Don’t fail to gain. Should we exercise to failure?

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I was recently asked by a client of mine, Ali, should you train to failure or as he put it  “until I’m dead on the floor”?

When I am asked a question from a client, another trainer, or anyone for that matter regarding fitness and performance, and I don’t feel I have answered as eloquently as I would like or I cant quite justify my response / reasoning as clearly as I want to, I go to the research for help.

Having looked at journals, training to failure seems to be a grey area with varying opinions. No one seems to really know for sure.

So I’m comfortable giving you all my opinion based on my knowledge as a coach, the journals I have read and 17 years practical “real” experience on the gym floor. If you disagree thats cool. I encourage debate but, here is what I think.

First of all, so everyone is clear, training to failure literally means that the load is falling back down on you. You should NEVER do that! Instead you can train to technical failure. My interpretation of training to failure is the point where another rep with perfect technique would be impossible and even this comes with its risks.

My clients may have noticed in their training programmes that I write minus 1-2. This tells them to stop sets with 1-2 perfect reps in the tank.  Those 1-2 reps will be harder and slower than the previous ones. But they will still be perfect as far as the form is concerned.

When your form starts breaking down, you start getting out of the groove, body parts may start flaring that shouldn’t, and the rep is going to take five or more seconds to complete, if this happens you’ve gone to far.

It is absolutely crucial that you avoid coming anywhere near failure on all of the following:

•Olympic lifts

•Jumps

•Throws

•Anything you are trying to learn

•Anything with a technical aspect

•Anything that will compromise your lower back like a bent over row

•Big barbell lifts you haven’t mastered

•Anything in the 1-5 rep range which equates to 85% 1RM and above

You can go close to failure on:

•Bodyweight exercises done for 8 reps and above

•DB exercises done for 8 reps and above

•Barbell presses if you have mastered technique and are doing them for sets of 8 and above, with focus on size (hypertrophy) over strength

•Sled pushing and dragging. Again, not necessary but ok.

•Hard conditioning drills that aren’t technical or don’t pose an injury risk if form breaks down. Probably not necessary but conditioning is brutal and you’ve got to push hard and lay it on the line.

I tell all of the trainers I teach that there is a risk to reward ratio with all of the exercises we prescribe. For example, when training someone who may work in an office and just wants to look a little better on the beach, we trainers should employ the exercises / intensities to achieve the desired results while minimising the risk. Are there safer alternatives to olympic lifts / plyometric training? Do office workers who want to look good on the beach even need to train for power?  Olympic lifts and plyometric training illicit amazing results however, the risk may be to high for some people. On the other hand if we are training athletes or the more conditioned client not only will their physical ability be above normal but we can employ higher risk exercises as the reward is that much greater.

If you train hard but smart you can avoid overreaching and injury. Sometimes people want to push it and I understand that, I like to push myself too. There are definitely studies that show training to failure leads to better size and strength gains.

(here is a link,  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15903379)

To wrap it up, what I would recommend is that if you want to train to failure (and you should, sometimes) you don’t do it on more than about 3-5 total sets per workout. That gives you the best of both worlds. A word of caution though, if you don’t recover well,  skip the failure sets or just limit to 1-2 per workout, and not at every training session.

Everyone’s tolerance to exercise is different as is their ability to recover. You have to do your best / honest self assessment.

Dont fail to gain!

Happy Training…

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