leaving reps in reserve. Training smart is a lot better than training hard, in the long run. We
all know people who perform drop sets, pyramid sets or other forms of fatiguing sets. People
argue that going to failure in your sets will mean you are creating more tension and activating
all of the motor units. This hypothetically would mean more hypertrophy (muscle building).
But, weight training amongst other training methods, is a long run game. A lot of studies,
including one from the Discipline of Exercise and Sports Science in Australia (2016) and the
Centre for Human and Applied Physiology in Australia (2016) both show that stopping a few
reps shy of failure results in similar increases muscle size and strength as failure training.
Working with weights as high as 80% of your 1RM will activate all of our motor units
(which is the main argument for going to failure).
If your goal is to maximise muscle and strength, going to failure won’t be the best idea for
you. There is a difference between going to failure every set and planning your sets. Let’s
assume we have 2 athletes who are training with the same weight. Athlete A trains to failure
for the three sets, and Athlete B plans there sets at 8 reps per set (even if they could manage
9/10). So Athlete A does the first set and gets 10 reps (going to failure), they then head into
the second set, slightly fatigued an get 7 reps, and on the last set they get 5 reps (again, under
fatigue). 10+7+5 is a total of 22 reps. Whereas, athlete B is more calculated and performs 3
sets of 8 reps, which totals 24 reps. So although training to failure may be attractive and feel
great, it is not as beneficial if you want to track training and progress over time. The fact
athlete B has not hit that fatigued state, the rest of their session shouldn’t be affected by the
first exercise, unlike Athlete A.
One of the hardest things about training to failure is the tracking aspect. Linear progression is
hard to achieve if you’re sets and reps are changing each week due to fatigue. It is hard to
progress under fatigue, because one week on your 1st set you may get 6 reps, and another you
may get 4 depending on multiple stresses. Leaving some reps in reserve is more manageable on any given day. It is so important to understand that what gets measured gets managed. Training is training.
Competition is competition. If you are training to perform, you must train, which means not
going all out. It is important to fix technique, work on weaknesses and build toward a
performance/competition as we all know, you cannot be peaked all year around, and if you
try to, your performance will suffer and never truly peak.
The knock on effect is important to mention. If you go to failure one day, your training the
next day may suffer due to muscle damage more and lack of recovery. A study in the
European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2017 found that if you are training submaximally
and not going to failure, you can recover quicker for your next session as you have managed
the volume and loads. As a result, you can perform better in your next training session and
there is a knock on effect to all subsequent trainings. If you are getting yourself into a
fatigued state during your first set, it means you will be performing the other exercises in
your session under a fatigued state. So before we even look at recovery for the next day of
training, you may be harming the rest of your training. From the 2017 study we saw 10 men
assessed and those who trained to failure in the study had slowed down their ability to
recovery up to 48 hours after training.
Is failure training ever useful? Yes, as long as it is limited and controlled. For example, isolation movements
at the end of a session, it may be find to go to max in your bicep curls as these smaller muscle
groups recover quicker and won’t affect your other lifts as much (unless you perform them at
the beginning of a session). On the other hand, limited can mean every now and then just to
mix it up, it may be okay to go to failure, but make sure you have someone with you. Going
to failure with weights is dangerous, uncalculated and the cons outweigh the pros. If you are
trying to get fit for your sport, going to failure the odd time far away from the season or when
you have gaps in the season may be mentally beneficial to build a tolerance to pain and get
comfortable being uncomfortable, mentally it is good, physically it is good (when limited) and
allows us to find out our limitations and how we react when under extreme stress.