PLAN TO FAIL
Benefits & Drawbacks of Training to Failure
One of the biggest misconceptions in training is that you should or must train to failure to get results. I see and hear it all the time.
“Train insane or remain the same.”
“No pain, no gain.”
“The harder you push, the better results you’ll get.”
As much as quotes like these are great for motivation on Instagram and social media, going “all-out” for the most part does more harm than good.
We’ve been brought up with the old-school gym mentality that we need to train as hard as possible all the time. You know the old Rocky movies where the athletes who kill themselves the most in training will get the best results. There’s a mentality that every set, every rep, every workout has to be as intense as possible to get results. This is a big mistake. Constantly training to fatigue and failure is one of the worst things you can do physically, mentally, and emotionally.
On a physical level, you have a much higher chance of doing damage to your joints and tendons by training to failure too often. You are also taking a big risk and have a much higher chance of injury. Take it from someone who’s been though a few bad injuries: If you want progress in strength and building muscle, you want to do everything you can to avoid injuries. And although avoiding injuries isn’t always possible, training to failure too often will surely increase the probability of this occurring. Remember that the iron always wins. There’s a time to push to failure and a time to train close to it. Most people push too hard too often and ignore the warning signs that occur. Those little warning signs have the potential to turn into a big injury, and your lifting may be impaired for weeks, months, years, or sometimes a lifetime.
Along with the physical drawbacks of training to failure, you may also get mental and/or emotional setbacks as well. Although I love lifting weights and believe that strength training is one of the best things you can do for your mind, body, and soul, if you’re training to failure too often, you’ll reduce the positive benefits and increase the negatives. What should be a stress relief can soon become a stress to the body. When you lift weights and exercise, you’re causing a stress to the body—in a good way. The whole concept is to stress the body, cause to adapt, recover, and come back stronger. This is the whole basis of the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands).
However, if you push too hard, you risk the possibility of crashing hard. You take your body past the point of benefits and into diminishing returns, or negatives. Training too hard too often will lead to fatigue and overtraining.
Symptoms of Over-training and Fatigue
Chronically overtrained people are always tired, emotionally drained, and physically and mentally exhausted. Instead of getting stronger, you’ll end up getting weaker. Once you’ve reached this state, going harder in the gym won’t make things any better. If anything, it will just make things even worse.
This may have happened to you before: Training is going great. You’re getting stronger, hitting PR’s, building muscle, and feeling amazing. You keep pushing harder and harder, and then the inevitable happens. You hit a plateau.
Most of the time, the first thing that goes through your mind is that you need to train harder or push harder. So you end up pushing harder, lifting more, and taking fewer deload/recovery days, and all of a sudden, your plateau turns into something worse.
You end up going back-wards in size and strength. More than likely, you get frustrated and push harder. You think that to get stronger and build more muscle, you need to push harder. Your lack of progress turns into frustration, so yet again, you push even harder.
Sadly, pushing harder or working harder isn’t the best thing to do in this situation—it’s the worst thing you can do.
Training to failure shouldn’t be the goal in training. Don’t chase fatigue or soreness; chase progress and results. It might be time to change direction and think differently about training all-out and going to failure too often to get results.
How Hard Should You Train for Optimal Results?
It’s been proven that submaximal training is the best way to get long-term results in size and strength. A perfect quote to remember from strength legend Bill Kazmaier is “Always leave a little in the tank.”
The top athletes in weight lifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding know that you need to train hard, but that you don’t need to train to failure or fatigue every single workout. You’ll get better results by not doing this. Instead of always training harder, you need to understand that training harder isn’t as important as training smarter and thinking long-term about your results and progress.
If you want results, you have to learn that training for size and strength isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. To get results, you need to respect and value ups and downs, highs and lows, and the importance of rest, light days, medium days, and heavy days.
Remember, the stimulus for strength and muscle is the training, but the progress happens when you rest, adapt, and come back stronger. Pushing harder means you need more medium days, light days, and rest days. You can’t go all-out all the time. To make progress, you need to respect and understand that not every workout needs to be “insane.” It’s good to have medium days, it’s good to have light days, and it’s very good to have rest days.
Let’s put this into a sample week of training.
Monday: Train hard
Tuesday: Train medium
Thursday: Train light
Friday: Train hard
Saturday: Train medium
If you go “all-out” on a Monday, then if you train on Tuesday, it’s good to have a “medium day.” Don’t push too hard on Tuesday. On Wednesday, take a rest day or a “active rest” day where you do some light conditioning. On Thursday, do a lighter day, on Friday, go pretty hard again, and on Saturday, do a medium day.
Then the following week, change it up a bit.
Monday: Train medium
Tuesday: Train hard
Thursday: Train medium
Friday: Train light
Saturday: Train hard
If you go pretty hard for two out of seven days, that’s great. Just keep in mind that the lighter days and medium days are important so that you can make the most of the heavier days. You can’t go hard and heavy all the time. Chase progress, not fatigue. Don’t train to failure and don’t seek failure in your sets.
If You Want to Make Progress, Should You Train to Failure?
When it comes to basic powerlifting movements such as squats, bench press, and deadlifts to make progress it’s a good idea to not train to failure very often.
Going all-out all the time on these exercises shouldn’t be the goal. If you max out all the time, you’re chasing fatigue and not progress, and you have a much higher chance of injury.
Big compound movements will give you the best results for size and strength, but to achieve progress, you don’t need to go all-out or to failure. For progress, you want to focus more on technique and volume and not chase PR’s or go to failure very often.
You should leave a workout feeling good, not exhausted. If you had a good workout, you should leave feeling better after the workout than when you went into the workout. If you push your body to the limit and you’re broken and exhausted from a single workout, you didn’t do your body or your results any good. This is testing your body and your limits, not improving on them.
People who train this way will only be able to do it so long before physically or mentally breaking. Everyone thinks they’re unbreakable until they break. Don’t be that person. Think about long-term progress over short-term gains.
When Should You Train to Failure?
Although I think it’s a good idea not to push too hard on the big compound lifts and that you need to chose your sets and reps wisely, when it comes to isolation exercises and more “bodybuilding type exercises,” you can go to failure and push a little harder. I know lots of people who have ruined their backs pushing too hard on a deadlift, but I don’t know many people who have destroyed their bodies doing dumbbell flyes or leg extensions.
It’s important to build a base with compound strength movements, but always remember not to train to failure with the big movements.
CNS Fatigue vs. Muscle Fatigue
If your goal is to build muscle and get stronger, you need to understand the difference between central nervous system (CNS) fatigue and muscle fatigue.
If you have a hard deadlift workout, you’ve pushed your muscles to the limit, but underneath the muscles, the controlling factor for your strength is your nervous system.
Have you ever seen lighter powerlifters lift insane heavy weights? How are they capable of deadlifting 300 to 400 pounds or more when weighing about 150 pounds? They don’t have a ton of muscle, so how can they lift such insane weight and have so much strength? The big reason is that they’ve trained their central nervous systems. The CNS is the CPU of your body when it comes to strength.
The key to progress on the big lifts is understanding that you can’t push your CNS to failure all the time, but you can train your muscle to fatigue more often. No one ever got exhausted physically and mentally from a set of biceps curls, so you can train your muscles to failure more often than you can push your nervous system to failure. A hard, demanding squat or deadlift workout can push your CNS recovery to seven to 14 days. This is why you don’t want to push the compound movements too hard too often, but when it comes to accessory moments, you can push these to failure more often.
Always remember when it comes to the big exercises to leave a little in the tank, respect light and medium days, and don’t push too hard too often.
Photos provided by Mutant