The phrase to train failure is often used, both in the gym and in literature, but rarely described. Many people don’t even know what the definition actually means. Speaking of definitions, is that definition so narrowly defined? And even when we have this definition clear, it is good to realize that an enormous number of factors have an impact on your output and therefore also on what failure is. After a night of drinking heavily, not sleeping and having to cope with the traumatic experience of having run over a mother duck with chicks along the way, your output will be a lot lower than when you are well rested. But more on that later.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRAINING TO FAILURE
So the short answer to the question above is no . There are different forms of ‘training to failure’, each with its own specific demarcation.
Since we are talking about movements and movements take place in a continuum, it can be difficult to set hard boundaries. Still, we’ll have to draw a line somewhere. That is why intermediate forms of the following definitions can also be invented. But we can roughly divide training to failure into the following categories:
1. FAILURE ON EXECUTION
This form of failure is least on the dying spectrum; I want to define this form of failure as ‘the last repetition you can finish with your starting weight, without compromising on execution, range of motion or other variables during an exercise’. Pace and the presence or absence of momentum are also included.
2. COMPLETE FAILURE
This form of failure goes further than failure upon execution, in the sense that range of motion, tempo and other variables may be adjusted to allow for some more repetitions. As a guideline for this, however, I propose to keep in mind that compromising on range of motion is acceptable, along with tempo and perhaps some momentum. When a biceps curl with strict execution no longer works, but partials still do, possibly with a little bit of momentum from the bottom, you can squeeze out some extra volume to go from failure to execution to complete failure. However, when your bicep curls start to look more like back extensions you have to ask yourself how much extra tension you are still creating for the biceps.
3. PROLONGED FAILURE
I think you all know this form of failure. This is an extended version of failure on execution, through weight reduction. However, it is important that the execution remains as it was during the first repetition. In theory you could do this until you are curling with the pink dumbbells of the 65+ section; realize, however, that the tension will at a certain point become so low that there is little or no added value from extra volume, while you do have to recover from this volume.
SHOULD YOU TRAIN TO FAILURE?
There is a lot of discussion about this, on forums, between bro’s / bras and coaches themselves, but also in the literature. Some studies are set up with sets to failure and some are not. In addition, what definition of failure do they use in such studies? This is one of the reasons why scientific research is not an end all be all ; however, this is a topic for another time.
In the previous article about significant reps I talked about training with a minimum specific intensity and that only from a certain intensity all muscle fibers cooperate and in a sense only ‘count’ repetitions from a certain number of repetitions with a certain intensity. Now, from that reasoning, you might think that training to failure is always desirable, since then you know for sure that you are doing the maximum number of significant reps. However, training to failure is a means, not an end. It is one of the tools in your toolbox.
Depending on the stimulus you want to achieve, training to failure may be necessary or not. Do you still remember what I insisted on in previous articles? It is important that you have in mind what the purpose of your training is and that you work specifically on achieving that goal / stimulus. All the volume that you run on top of the necessary volume will cost extra recovery capacity, without necessarily generating more revenue.
For now, let’s divide the different stimuli into 3 options, namely metabolic, hypertrophy and neuro / strength (we could still divide these among themselves, but for now I leave that for what it is to not make the story too complicated).
TRAINING TO FAILURE IN EACH OF THESE 3 OPTIONS IS GOING TO HAVE A DIFFERENT OUTCOME WITH DIFFERENT CONSEQUENCES
- Training to failure in a metabolic phase will increase the amount of oxidative stress resulting from this training. By using this at the right times (and when you can recover from it), this can, for example, have advantages for the energy production of muscle cells.
- Training to failure in a hypertrophy phase will actually increase the amount of mechanical damage, in addition to an increase in oxidative stress, which will allow the recruitment of satellite cells (read the article on different forms of hypertrophy again!)
- Training to failure in a neuro / strength phase is one method to ensure that you achieve high treshhold motor recruitment . In other words, the phenomenon described in the article on significant reps; all muscle fibers help with the execution of the movement, including the muscle fibers that are only used for extreme loads. In addition, the neurological efficiency of moving heavy weights will improve; if you want to get strong, you will have to train heavily (at least at times).
‘DANGERS’ FROM TRAINING TO FAILURE
When you train to failure you have to pay attention to your training frequency. This will be lower than when training to failure is hardly or not at all in your schedule. This is not to say that a muscle group that is trained to failure should only be trained once a week, but that recovery will take longer than if you had not failed. In addition, you may want to keep the training phase shorter, because these phases are very stressful. Training blocks with a lot of volume to failure are best kept shorter than your normal training blocks, especially in metabolic phases, since oxidative stress is not desirable for longer times.
We have already briefly discussed the next ‘danger’ above: pay attention to junk volume. Don’t fail more sets than you need to! This takes more recovery capacity without a positive return.
Finally, training to failure can cause fatigue of the nervous system / the entire system, especially when your legdays fail. Legs contain such a lot of muscle mass that an excessive build-up of damage, metabolites and fatigue from these workouts can negatively affect upcoming workouts, even if the upcoming workouts are not legdays. In addition, a first heavy exercise to failure (for example squats or deadlifts) can tire the nervous system to such an extent that your output in that further training is considerably limited.
SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST
When you’re in a power block, when you’re using failure, you don’t want to do this until your peak set of that particular exercise. After this, lowering the weight and turning more volume will produce a less strong stimulus than the peak set to failure, by definition.
In a hypertrophy block, going further can certainly have added value, for example through a dropset.
In a metabolic block, training beyond failure to execution will absolutely prevent it. With normal sets and with ‘normal’ rest, you will probably never achieve a complete extension or complete failure; an option here may be to superset different exercises, each of which addresses the target muscle in a different way. Another option is to deliberately keep the breaks between (super) sets short, to prevent the energy systems from fully recovering before a new set starts. This way you can build up fatigue over sets.
This way of training can, as described above, lead to oxidative stress. You need to be careful with this. So ending every workout with a few dropsets to pump your muscles can definitely backfire.
TRAINING TO FAIL IN PRACTICE
It is therefore important that you do not just crash all your sets to failure. On the other hand, the repetitions to failure or at least close to failure are the repetitions where the most bang for your buck is, as you could read in the previous article.
I can not give a black and white direct answer to anyone how many sets and reps to failure per training or per week is recommended; this depends on many factors. It is precisely for this reason that it is so important to log your workouts and not just do something!
Too much failure in a strength block will give very direct feedback, in the sense that you will not be able to move the same weights the next workout, for example, because the nervous system has not fully recovered. Failure in a metabolic block has more far-reaching consequences than failure in a power block, because for failure in a metabolic block an enormous amount of volume is turned away at a low intensity; too much of this can lead to, for example, (too much) inflammation, which does not have to directly lower your output, but which will have absolutely negative effects on your progression in the long term.
The problem with this is that metabolic failure is much easier than neurological failure; Turning even more volume after a dropset is just a matter of removing a little more weight and continuing. More volume after failure in a neurological block is virtually impossible without lowering the weight and we have already discussed above that this should generally not be your goal.
BUILD IT UP GRADUALLY
One option to avoid this (too much failure in a metabolic block) could be to add an extra set to failure from week to week; in the 1 st week you only fail on the last set of the last exercise of that superset. In week 2, you will fail on both exercises of your last superset. And in week 3 on the last 2 supersets. In addition to keeping track of your training sessions, I can also absolutely recommend dividing your training into blocks and writing out your volume (and therefore also the volume to failure) specifically for the block in question.