Training to Failure – by Jamie Bolton

Failure. When you just can’t get that last rep. It’s a pretty emotive topic with different athletes. On the one extreme you have olympic lifters who stay well shy of failure, heck you can’t grind a clean. At the other, you have bodybuilders, who will go to failure and beyond it. But who is right? For sure, both extremes and indeed those somewhere in the middle have produced some huge and strong athletes.
So what’s really going on here? Failure is an often misunderstood topic. And you really have to get down into the nitty gritty of what people are training for in order to analyse their methods and thus approach to it. In reality, as you will see here, is that it’s quite simple.First lets define failure. Failure is the inability to complete another rep unaided. But within this there are three kinds of failure, which occur in succession:
– Concentric Failure : inability to complete positive phase of the rep (think pressing phase of the bench press)
– Isometric Failure : inabiltiy to hold a weight statically (think pausing mid rep on bench press)
–  Eccentric Failure : inability to complete negative phase of the rep (think lowering phase of the bench press).
Let’s polish this off with a bit more context. Rolling with the bench press example, lets say you’re in the concentric phase of the rep, and suddenly you hit a brick wall, i.e. you can’t press it upward anymore. You’ve hit concentric failure. But wait, you can still hold it in place, i.e. hold the isometric contraction, the weight is no longer moving. Then a few seconds or so later, you can’t even do that – you’ve hit isometric failure. But, you can still lower it under reasonable control, i.e. perform the eccentric phase of the rep. Chances are at this point if someone were to help you with the weight back up (help with the concentric), you could do multiple eccentric only reps until suddenly you can’t even do that – you’ve hit eccentric failure.
There is one other face to this topic. There is more than just muscular failure going on here. Behind the firing of every motor unit is the nervous system. Now, when we hit muscular failure, we are also placing stress on the nervous system. Since the nervous system controls the motor fibres, if we stress the nervous system, then we may compromise our ability to properly recruit motor fibres at our next session.
The only thing left to ask is, how much stress are we placing on it? As a rule of thumb, the more compound and heavy the movement, the more stress on the nervous system training to failure will cause. Go to failure on a 3-rep squat and expect to feel ‘drained’ for a few days; failure on 15-rep lateral raises – not so much.

Now we know what failure is, the question is, when should we train to it, or even past it?

Like much in the realm of strength training, the answer is, it depends, and it depends on what kind of athlete you are. I’ll run through some examples.

Olympic lifters train often multiple times per day. They always are lifting relatively heavy weights, explosively. Moreover, they train the whole body very frequently using compound, multi-joint movements almost exclusively. Since going to failure would compromise their ability to perform those same lifts which they will be doing very regularly, do you think they do? Nope. They steer very clear.

I’ll jump to the straight to the ‘opposite’ end of the spectrum – bodybuilders. Bodybuilders in comparison, often train with bodypart splits. Whilst making use still of compound movements, there is a good amount of isolation work for muscle groups. Finally, by way of this split, each bodypart gets plenty of time to recover between each session. Train to failure? Definitely. Some schools of thought in bodybuilding will even go ‘beyond’ failure by use of extended-set techniques like rest-pause, drop sets and so on. Bodybuilding is not about ‘performing’ in the sense that other athletes do, it is the pursuit of hypertrophy and so ‘time under tension’ is what matters, hence training to failure is almost ‘necessary’.

Powerlifters / Strongmen. These guys sit in the middle. There is a focus on strength & performance, but hypertrophy a-la bodybuilders is also a goal, though just as part of the goal of getting better at the main lifts/events. The difference is that they will steer clear of failure in the main lifts, but may dabble in it with assistance lifts for hypertrophy, it depends. Especially as a competition nears, failure will be avoided as performance is at a premium.

Teamsport athletes. By this I mean athletes who are ‘competing’ on a weekly basis, like rugby players say. These guys need to be very situation dependent. If there’s a game tomorrow, probably best to avoid failure in anything. If it’s a week away, probably best to limit it to non-compound exercises just to be safe. If it’s pre-season, and adding mass is the goal, then feel free.

I could go on and describe it for a whole host more different athletes, but I think by now you should be getting the picture. The point is that failure can be highly stressful on the body, and you need to bear in mind your training goal context. Sure, go nuts and do rest-pause then drop-set squats, but don’t expect to be performing at your best for some time! Likewise, if you know you won’t be able to train for a while, say for a holiday, then sure, crank up the fatigue mechanisms and go crazy since you’ll have a chance to recover while you’re away.

I think Christian Thibaudeau sums it up best – ‘The more you can train without compromising your ability to recover, the more you’ll progress’.

If training to failure means you can’t recover for your sport, or indeed your next training session, then you may want to re-think your approach.

Busting Strength Plateaus, Bodybuilder Style! – by Ben Coker

So you’ve decided you are a die-hard strength athlete. You goal is strength alone and your aim is to be as strong as possible. You’ve read all about strength training and about maximum motor unit recruitment and CNS activation work (or so you should have if you really are a serious lifter). You’ve implemented all the various methods for accruing more strength but once again you’ve plateaued but this time unlike before you just cannot seem to get the weights to go up despite using every activation, speed and partial rep exercise available. The answer… get bigger.

I know you’re thinking I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder I just want the strength and here is my reply. Granted bodybuilders aren’t the strongest of the strength athletes around but some come pretty close and most can move some serious weight despite not training for speed or power at all! Whats the link? Muscle size!

There are many ways to break plateaus but this is a piece of advice that I frequently give out to peers and people I train, especially newbies that have noticed quick strength peaks and have after 6months to a year ground to a halt. Does this apply to you? If you were to come to me saying that you have hit progressive PBs over say a 6month period but now suddenly they have stopped I would ask how much muscle size have you developed? If the answer is not much or relatively little compared to improvements in strength then I’d advise you to listen up as this article may just be your new best friend.

Studies show that there is a positive correlation between between muscle CSA (cross sectional area or size) and muscle strength. By increasing cross sectional area we increase the number of contractile units in parallel (actin and myosin cross bridge complexes). This means that there are more contractile units contracting at the same time to produce movement, meaning a stronger contraction force.

But this isn’t the main point that I am trying to stress. The guys that come to me asking for advise to break their plateau are frequently the smaller guys. They have done many of the above techniques and the way I view it is that they have simple activated as many fibres (and resultantly the contractile units within them) as their body will allow them. If this is true how can they get stronger if all ‘x’ of their muscle fibres are now fully recruited to lift the weight. They can’t be further activated so what do they do? Get bigger muscles and get more contractile units! Take a break from your singles, doubles, triples and involve some typical hypertrophy approaches: overload, fatigue training and time under tension (often through my favorite training method…volume!) that bodybuilders adopt.

How will this help? Well it’s pretty simple to understand and this is why it baffles me why so many aspiring strength competitors avoid hypertrophy. If you have fully recruited all your muscles fibres through training in a lift then the only real way to make good progress is to get more muscles contractile units in parallel (actin and myosin cross bridge complexes) that can then be activated! This means developing bigger muscle fibres.

Lets use some numbers to give a basic picture. Lets say currently you have 2000 contractile units (actin and myosin cross bridge complexes) along the muscle fibres that you activate when you squat. You have successfully ‘grooved’ your nervous system to be able to recruit all those motor units controlling those fibres (and thus the contractile units) at the same time to lift a PB (maximum efficiency). But now you are stuck. You adopt a hypertrophy period in your training and after which you now have bigger muscle fibres and now 4000 contractile units in the same muscle groups. You can now begin to ‘groove’ your nervous system into recruiting all the 4000 contractile units at the same time, i.e. 2000 extra ones.

Mr Coleman knows all about hypertrophy periods

The result –  you now have double the amount of contractile potential to lift the weight at a given moment in time. If we think of those units as horses pulling a cart you would obviously pull a heavier load in your cart if you had double the horses pulling in unison!

Wrap Up

Nothing here is revolutionary but so many guys avoid this fact and get hooked on typical strength training approaches. Guys if you look like a rake please widen your eyes and think logically. If you really are serious about getting stronger add in some hypertrophy phases to your programme when stubborn plateaus arise. Maybe your body simply needs more horses for your cart!

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