Training to Failure
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
Legendary strongman Arthur Saxon here has something to say about failing. But today we're less talking about life lessons and more about "training to failure".
Its a bad idea.
Just in case you don't know what "training to failure" means, its that point during exercise when you've pushed so hard you cannot possibly squeeze out even one more rep, or you can't take another step, you're wheezing and dead and lying on the lawn or the gym floor making sweat angels. Now those two descriptions are for different kinds of workouts (weight lifting vs. met-con), but the negatives are intertwined enough that I can talk about them as one thing. None of the below isn't to say you shouldn't train hard, or that you shouldn't make sweat angels for fun, nor even that going to failure is 'never' a good idea, but so far as a consistent strength/movement practice is concerned, you want to avoid it.
Why would anyone train to failure? Simple. Because they think training to failure is the best (maybe only) way to get really strong. The idea is that the closer to the breaking point we push ourselves without actually breaking, the stronger the body will bounce back in adaptation. Here's the thing: we aren't Saiyans.
Just in case you aren't up on your old school Anime nerd culture, the dude above is an alien with crazy powers of strength, and the closer he gets to death, the stronger he will spring back as he heals. But real life ain't like that. Even teenagers, with their crazy recuperation and ability to sleep anywhere don't get a free pass to over train all the time. Let's break this down into two facets as to why we can't kill ourselves and just keep getting stronger: mechanical injuries and neural failures.
When you train to failure, some parts of the working muscles are shutting down. They simply have nothing left to give. The idea is that this extreme stimulus encourages muscle growth. Some people even go so far as to say that (at least beyond a certain point) training to failure is the only way to gain muscle mass consistently. Its also a very good way to get hurt. When the big movement muscles run out of gas, the muscles with more stamina are all that are left. These muscles are typically your stabilizers. Those stabilizing muscles of the joint were never intended to support the weight of a heavy load on their own, and by fatiguing them you run the risk of the joint becoming unstable, which can injure the joint, the tendons, and the muscles as they are stretched out of place.
The instability doesn't just last throughout the lift, but afterward too. So you just blew yourself up with some crazy squats, your legs are all shaky, but you feel great. Later that day, going down some stairs, you bust your ACL. It happens. And worse yet, even if you don't injure yourself that workout or that day, those stabilizing muscles can learn to stay lax if you abuse them too much.
The benefits you are going to get from this kind of training, even if you escape injury, may not be what you want. If we are talking metcons (metabolic conditioning, think an intense Crossfit workout) then we are overworking our glycolytic energy pathway. This kind of work is destructive to mitochondria, the little guys that make energy for our cells. You may adapt to this kind of pathway and to those kinds of workouts, but it may destroy your aerobic capacity in the process and leave you being limited to 15 minutes of hard play in your sport, after which you're totally gassed out. From a weight lifting perspective, squeezing out everything sure feels like good, hard work, but you may not be getting the adaptations you're going for. If you're 'feeling the burn' then you've gone glycolytic, and that means your body is going to be spending resources on the kind of hypertrophy that ups the energy tanks (sarcoplasmic) rather than what makes you stronger (myofibrillar). There's nothing wrong with having an appropriate amount of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy if your athletic endeavors call for it, but be aware you're sacrificing some strength adaptation for stamina adaptation.
Your muscles aren't the only things that need recovery from you go balls to the walls. You knock around your nervous system pretty hard too. This can effect exercise recovery, mood, sleep, etc. That means even if your muscles are ready to go the next day or two (they probably aren't if you went all out), that your nervous system may still be fried. This is going to throw off your motor reflexes, proprioception, muscle learning, and all that.
And that means you can't practice every day, and practice makes perfect. Or as my high school Latin teacher preferred, "Practice makes permanent." If you go all out on a set and your form deteriorates to compensate for the right movers being burnt out, then you're grooving a defective neural path. You run the risk of teaching your body to perform any hard movement in this dysfunctional way, not just the ones at the end of a hard set.
You're also running the risk of teaching your muscles that there is a ceiling to their strength. By constantly going all out, when you inevitably plateau, breaking that plateau will be harder than it should be thanks to your body learning that the max you've been training with is the max it can lift. If you usually train somewhat below your max, your body never learns that negative lesson. It doesn't know what its max is so it doesn't try to stop itself from going over that max.
If you're gassed out and dead from strength training, you can't train your sport. Your nervouse system will be too fried to effectively learn new skills, and you're at a greater risk of injury both due to muscle fatigue and neurological static interfering with your control. If you're aching and sore after every session, then how can you be ready to use your strength in daily life? This isn't just a problem for folks like police and first responders; what if you need to go wrestle your kid away from a mad dog? Readiness means having energy to respond to whatever comes your way. If two to four days out of the week you can only walk with your arms akimbo from soreness, then you're not ready.
So, to wrap things up, don't go all out, at least not all the time. Yes, if you can only train twice a week, then you need to go a lot harder than somebody who can train four or more times in a week (and the guy training more obviously must train more conservatively), but that doesn't mean training to failure. Like Pavel Tsoutsaline says, "Training to failure is training to fail." If you're going to insist on going all out, then change your definition of training to failure: its not when you absolutely cannot move the weight, its when you cannot move the weight (or yourself) with excellent form. And if you try to stop one or three reps before you get to that point, you're in the sweet spot for strength building and muscle learning.
Just needed a pic of Arthur Saxon all buff here, since the quotes above didn't show him off. Next time you're going to go all out, keep him in mind, and think about how the effort is going to serve you.