Re-evaluating the Practice of Training to Failure By Charles Staley
The notion of "training to failure" is perhaps one of the most revered practices in the modern bodybuilder's "toolbox." But interestingly, this training method seems unique to bodybuilding.
In other iron sports, such as Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and throwing, athletes develop enormous levels of muscle mass without training to failure, at least not in the way that most bodybuilders would define it.
This observation, coupled with the fact that many elite-level bodybuilders do not embrace this practice, warrants a second look at this concept.
Birth of a Paradigm
Many credit Arthur Jones (the inventor of Nautilus equipment) with developing and popularizing the "one set to failure" paradigm. Jones argued that bodybuilders should work to the point of momentary failure, using one set per exercise/per session, rather than using multiple sets of multiple exercises.
But Jone's commercial success may been potentiated by a long-standing tradition among young trainees (particularly men) who, in the absence of qualified supervision, regularly trained to failure as an intuitive way of obtaining objective feedback about their progress. Whenever an additional rep could be performed with a given weight, the trainee was psychologically reinforced, which further entrenched this "habit."
Unfortunately, it also reinforced poor exercise form and the tremendous frustration that set in when, after several months of monotonous training, the inevitable plateau set in. This frustration then paved the way for numerous ill-conceived commercialized training "systems" that emerged over the past several decades. The result is an endless cycle of unsupervised trainees switching from one miracle method to another, in an endless search for the "perfect program."
Before we criticize Jones or the authors of the many programs available today, it may be necessary to revise our expectations of what a training method should and shouldn't do. Remember that nearly any training method can be effective, at least temporarily, for the following reasons:
Beginners will make short-term progress with any training method, provided they aren't injured in the process.
Many people train in a very monotonous manner, rarely changing acute exercise variables such as choice of exercise, order of exercise, rest periods, and load (volume and intensity). When such a person changes programs, they will progress, at least temporarily.
Conversely, NO training program is perfect because:
Everyone is different. No two people respond exactly the same to a given program.
The body will eventually accommodate to any program, and when it does, you hit a plateau.
The conclusion that might be drawn from these points is that all methods can be viewed as "tools" which have a certain degree of utility when used in the proper proportion and in the right context. The problem is when a proclamation is made that "This is the perfect program for all people all of the time!"
A significant impediment to discussing this issue is the lack of consistent
working definitions for several terms which are germane to the discussion at
What is "Training to Failure”?
The very definition of "training to failure" needs considerable clarification. Does it mean concentric failure? Eccentric failure? Inability to complete another repetition in good form? (and what is "good form?") Inability to maintain the desired tempo (speed of execution)? Are we referring to failure of the cellular, or neural system? Failure of the stabilizers, or prime movers?
For the purposes of this discussion, "training to failure" describes training in a manner where each set is continued to the point where further concentric repetitions "in good form" cannot be completed under the lifter's own volition. Second, the notion of failure is inexorably linked to the magnitude of effort and ability to withstand pain and fatigue— both of which are subjective qualities.
What is "Good Form?"
While the amount of resistance, number of sets and reps, etc., constitute the quantitative element of training, good form (or exercise technique) can be seen as the qualitative element. Exercise technique includes range of motion, tempo, and control over the resistance being lifted. For the sake of variation, bodybuilders should plan for regular variations in tempo and range of motion. Such variations help to break through strength and hypertrophy plateaus.
Control, however, should never be sacrificed, especially for the purpose of "eeking out" another repetition. For the sake of this discussion, "good form" will be defined as "exercise performance which is consistent with pre-determined objectives concerning range of motion, tempo, and control of the resistance."
Using this definition, it is not considered bad form to lift a weight through a partial range of motion, as long as you pre-determined that the repetitions would be performed in that manner. On the other hand, if you planned to do parallel squats, and start losing depth due to fatigue, this would be considered bad form. Similarly, if you plan for a certain tempo (duration of each repetition) or even rest period, it would be considered bad form to alter these parameters in the middle of a workout.
What is Intensity?
Sports scientists and bodybuilders often assign two very different meanings to this term. In the sports sciences, intensity is usually defined as the difficulty of the work performed, expressed as a percentage of 1RM (One repetition maximum), or an athlete's maximum poundage for a single repetition for any given lift. Using this definition, if an athlete has a 1RM of 400 pounds in the leg press, a set performed with 350 pounds is more "intense" than a lift performed with 300 pounds, regardless of how many reps were performed, how close the set came to failure, or how much mental effort was applied.
Most bodybuilders, on the other hand, define intensity as the magnitude of effort applied to a task. Using this definition, a leg press of 300 pounds might be more intense than a set with 350 pounds, if a greater effort was applied to that set.
For our purposes then,we will distinguish between "extrinsic" intensity (or, the magnitude of the external load) and "intrinsic" intensity (or, the magnitude of effort applied against that load). It's important to recognize that extrinsic intensity is objective, and intrinsic intensity is subjective. In other words, we can measure the weight on the bar as a percentage of maximum, but when someone claims that they "went to failure," we have to take his or her word for it.
Objectives and Methods of Training
For bodybuilders, the object of training is muscular hypertrophy. The methods used to accomplish this objective are dictated by various training principles, most notably the principle of progressive overload. Fatigue, and occasionally failure, are unavoidable by-products of these methods. Viewing fatigue and/or failure as an objective of training (as many bodybuilders do) is masochistic and counterproductive.
The hallmarks of successful training are long-term consistency and progression. But progression must be gradual— very gradual— if it is to be consistent. Many athletes insist on always taking a set to utter failure, even if it's not necessary to achieve a new personal record. But these same athletes neglect to project these gains into the future, which reveals the impossibility of continuing these gains.
As an example, if you manage to put 5 pounds a week on your squat, this equates to 20 pounds a month, and 240 pounds a year. If this could be continued for even three years, you would be a national level powerlifter, with size to go along with it! A better approach is to achieve very small increases in load on a regular basis, even though you won't reach failure. These smaller increases are easier for the body to adapt to, and recuperate from. Taking each and every set to complete failure is like trying to run a marathon at sprint speed— after a very short period of sprinting, you'll have to slow down considerably, if you expect to finish the race.
The Downside of One Set to Failure
As stated earlier, few training practices or techniques are good or bad in the absolute sense. Most often, it's a matter of application and context. Performing all sets to failure (or, trying to) is particularly problematic, for the following reasons:
1) Insufficient training volume for hypertrophy development
Many studies have confirmed that metabolic changes associated with muscular hypertrophy are best instigated through loading by high volumes, whereas neural adaptations are best brought about through high intensity loads. Training volume is calculated in pounds lifted per unit of time. If you plan to lift a certain weight for 5 sets of 5 reps, only the last set would approach concentric failure— if you went to failure on the first set, the subsequent sets would have to be performed with significantly less weight.
This decreases volume, which can negatively impact muscular hypertrophy. International strength coach Charles Poliquin observes that for any two athletes on the same basic program, the athlete who uses a higher volume will have greater hypertrophy . This observation may be due in part to increased levels of anabolic hormones which are associated with multi-set (as opposed to single set) training .
A second factor to consider with respect to the training load is that there is a limit to how long you can achieve progressions in intensity, but increases in volume can be achieved for a much longer period. For example, after about 9-10 years of solid training experience, you'll arrive at (or very close to) your maximum lifts (1RM's). Past this point, it becomes nearly impossible to increase the training load through increases in intensity. It's much more feasible at this point to increase training volume (by adding reps and/or sets). In this way, you can continue to make gains in muscle mass.
2) Injury potential, both acute and chronic, increases
Noted exercise scientist Paul Ward warns that training to failure results in ischemic reperfusion, or oxygen deprivation, followed by oxygen perfusion. This results in massive free-radical damage to DNA and cell membranes. International Sports Sciences Association co-founder Dr. Sal Arria cautions that many soft tissue injuries occur when failure terminates a repetition in mid-stroke. "When the weight on the bar exceeds the muscle's ability to lift it, something has to give and usually, it's the musculotendinous junction" One of the most important functions of a spotter is to stay alert and keep the bar moving in order to avoid such injuries, according to Arria.
According, to powerlifting legend Fred Hatfield, if fatigue is so great that stabilizers and synergists (which typically tire faster than the prime movers) become too fatigued to allow maintenance of proper form, you're asking for trouble.
3) Potential for overtraining increases
Louie Simmons, well-known coach to many elite-level powerlifters finds that taking sets to failure "has an ill-effect on the central nervous system," which delays recovery. Simmons is noted for producing scores of high-ranked lifters with relatively low-intensity training
4) Regular failed attempts lead to a reduction in a lowering of the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) excitation threshold .
Successful lifts which are above what the body is used to will raise the excitation threshold of the Golgi Tendon Organ, while failed attempts tend to lower it. What this means in bodybuilding parlance is that the more often you miss a lift, the more likely it is that you'll miss it again in the future.
Is Training to Failure Necessary?
Clearly, it is not. The overriding concept is that, like all training methods, training to failure is a tool. No tool should be used all the time for all applications. But used judiciously, it can be a useful training method. Any training program which plans for progressive resistance, consistency, and variation is likely to produce success.
1) Plan and document your training. If your best effort in the bench press is 225 for five sets of five repetitions, your goal should be to surpass that effort— either by getting five more pounds for 5x5, or by getting a greater volume with the same weight. When you do, you'll progress, even if you don't go to failure on each and every set. Keeping a training log is a must in order to know what barriers you're trying to surpass. Use one!
2) Use and apply strictly defined technique parameters for yourself. Cheating (by utilizing co-contraction from non-targeted muscles) only encourages inefficient movement patterns, poor posture, and potentially, injuries. Your technique on the last rep should be identical to the technique you use on the first repetition.
3) Progress is a function of gradually increasing your training load over time—not how "trashed" you feel after a workout.
4) Careful attention to acute program variables can have a big impact on how much volume you can comfortably tolerate. Here are two examples:
a) Muscles can be worked more thoroughly by first training in an unstable environment (i.e, free weights) which challenge the stabilizers, and then moving to a stable environment (i.e, machines) . To test this for yourself, first do a set of dumbbell bench presses to fatigue. Next, load a barbell with the same weight, and immediately do a set.
You will find that you can lift this weight, despite failure on the DB bench. Next, go to a machine bench press, load it with the same weight, and you'll find that you can continue even further. This phenomenon is an example of "stabilizer failure," meaning that the motor cortex will limit neural drive to the prime movers when it senses that the body is unable to stabilize a load. This phenomenon has vast implications for the majority of trainees who primarily work prime movers through machine exercises only.
b) Because fatigue is specific , greater workloads are possible if sets of contrasting exercises are performed back to back, as opposed to finishing all sets for a particular exercise before proceeding to the next. As an example, if you plan to perform bench presses and lat pulldowns in the same session, sets 1,3,5, etc., would be bench presses, and sets 2,4,6, etc., would be lat pulldowns.
The more distant the two muscle groups are from one another, the greater the reduction in residual fatigue. Still another method of reducing fatigue is to alternate between low repetition sets, which fatigue primarily the nervous system, with high repetition sets, which fatigue primarily the metabolic system. The low repetition sets facilitate greater neural drive, which carries over to the high repetition set, allowing a greater overall workload to be performed.
c) Except for beginners, a linear progressions of training load, where the athlete attempts to add resistance each and every workout, result in early stagnation and loss of improvement. A more productive approach is a "three steps up, one step down approach"  which allows for periodic regeneration and continued improvement.
5) For hypertrophy development, remember that muscles consist of more than just contractile fibers. Use a variety of repetition ranges to stimulate all elements of the muscle cell— including sarcoplasmic volume, capillary density, and mitochondria proliferation. (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy)
6) It is especially important to recognize the qualitative components of a good set— elements such as the feel, control, and overall mastery of the movement. Over-reliance on achieving the maximum number of repetitions at any cost is an invitation to injury and long-standing technique errors. A useful guideline is "Once you find yourself cheating, you're already beyond failure!"
7) Stick to conventional or "basic" training methods until they no longer yield results. If your neuromuscular system experiences every strength training method known to science in your first year of training, what will you do when you hit a plateau? Save "advanced" methods, such as partial repetitions, eccentric training, and ballistic methods for later, when you're advanced.
Training to Failure: Traditional and Revised Definitions
The majority of trainees define training to failure as continuing a set of repetitions (including both the concentric and eccentric portions of the rep) until no further repetitions are possible without a considerable erosion of form, or assistance from a partner, or both. Frequently, after concentric failure is reached, the trainee will continue the set, either by cheating (utilizing co-contraction from additional muscle groups), or with the help of a partner by either 1) completing a certain number of eccentric-emphasized reps, 2) performing "forced reps" (ie., utilizing help on both the concentric and eccentric portions of the reps), or performing "strip sets," meaning, the partner continues to reduce the weight on the bar until no further repetitions can be completed.
Other authors have rightly pointed out the fact that failure is specific to fiber type. As an example, you may select a heavy weight, and reach failure after performing 3 repetitions. While no further repetitions are possible with this weight, it would still be possible to lower the weight (as in a strip-set) and continue even further.
Olympic lifters terminate their sets when the ideal tempo and/or coordination erodes beyond acceptable parameters. For this reason, Olympic lifters rarely if ever utilize spotters, even on their heaviest maximum attempts, since (at least in theory) the worst thing that can happen is that the last rep will be slower than desired.
Is One Set Really Enough?
Many proponents of the "one set to failure" method justify their claims by suggesting that one set is sufficient to recruit a maximal number of motor units. While this may be true (although there is little solid data to support this statement), this approach assumes that simply recruiting a motor unit once is sufficient to fatigue it, which is a prerequisite to hypertrophic adaptations.
For beginning trainees, it may be that single exposures to a training stimulus are sufficient to provoke an adaptation. But athletes with even moderate experience are likely to require multiple exposures (sets) in order to fatigue the target motor units9. Hypertrophy of other biological tissues is accomplished not by stressing the tissue close to its limits, but by applying a stress which is slightly beyond what it normally encounters. Bone, as an example, hypertrophies when a force equaling approximately one-tenth it's breaking point is applied. This example supports the contention that gradual progression is the ideal method for achieving muscular growth.
Personal Communication, February, 1996.
"Growth Hormone Release Following Single Versus Multiple Sets of Back Squats". Bruce W Craig and Ho-Youl Kang at the Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1994, 8(4), 270-275
Personal communication with Dr. Fred Hatfield, January, 1996.
Program Design Video Series, Paul Chek Center for Health & Performance, LaJolla, CA, 1996.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., Science and Practice of Strength Training, p.p. 111, Human Kinetics, Champaign, 1995.
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