pain and gain trap.
Train hard, but train smart.
1. Ahtiainen, J. P., & Häkkinen, K., “Strength Athletes Are Capable to Produce Greater Muscle Activation and Neural Fatigue During High-Intensity Resistance Exercise Than Nonathletes.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2009, 23(4), 1129-1134.
2. Martorelli, S., Cadore, E. L., Izquierdo, M., Celes, R., Martorelli, A., Cleto, V., Alvarenga, J., & Bottaro, M., “Strength Training with Repetitions to Failure does not Provide Additional Strength and Muscle Hypertrophy Gains in Young Women.” European Journal of Translational Myology, 2017. 27(2).
3. Sanchez-Medina, L., & González-Badillo, J. J., “Velocity Loss as an Indicator of Neuromuscular Fatigue during Resistance Training.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2011. 43(9), 1725-1734.