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.

Inspiration 20/03/11

As it’s sunday, we’ve got your weekly dose of inspirational videos to get you fired up for the training week ahead! Enjoy.

First up, we’ve got footage from the rugby six nations – Invictus


Next – the beauty of bodybuilding


And finally, a VERY inspirational piece from Kai Greene – ‘Champion of Mind’


 Until next week. Train Hard. Train Smart. Stay Strong.

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