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We are bombarded with so many training ideas and clichés, it becomes difficult for the average trainee to sort the truth from the myth. One important concept in bodybuilding today is the technique of training to failure. When you look at top bodybuilders and elite Olympic
weightlifters and power lifters-as well as many football players and track and field athletes-you can see superior muscular development. Bodybuilders traditionally perform multiple sets and commonly train to failure.
The other groups rarely, if ever, train to failure, yet they have good size, strength and power as well. In discussing the pros and cons of training to failure, I refer you to an article that appeared in the June '96 of Strength and Conditioning Journal titled 'Training to Muscular Failure: Is It Necessary?" It was written by Mike Stone, Ph.D., and three of his colleagues. Mike Stone is considered by many to be the country's leading anaerobic physiologist, and I've cited his work in previous installments of this column.
Surprisingly, there's little research to support the concept of training to failure. You'd never know that based on the number of articles in the bodybuilding magazines that encourage the practice. Many supporters of training to failure believe that as fatigue occurs, more muscle fibers and groups of muscle fibers, which are known as motor units, are recruited. Forced reps and negatives are also supposed to enhance the fatigue state.
Previously, we discussed the severe muscle injuries that can occur due to negative training. If fatigue is the critical point of training to failure, then training to fatigue with light weight should produce greater results in strength. That, however, is not the case. Heavier training does increase the recruitment of muscle fibers and units as well as muscle size.
The more experience weightlifter, power lifter or power athlete may make the best gains in strength and power by carefully manipulating intensity, volume and frequency rather than simply by training to failure. This fact is supported in the professional literature. I multiple sets not performed to failure are usual superior to a single set to failure for producing strength, power and endurance.
One study compared one set to failure with three sets to failure and a periodized program in which subjects did not train to failure, with the sets to failure involving eight to 12 reps. While all three groups improved equally in the bench press during the seven-week study, the periodization groups showed the most improvement in the maximum squat, vertical jump and vertical jump power index. The three-sets-to-failure group was next, followed by the one-set-to-failure group.
Based on these results, we can conclude that training to failure isn't necessary for maximum gains. There are risks in training to failure. Injury is of course the number one concern. The first bad effect of training to failure, however, is overtraining. As strength authority Tudor Borupa, Ph.D., wrote, "Overtraining to injury is one small step."
Another study compared one group that trained to failure with two groups that did not, The group that trained to failure-and included forced repetitions and negatives-produced seriously inferior strength and power tests. What's more, several studies have indicated overtraining due to the subjects' training to failure, with time frames ranging from two to seven weeks. Noted track coach Charlie Francis reported the same result. "If all components of training are increasing," he said, "then an injury is predictable in seven weeks."
Advanced strength and power athletes show signs of overtraining within three to four weeks of beginning a training to-failure program. Injuries resulting from overtraining may include muscle strains, tendinitis, tendon tears, muscle tears, generalized musculoskeletal aches and pains and localized and generalized fatigue. Blood pressure is also the highest when a trainee reaches failure during a set. This may not be a problem for someone who has a healthy cardiovascular system, but someone who has high blood pressure may have a serious problem from this momentary but significant increase.
Training to failure makes it difficult, if not impossible, to follow a predictable, planned program, and the lack of a plan in anything makes progress difficult. There are hundreds of thousands of trainees in gyms, basements and garages across the country who wing it with their training and then wonder why they aren't gaining the way they want or why they're at a sticking point or are even losing ground. On the other hand, we've all talked with people in the gym who were very frustrated due to lack of gains and then took a week off and returned to the gym stronger than they were before the layoff. This gets right back to the idea of overtraining and the negative physiological and psychological effects it has.
Recovery from training is as important as training itself. You cannot apply the next training load and expect the planned gains if you haven't adequately recovered from the last workout. That's why other sports that rely heavily on weight training use a planned approach. I have discussed the concept of periodization and overtraining on many occasions (September '89, September '90, April '92, May '92, April '94) as well as the psychology of injury (December '92).
Training to failure is certainly not an option for beginners or for those who are coming back to training after a long layoff. A body that hasn't trained for months or years isn't an option of training to failure or performing forced reps or negatives without significant and perhaps severe consequences.
The best way to use training to failure in your program-if you must include it-is to do it for a period of no more than four weeks, giving yourself sufficient time to recover from the overtraining. If you're currently making good gains, don't start training to failure, even if you read an article by some champion who advocates it. You may not have the same ability or the same opportunity for recovery that he does.
Training to failure may sound flashy and appealing when you read about it, but it can slow your gains or cause an injury that will stop your training altogether.