Training To Failure, Does It Work?

We all know that one gym bro who wears the most ill-fitting gym vests that cut it close to the nipple line to show off the chest and shoulders, the type that grunts excessively when lifting and comes into the gym downing their fluorescent energy drinks, pre workouts and BCAAs.

Without generalising too much – it tends to be these types that are pushing very heavy weights to absolute failure without consideration for what they’re actually trying to achieve in the long term.

For the best results – every session needs to have a purpose and with that a clear outcome in mind. Building muscle takes a long time, a very long time indeed, therefore consistency over the long term is likely more productive.

There are many styles of training out there and many considerations to provide the individual variability to produce the best results. With that in mind, how many of you reading this have one of the following?

  • Shoulder injuries?
  • Sore knees?
  • Lower back pain?
  • Hip issues?
  • Perhaps it’s your elbow that’s causing you the aggravation.

It happens to a lot of lifters, competitive or recreational and especially those a little wetter behind the ear.

Psssssst….

Well I can let you in on a little secret. 

You don’t need to completely wreck yourself in the gym to make great progress.

You actually just need to train smart and consistently. You’ve probably heard “work smarter, not harder” in some form before and it sounds simple but in order for it to be simple, we need to understand how to make our workouts more efficient.

It’s simple when we know what we’re doing.

The first problem with lifting so heavy that you look like Roger Rabbit setting eyes on Jessica Rabbit for the first time is that it increases your likelihood of injury.

The second is that increases your rate of fatigue accumulation.

The third being that you might be training heavier than necessary (depending on your goal) to the point that you might not be as productive as you could be.

To put this into context, at some point we all have had the experience of going to the gym and not being able to lift the same weight on an exercise as we did the week prior.

The principle of progression is heavily based on something called overload.

Overload is essentially increasing the weight or making the stimulus harder than previous to achieve “the gainzzzzz”.

The reason we don’t show improvement could be down to many factors:

  • We didn’t sleep well.
  • Our calories are lower.
  • We don’t have as many circulating carbs to power hard exercise.
  • We’re doing too much volume.
  • We train that body part too often or not enough.
  • Our understanding of programming is not the best.
  • A combination of some or all of the above.

Many of us don’t think about the fatigue accumulation associated with working to failure, especially early on in our lifting years – even more so if we are a novice.

The good news is that a little bit of inside knowledge goes a long way.

Scientific literature is pretty clear on this one – gains can be made anywhere from between 5 and 0 reps in reserve (RIR) so long as training volume is adequate.

Muscle can also be retained at even lower levels of reps in reserve (RIR) so long as training volume is adequate. In other words, as long as we train enough with the minimal effective dose (MED) then we have little need to go overboard.

So, that being said – a smarter approach that will give you longevity in the gym whilst removing risk of injuries (which can affect your entire lifting career) is simply to accumulate volume slowly and more importantly when you’re ready.

Keep with the strategy that works, until it stops working or in more broski terms, when you plateau.

If something is working, keep using it unless there’s a specific reason not to as part of the long term plan.

Consider using what we call a “de-load” at the start of your new training block followed by a little reduction in your workload.

This will work best before you’re about to hike the weights and volume up the next week.

Also consider lifting a weight with great technique to 3 or 4 RIR at the end of each set and bear in mind that the weight can be manipulated in other ways other than just adding more weight. 

Other ways to manipulate the stress placed on a muscle are:

  • Increasing the range of motion (or distance the weight has to travel).
  • Increasing the time under tension (lowering the weight slower).
  • Changing the training application e.g. tri sets or giant sets which are 3 to 4 exercises of the same muscle group, back to back without rest.
  • Reducing rest time between sets.

If training with the RIR approach – Increase your total training volume by increasing sets week by week but also either your rep range or/and your load.

Continue the process for as many weeks as you see fit for the block of training, all the way up to 1 or 0 RIR (Failure) and de-load again. Remember that de-load doesn’t mean do nothing.

To quote former 8 time Mr Olympia Lee Haney

‘Stimulate, don’t annihilate.’

With your newfound knowledge of the fundamentals, you’ll also benefit from the improvement in your technique.

You’ll not only be able to achieve greater range of motion and increase the stretch in the muscle which is very important for muscle growth – you’ll also be able to dedicate the time at higher RIRs to improving your technique and ‘grooving the movement’, ensuring each rep moves along the same path as the last. This is also beneficial for muscle and strength development.

Being mindful of this can save you lost time in the gym and really accelerate your progress over time.

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Nat brown

Exercise, Nutrition & Mental health

Health and fitness is relatively simple, I mean, it’s hardly quantum physics. Yet, there is so much misinformation out there that it’s become hard to find truth.

I have found the best way to understanding exercise and nutrition is from the researchers at the pinnacle of their fields. The best way to manage mental health is through raising awareness, personally and socially, for some that involves talking, for me it’s writing about my own experiences.

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