Can Beginners Go To Failure?
No. Raw beginners should never go to failure. That ingrains bad habits. They need a lot of repeated efforts to learn lifts and improve coordination. Let’s say a beginner could squat 95 pounds for 10 reps. I would much rather see him do eight sets of five with 95 than four sets of ten with that same weight. More sets with low reps further away from failure would give him a much better shot at mastering the exercise and making sustainable progress.
What About What I’ve Said in the Past?
In the original version of Muscle Gaining Secrets I explained training to failure much in the same way I have in this series. The problem was that ended up confusing the hell out of everyone and I got far too many emails asking what I was talking about. So I rewrote it.
Most people need a concrete answer and I decided to give them one. Being that the majority of the customers emailing me seemed to be at a beginner to early intermediate level with very little proper training experience I thought this was the best way to simplify everything for them.
When do you stop your set? When you can’t do another rep with good form and you have one more in the tank. That’s the current version of MGS. Pretty simple.
The funny thing is I wouldn’t change that. I even still push some people in my gym closer to failure than they should go because they need to learn what hard work is. In order to know how to stop shy of failure you have to have actually experienced training to failure first. At that stage of someone’s training career I would rather them work too hard than train like a pussy. You can learn all the stuff we’re discussing here with experience.
But everyone’s gotta get under the bar and bust their f*cking ass some time.
How Training To Failure Affects Athletes
If all you want to do with your life is lift hard and heavy, three days per week and are willing to do no more than 6-10 total work sets per session, you can train to failure regularly. Your joints and CNS will take a beating but since you are doing nothing else but sitting on the couch all day you should be alright.
If your CNS is always shot and your body feels like shit how can you do all of that extra training?
At least not at a highly proficient level.
If you have practices or games the day or so after one of those CNS draining workouts you will likely be less explosive. Your training should be making you faster not slower.
Even if you don’t routinely put on a jersey with your number on it I still consider you an athlete, as I do everyone I train. Constantly training to failure puts a damper on your athletic activities because the workouts take so much time to recover from. They’re neurally, physically and mentally draining. This means that you are almost always less explosive than you should be, and rarely in a fresh, ready-to-play state.
“Hey man, wanna jump in on this pick up game of beach volleyball?”
“I wish I could but I did too many sets to failure yesterday and my CNS is shot. My vertical will be severely compromised. Sorry, bro. Check back with me tomorrow.”
As athletes we should always be fresh and ready for any and all challenges, whether they be pick up games, practices, bar fights, or near death situations. Continually overtaxing your nervous system makes that impossible.
So lift and sprint hard, but never to your max. Heed the great Charlie Francis’s advice and always leave a little in reserve, shying away from doing anything at 100% all out effort.
One side note here that needs to be addressed is that training to failure regularly causes a decreased immune system response, leading to more frequent colds and serious illnesses. When you’re sick you can’t train or play at 100% capacity. Something all athletes should think about.
What About the Training Environment?
If you run a training facility you may be wondering how these changes might negatively impact the atmosphere of your gym. This was a major concern of mine for years. However, there are other ways to keep motivation and intensity high than routinely making every set a death march.
But you will have to instill some type of competition regularly. Just don’t do too much of it. As long as you’re smart and innovative you’ll figure it out. If you want that real badass, competitive atmosphere in your facility you have to take things up a notch from time to time. When you do be sure to lower your overall training volume accordingly.
Remember what I said earlier, though; it’s a hell of a lot more fun and does far more to enhance the training atmosphere when everyone’s actually getting stronger and setting new PR’s on a regular basis.
I’ve been in the gym when guys got weaker or made zero progress and that aint fun. It makes for a horrible training atmosphere in which everyone is uncomfortable and wants to leave.
Trust me; there’s a lot better vibe when numbers are going up than when they’re staying the same or going down.
So keep your maximal strength work far away from failure and try to keep the challenges and the failure work relegated to higher rep, less stressful exercises.
Stimulate, Don’t Annihilate
So what’s the bottom line here with this whole series? Coming from the guy who likes to simplify things as much as possible a four part dissertation on training to failure might seem a bit excessive, you’re thinking…
I can definitely see your point. However, strength and conditioning is my life. I’ve spent the better part of the last 17 years in a gym experimenting and studying. I have found this concept to be so important and so critical to your long term strength gains that I thought it deserved to be examined in full detail.
The goal with strength training, as you’ve heard me say for years, is to stimulate, not annihilate.
Other great coaches and strongmen have instructed us to train, not strain.
Yet another well known saying says that when you’re training to failure, you’re training to fail.
The bottom line is this:
When you’re doing maximal strength or power/speed work on big, compound barbell lifts like snatches, cleans, presses, squats and deadlifts, the range of 1-5 reps you should steer clear of failure. With the Olympic lifts you have no choice. You can’t do a slow, grinding Olympic lift. With the other big lifts you never want to load on so much weight that your form breaks down even slightly or that the weight comes up at an excruciatingly slow, grinding pace.
That’s the way you get injured, weaker or both. So stick with strong, powerful sets, always stopping while you’re still killing the reps with perfect technique.
With higher rep (7-20) assistance exercises, performed with dumbbells or bodyweight you can come closer to failure without having as much of a negative effect. You still want to leave a bare minimum of one perfect rep in the tank, but I prefer 2-3. The choice is up to you and really depends on your training volume and training age, so I can’t give a concrete answer. You’ll figure it out in time.
As long as you feel fresh and motivated, are staying injury free and getting stronger on a consistent basis you’ll know you’re on the right path.
If that’s not the case, chances are you need to scale back the high intensity stuff a bit.
More often than not, that’ll do just the trick.
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