Is Training to Failure a Good Idea?

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The internet is filled with bro-science and gurus that want you to believe that they have the magic bullet for muscle growth so today we’re going to talk about one of those “magic bullets”: Training to Failure

Question: Does training to failure lead to increased muscle growth?

Or maybe a better question, how close to failure should you train?

Key Takeaways

  1. Training to failure prolonged recovery time compared to non-failure training protocols.
  2. It’s probably a good idea to leave a couple reps in the tank at the end of each workout.
  3. You can always do more tomorrow, but you can’t undo the excessive damage you did yesterday.

So, today’s topic popped up on my radar because I may or may not have just done way too many pull-ups in a training session (a week ago…) and am still a bit sore from it… You know, theoretically…

Anyway, around here we are firm believers in smarter training.

Which is to say I’d rather you not be completely crushed by the workouts every single day.

Because most of us have to get up, go to work, and actually be useful.

Although we do push our athletes to the limit from time to time. Not every workout is a complete and total beatdown.

Which is why this study where researchers looked at 10 different training conditions in an attempt to see just how recovery was affected by training to failure stood out.

Researchers sought to find out:

How much does training to failure and the number of reps performed per set affect the magnitude and duration of fatigue and recovery?

What I liked about this study is that the researchers measured fatigue in two different ways which I’ll call “the practical” and “the scientific”

Training to Failure Measurement Table

As you can see in the table above, the “practical” or the mechanical measurements actually look at how fast the athlete is able to move the bar and also how much their vertical jump decreased with fatigue.

This is something that I like my athletes to do their best to pay attention to in their workouts.

On the endurance side of things, I recommend people end their interval workouts when their pace drops off a cliff. If we can’t keep the pace where it needs to be, then we are just causing excess damage and fatigue without much benefit.

If we’re doing a plyometric movement where explosive power is the goal we try to keep the reps low and the rest periods long so you can fully recover and actually work on improving that explosive power – Not just fight through fatigue to “get it done”.

It’s all about cost/benefit or, ultimately, getting the most bang for your buck. Especially when you’re training to be at a high level of performance every day so you can make it home at night (Military/Firefighters/Police/etc).

In this study, a decrease in bar speed (from rep to rep / set to set / session to session) not only shows fatigue in that one workout but is also telling of how your recovery is going to be over the next few days.

Specifically, the training protocols that went to failure, especially when higher-repetitions were used caused bigger and longer lasting declines in both lifting velocity and vertical jump height.

Additionally, biochemical markers of fatigue, specifically creatine kinase (Which is an enzyme researchers commonly use to assess muscle damage) was significantly elevated in the high-rep/failure protocols.

Which ultimately means you’ll end up tired and sore which could lower the quality of your next training session.

So, as I said before, there is definitely a time and place to push your limit and see how hard you can push yourself in a training session.

However, those sessions should be the exception, not the rule.

If you’re like most people (you are) you probably have to get up the next day and be somewhat of a functional human.

If you’re in the military or a LEO, you not only have to be a functional human, but you need to be prepared for the unknown.

If you’re so jacked up from training that you can’t do your job safely, then you’re wrong (Not as wrong as those slugs that can’t do their job correctly because they never work out… But you know what I mean).

This is where smart workout programming comes into play AND where you need to check your ego (especially if you have training partners) and pay attention to how you are feeling from exercise to exercise and session to session then adjust accordingly.

Like I said before, you can always do more tomorrow, but you can’t undo the damage you did yesterday.

When you’re training for life, QUALITY will always trump QUANTITY.

Is Training to Failure Ever A Good Idea?

Okay, so I said training to failure is the exception, not the rule so that may lead you to believe that it may have some benefits.

First thing you should ask yourself when it comes to an exercise or protocol or training program is: “Why am I doing this?”

Pushing yourself to failure may be exactly what you need if you’ve just never pushed yourself hard before.

This is something I witnessed a number of times back in my GORUCK days.

Those events brought outa. great group of people and many of them have never been challenged before and they suffered for it.

Going all out in the gym and leaving nothing left in your tank a few times per month may help you build the mental toughness you need to push through those hard times.

More practically, you may just be new to training and not really know where your limits are, so training to failure could help you figure out if you’re really working hard enough.

Just remember that training to failure is nota. magic bullet and is probably just not necessary for you to maximize strength or muscle growth.

Some practical takeaways

  1. Training to failure, although likely safe, causes more fatigue & longer recovery times (#shocking), especially when using higher volumes
  2. This is likely bad because excessive fatigue & longer recovery times leads to a decrease in training volume, frequency, and intensity.
  3. Leaving a few reps in the tank will probably not really make much of a difference as far as gettin dem #gainz and will probably leave you more recovered for the next training session – Win, win.
  4. Training to failure will likely yield the same results as a different set/rep scheme that leaves a few in the tank, it’s not a magic bullet for muscle growth.

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