by Robert Maxwell
I had the chance to answer this question recently. . .
"What exactly is training to failure? For example, if I can successfully get out that last rep, even if my face is purple, have I trained to failure or not? I could try a subsequent rep which would NOT be completed, which would be absolute failure I suppose.
The point I'm getting at is that I want to continue to grow and get stronger, but I don't want to overtrain, and I really don't understand the true definition of failure. Is it eeking out that last rep that was eye-poppingly hard, or is it doing one more and not making it?"
Good question. In the context of a barbell training program, training to failure typically means completing the last rep you’re able to without a serious breakdown in form. Actual failure to complete a rep isn’t productive for muscle and strength gain. It’s also heart on your central nervous system and dangerous because of the strong possibility of injury. As a strength and fitness coach, I would never recommend a client purposely train past the point of safe rep completion. There’s no benefit and plenty of risk.
This information naturally leads to the question “how often should I train to failure, as defined above?” Different coaches will give different answers, but for my clients, I usually recommend training to failure on the final set of each exercise, every workout. If you’re not a custom to training to failure, this might seem a little extreme. On the other hand, if you’re used to driving yourself to the absolute limit on every set of every exercise, this recommendation might seem too light. Truth is, our bodies don’t put on any muscle during training. In fact, lifting heavy does microscopic damage to our muscles. This in and of itself does not make muscles bigger and stronger. The microscopic damage happening to the muscle fibers when you lift heavy weights is only a signal to grow – not the growth itself. That’s why it’s important to balance training intensity with recovery. Train too intensely, approaching failure too often, and you’re putting yourself at risk of injury because of overtraining. Even if you don’t get injured, overtraining will leave you feeling exhausted and weak rather than energized and strong. The best balance I have found between intensity and recovery is to train to failure on the final set of each exercise only.
Training to failure on your final set is all well and good, and vital for optimal muscle growth and strengthening. But you shouldn’t do it constantly. Even if you restrict going to failure to your last sets only, your body will eventually be unable to recover fast enough to make up for the strain. That’s where deload weeks come in. If you’re routinely training to failure, every 4 to 6 weeks, take a light week. Do all your normal exercises, but less sets, reps, and weight. Don’t even get close to failure during a deload week. Doing this every month or so gives your body a chance to catch up, and leaves you recharged for full capacity workouts the following week.