Training to Failure: The Good & the Bad

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January 11, 2016

What is lifting to failure ?

Lifting to failure is a curious subject that can divide opinion between athletes and coaches alike. Should athletes continue to lift a weight until they physically can’t stand it up, press it or pull it, and they have to bail? Or does it make more sense to stop the set when you’re confident you can’t complete another rep?

The advantages of lifting to failure

The camp that favors struggling against the pain and hitting one more rep ‘no matter what’ claim that this is where the most strength gains are made. This is because when you attempt to lift a weight as many times as possible (regardless of whether it’s a heavy load, moderate load or light load), your central nervous system first recruits the smaller, slower motor units of a muscle (Type I); But when the central nervous system figures out that the body is struggling to produce enough force to move the resistance, it activates faster, more powerful motor units until the resistance can be moved (or the force demands cannot be met). Lifting to failure thus recruits and fatigues both small and large muscle fibers, which means that the muscle will get stronger as a result. According to body composition expert Brad Schoenfeld (Ph.D, CSCS), large increases in lactic acid volume in a muscle (as would occur when lifting to failure)  are important for muscular growth since they trigger increases in intramuscular growth factors, such as testosterone and human growth hormone.

Another benefit from pushing yourself to failure is that you can build mental toughness from refusing to quit and grinding out one more rep. On the occasion when you override your body and execute ‘mind over matter’, you might be surprised to discover that you’re capable of far more than you previously thought. This realization will serve you well in future metcons when you’re suffering through a horrible chipper, but your reinforced state of mind will allow you to hold on to the bar whereas in the past you’ll have likely dropped it to gain some respite.

Disadvantages of lifting to failure

Good coaches and programs will implement periodization—separating volume, loads, rep schemes and movements into different chunks through the week or months of a specific program—so as to avoid having an athlete burn out and/or injure themselves through too much intensity. Naturally, constantly lifting to failure through any kind of strength work will fry your central nervous system and fail to provide your body with any relief to heal the fatigued and damaged muscle fibers.

In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researcher Mikel Izquierdo analyzed the impact of an 11-week resistance training program that involved training to failure (RF) vs. nonfailure (NRF). Forty-two ‘physically active men’ were paired off into groups that either trained to failure, nonfailure or acted as a control group. Interestingly, at the conclusion of the study both RF and NRF “resulted in similar gains in 1-repetition maximum bench press (23 and 23%) and squat (22 and 23%), muscle power output of the arm (27 and 28%) and leg extensor muscles (26 and 29%), and maximal number of repetitions performed during parallel squat (66 and 69%).” However the RF group were found to have increased resting levels of the stress hormone cortisol and suppressed anabolic growth factors like IGF-1.1, both of which can compromise the long-term growth of muscle in athlete.

There are also other studies that reportedly show the negative effects of training to failure. For example, one such study from the Research and Sport Medicine Center in Pamplona, Spain, discovered that frequently training to failure dramatically increased levels of adenosine mono phosphate (AMP)—indicating that muscle cells in participants were devoid of energy, damaging the ability of the muscle to synthesize protein.

Clearly, there are some advantages of occasionally utilizing strength sets where you lift to failure—granted that you use those sets correctly and with good form. However, the evidence shows that consistently training to failure can do more harm than good when it comes to performance and overall health. Consider utilizing failure sets sporadically during training.

Photo courtesy of trumpete3/CC BY NC 2.0

About Damect Dominguez

Co-founder of BoxLife Magazine. Author: Training Day: 400+ Workouts to Incorporate in Your Training.

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