One aspect of their weight training program that many people get conflicting messages about is whether they should be training to failure or not. On one hand, they hear that if they are looking to maximize their strength results and really make progress, they need to be sure they are pushing themselves to the max with every set they complete. On the flip side, other people tell them that training to failure is not necessary and they will be on a fast road to overtraining if they continue to do so.
So, what’s the truth? Is training to failure really a smart way to train? Here are the main factors you need to keep in mind.
Individual Recovery Ability
The first aspect to assess is your own individual recovery ability. Certain individuals have much better recovery systems than others, so they would be able to handle a much more intense program on a regular basis.
One way to assess your ability to recover is to look at the type of progress you’ve made in the past. Are you someone who has a very hard time putting on muscle? Or, do you tend to gain muscular weight fairly easily? Those who have a difficult time gaining lean muscle mass (typically referred to as ‘hardgainers’) tend to have poor recovery systems and require more rest to regenerate and build their muscles back stronger. This is also the same reason why when these lifters put themselves on body-part types of programs they have very few results, while if they put themselves on a full body workout they progress nicely. For them, five days in the gym is simply too much to recover from effectively.
Age is another factor that will play a critical role in recovery as the older we get, the more our recovery time slows down. Men who are in their twenties and early thirties are going to be at their ‘recovery prime’ and will be able to handle a lot more intensity and volume than someone who is lifting in their late thirties, forties and upwards.
That’s not to say an older lifter cannot ever lift to failure, just that they will need to do so much less frequently and really watch how much rest they are taking when they do.
The Nature of The Weight Lifting Program
The second thing to look at is the nature of the lifting program. Is the program designed so you’re in the gym more than three days a week? If so, lifting to failure is something you will really need to be careful with. The problem here is that pushing yourself to your absolute limit is going to be intensely demanding on your central nervous system, and if you do this more than one day in a row, regardless of whether you’re working different muscles or not, you’re really going to feel it.
For example, if you went into the gym and did a set of squats to near failure one day, you’d likely find that you’re not as strong on your bench press the next day. Attempting to do that bench press to failure that day isn’t going to be the smartest move since you’re already weaker than usual, thus expecting to set a new record for that lift that day isn’t realistic.
If you must lift to failure on one day and plan to go to the gym on the next, look at the next day’s session as a lighter workout. Two ‘to-failure’ workouts in a row will spell trouble for your body and quickly burn you out.
A better set-up for going to failure would be a full-body workout program where you are only focusing on taking one body part to failure each time. This will at least give you that day of complete rest in between sessions to allow for a more complete recovery.
Third, consider your primary goals. If you’re looking for maximum strength gain, then you’re going to want to train to failure and push your max more often than if you’re just looking for muscular hypertrophy (size gains) or overall conditioning.
Since pure strength is a function of how much maximum weight you can lift, training to failure every once in a while is going to help to push this variable higher, allowing you to make more progress. Note that you can certainly increase your strength levels by performing training sessions where you aren’t lifting entirely at your max but are doing slightly more volume in terms of total reps and sets that are performed.
Your dietary intake is another important consideration when it comes to training to failure. Anyone who is currently on a diet, that is, taking fewer calories than they need to maintain their body weight, will want to avoid training to absolute failure. This is even more important if you’re using a lower carbohydrate approach.
When you aren’t supplying the body with enough energy to even maintain normal functions, it will be more difficult to recover from training to failure. When carbohydrates are reduced from the diet, muscle glycogen levels are going to be lower, and it is this muscle glycogen that fuels lifting activities. Since training to failure will cause a high level of muscular fatigue, if incoming glucose from the diet is not present to refuel the muscles energy source, your next workout is really going to be hard.
What’s more important while on a fat-loss diet is intensity maintenance. This means that rather than pushing to failure every workout, you should simply be trying to maintain the level of weight on the bar that you normally would. That will help preserve muscle tissue while working toward the goal of fat loss.
If you are on a hypercaloric diet and are supplying plenty of carbohydrates on a regular basis, then your diet will lend itself to lifting to failure once in a while with your workout program. Be aware that diet alone cannot overcome CNS fatigue so you still should not be going to the max each and every workout.
Finally, look at how much additional activity you are performing outside of your workout. If you perform regular cardio training during the week or participate in recreational sports, you’re going to find performance in these activities will suffer if you are regularly lifting to failure.
You will always need to compromise in terms of maximum effort in the gym and maintaining outside activity levels as the body only has so many reserves it can dedicate toward physical activity. With ongoing training and adaptation, the body will become used to higher levels of exercise and will be able to tolerate more -- but rest still must be given.
Keeping all of these points in mind as you assess whether or not you should be lifting to failure is a smart plan. You do not need to lift to absolute failure with every session in the gym in order to see progress. With most programs, you will do best lifting a few reps short of failure on an ongoing basis, taking that extra step to failure every once in a while and then providing a back-off week to allow your body to recover.
If you are practicing good recovery techniques as well such as getting eight hours of sleep each night, performing relaxation exercises such as stretching, meditation or even deep breathing to keep stress under control, and following a nutritional sound diet, you will know you are doing everything you can to recover from your workouts and make optimal progress.