Do you have to train to fail?

Do you have to train to fail?

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In many of my articles you will see the term 'failure' or failure sooner or later. Many people talk about training to failure. But what does that actually mean?

The sense of failure to train is often used, both in the gym and in literature, but rarely described. Many people don't even know exactly what the definition entails. Speaking of definitions, is that definition clearly defined? And even when we have this definition clear, it is good to realize that a huge number of factors have an impact on your output and therefore also on what is a failure. After a good night of drinking, not to sleep and still having to process the traumatic experience en route to having run over a mother duck with chicks, your output will be a lot lower than if you were well rested. But more about that later.

Different types train to failure

So the short answer to the question above is no. There are, in fact, different forms of 'training for failure', each with its own specific definition.

Since we are talking about movements here and movements take place in a continuum, it can be difficult to indicate hard limits. Yet we will have to draw a line somewhere. That is why there are also intermediate forms of the definitions below. But roughly we can train to classify failure in the following categories:

1. Failure on execution

This form of failure is the least far on the dying spectrum; I would like to draw up the definition of this form of failure 'the last repetition that you can complete with your starting weight, without compromising on the performance, range of motion or other variables during an exercise'. Tempo and the presence or absence of momentum are also included.

2. Complete failure

This form of failure goes further than failure on execution, in the sense that range of motion, tempo and other variables may be adjusted to make some repetitions. As a guideline for this, however, I propose to bear in mind that submitting on range or motion in particular is acceptable, together with pace and perhaps some momentum. When a bicep curl with a strict execution no longer succeeds, but partials still, possibly with a little bit of momentum from the bottom you can squeeze out some extra volume to go from failure to execution to complete failure. However, when your bicep curls start to look more like back extensions you have to wonder how much extra tension you are still creating for the biceps.

3. Extended failure

You all know this kind of failure, I think. This is an extended version of failure on execution, by reducing the weight. It is, however, important that implementation remains such as was the case during the first repetition. In theory you could do this until you are curling with the pink dumbbells from the 65+ department; realize, however, that at some point the tension becomes so low that there is hardly any added value from extra volume, while you do have to recover from this volume.

train to failure

Do you have to train to fail?

There is a lot of discussion about this, in forums, between bro's / bra's and coaches themselves, but also in the literature. Some studies are set up with sets of failure and others not. In addition, what definition of failure do they use in such investigations? This is 1 of the reasons why scientific research is not one end all be all is; however, this is a subject for another time.

In the previous article about significant reps I have talked about training with a minimum specific intensity and that only from a certain intensity do all muscle fibers cooperate and in a certain sense only from a certain number of repetitions with a certain intensity 'count' repetitions. From that point of view, you might think that training for failure is always desirable, since you are then certain that you are making the maximum number of significant reps. However, training for failure is a means, not a goal. It is one of the tools in your toolbox.

Depending on the incentive you want to bring about, training until failure may be necessary or not. Do you remember what I have been hammering away in in previous articles? It is important that you understand the purpose of your training and that you specifically work on achieving that goal / incentive. All the volume that you run on top of the necessary volume will cost extra recovery capacity, without necessarily generating more revenue.

Let us now subdivide the different incentives into 3 options, namely metabolic, hypertrophy and neuro / power (we could still divide these between themselves, but for now I will leave that for what it is to make the story not too complicated).

Training for failure in each of these 3 options is going to have a different outcome with different consequences

  1. Training to fail in a metabolic phase will increase the amount of oxidative stress resulting from this training. By deploying this at the right moments (and when you can recover from it) this can, for example, have benefits for the energy production of muscle cells.
  2. Training for failure in a hypertrophy phase will actually increase the amount of mechanical damage, in addition to an increase in oxidative stress, which means that the recruitment of satellite cells can take place (read the article about different forms of hypertrophy again!)
  3. Training to fail in a neuro / power phase is a method to ensure that you high treshhold motor recruitment brings about. In other words, the phenomenon described in the article about significant reps; all muscle fibers help to carry out the movement, including the muscle fibers that are only used in the event of extreme stress. In addition, the neurological efficiency of moving heavy weights will improve; if you want to become strong, you will have to train hard (at least at times).
train to failure

'Dangers' from training to failure

When you train to fail you must pay attention to your training frequency. This will be lower than when training to failure does not or hardly occur in your schedule. This does not mean that a muscle group that is trained to fail may only be trained once a week, but it does mean that recovery will take longer than if you hadn't failed. In addition, you may want to keep the training phase shorter, because these phases are very stressful. It is best to keep training blocks in which there is a lot of volume to failure shorter than your normal training blocks, certainly in metabolic phases, since oxidative stress is not desirable for longer periods of time.

We have already briefly discussed the following 'danger' above: note junk volume. Do not turn more sets to failure than you need! This costs more recovery power without a positive return.

Finally, training for failure can cause nervous system fatigue / the entire system, especially if you break through legdays to failure. Legs contain so much muscle mass that an excessive build-up of damage, metabolites and fatigue from these training sessions can have a negative influence on coming training sessions, even if the coming training sessions are not legdays. In addition, a first strenuous exercise of failure (for example, squats or deadlifts) can tune the nervous system to such an extent that your output in that further training is considerably limited.

Save the best for last

When you are in a power block, when you use failure, you want to do this only at your peak set of that specific exercise. After this, reducing the weight and turning more volume will cause a less strong stimulus than the peak set to fail, by definition.

Going further in a hypertrophy block can certainly have added value, for example through a drop set.

In a metabolic block, training beyond failure on execution will definitely occur. With normal sets and with 'normal' rest you will probably never come to a fully extended or complete failure; an option here can be to super-set different exercises, each of which appeals to the target muscle in a different way. Another option is to deliberately keep the breaks between (super) sets short to prevent the energy systems from fully recovering before a new set starts. This way you can build up tiredness across sets.

This method of training can, as described above, lead to oxidative stress. You need to be careful with this. Finishing every workout with a few drop sets to pump your muscles can therefore definitely have the opposite effect.

train to failure

Training for failure in practice

It is therefore important that you do not simply crash through all your sets. On the other hand, the repetitions to failure or at least close to failure are the repetitions where the most bang for your buck is, as you could read in the previous article.

I cannot give a black and white direct answer for anyone how many sets and reps to fail per workout or per week is advisable; this depends on many factors. It is precisely for this reason that it is so important to log your training sessions and not just do something!

Too many failures in a power block will give very direct feedback, in the sense that you will not be able to move the same weights in the next workout, because, for example, the nervous system has not fully recovered. Failure in a metabolic block has far-reaching consequences than failure in a power block, because for failure in a metabolic block an enormous amount of volume is turned away at a low intensity; too much of this can lead to (too much) inflammation, for example, which does not have to directly reduce your output, but which will have absolutely negative effects on your progression in the long term.

The problem with this is that metabolic failure is many times easier than neurological failure; turning even more volume after a drop set is simply a matter of removing more weight and continuing. More volume after failure in a neurological block is virtually impossible without reducing the weight, and we have already discussed above that this should generally not be your goal.

Build it up gradually

An option to prevent this (too many failures in a metabolic block) could be to add an additional set to failure from week to week; in the 1e week you only fail on the last set of the last exercise of that superset. In week 2 you fail on both exercises of your last superset. And in week 3 on the last 2 supersets. In addition to keeping track of your training sessions, I can also absolutely recommend that you divide your training sessions into blocks and specifically deregister your volume (and therefore the volume of failure) for that particular block.

And now blast, but remember what your limits are!

Jan Willem van der Klis

Instagram: @Jay_Whey

This blog is written by

Jan Willem van der Klis

"My focus is on obtaining and disseminating the best possible knowledge to optimize training and nutrition"

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