Should You Embrace Failure?

This may come as a shock to you, but you need to know that some trainers and fellow workout enthusiasts want you to experience failure.  There’s no denying it; it’s true.  They want you to know what it is to be unable to complete that last repetition.  The rest of the story is that this failure principle is part of a workout philosophy intended to maximize muscle growth stimulation.  In this approach, with the help of a spotter (or two or three), you complete repetitions of whatever exercise until you literally cannot do one more repetition.  The argument hinges on the premise that the last rep, whichever number that may be, is always the hardest and most productive.  The question is: is training to failure legit?

In general, ongoing practice- based on personal experience and the majority of what I’ve read- training to failure is not a worthy pursuit.  Many people reject this approach for a day in, day out fitness program.  As one analogy puts it, training to failure is like if a runner regularly, intentionally runs to the point of not being able to take one more step.  It’s overkill.  More to the point, it puts adherents on a path to overtrain and damage the body.  It also introduces a greater degree of risk than is really necessary.

Muscles do not need to experience failure to grow.  They need intensity, and intensity can be achieved over time by regularly increasing load over a predetermined number of repetitions.  In some applications, intensity can be realized by adding time as a factor.  When you lift regularly, your body adapts to the load or stressor.  You get stronger, and you increase capacity.  You do not need regular training to failure for that.  That aside, it does have a place in training.  There are two scenarios where I wholeheartedly embrace exercise failure.

Training to failure can be excellent for determining workout baselines.  Some workouts require establishing a one-rep maximum for each exercise, and then all subsequent sets are percentages based on that max.  Also, training to failure can also help determine if you are using a weight that is really too light for you.  For example, if you do two sets of a standard number of reps- eight, perhaps- at 135 pounds and then do a third set to failure for 20 reps, then it’s safe to say that the weight is too light for you.

Training to failure can also be fun.  Having a failure day can be an excellent change of pace.  After months of standard training, it can be a blast to test what your body can do.  Testing weight or repetition maximums is great for self-confidence.  Not only that, but the occasional failure day can be a great shock to the body.

The reality is that training to failure can occur spontaneously just by virtue of not having “it” during any given workout.  You may not have set out to experience failure, but you found it.  Lack of sleep, a change in diet, or other unexpected physical demands throughout that day or earlier in the week can negatively impact workout performance.  As a result, the easy weight from last week can be too much this week.  It happens occasionally.  (If it happens all the time to you, then I’d reevaluate what you are doing.)

Shoot for intensity, not failure.  Be patient with your workout goals.  Use a spotter whenever possible, especially when you are pushing intense weight.

Be safe.  Be consistent.  Be intense.  Have fun.

Thursday, June 16th, 2011 Fitness & Wellness


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