Why we do not train to failure

The biggest battle that I face day in and day out is the war against myself. Every day, I find myself wondering if I am working hard enough. I look at the numbers I am putting up, and no matter what my effort produces, it seems like progress is slower than molasses.

Inevitably, I’ll pull the heaviest deadlift of recent memory and immediately say to myself “I could’ve done 3% more”. Why 3%, exactly? 5% would’ve been impossible, and 1% wouldn’t be significant enough to mention. That’s the rub.

We’ve all seen “motivational” training montages of athletes sprinting with parachutes on, doing KB swings with protective “gas” masks, and otherwise pushing themselves past their limits in the gym. Facebook is an excellent source of memes that show people doing feats of strength that are radical, dangerous, and best of all: Impressive. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that the more dangerous a exercise is, the more likes it gets.

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And every day, we keep our heads about us and we move through our lifts. If a student demonstrates great technique, we advance them through movements and allow them to increase the intensity of their workouts. When someone shows great mechanics at their current squat weight, we’ll have them to go from a perceived 7 of effort at 100 lbs, to a perceived 8 at 105 lbs. A modest increase every week creates great gains over a period of weeks and months.

Because of this discipline, we have 50 and 60-year old clients who can handily lift more than their body weight in some drills. Or 2X bodyweight. They do it safely and sometimes with amazement. Even so, I’ll constantly hear “But I have more left in me! I could do more reps! More weight!” I’ll hear this in many cases after someone hits a personal record or PR.

What I say in defense of my conservative exercise prescriptions is that we care more about Form than we do about pure numbers, pure strength. But it’s so much more than that. Here is an excerpt from lightweight strongman competitor, author, and coach Dave Dellanave:

In his book Power to the People, Pavel cites the likes of Coan and Karkowski as examples of what you can achieve when you leave some in the tank. We’ll leave it for another day to discuss whether or not bodybuilders should train to failure, but the jury is in when it comes to strength training and there is no question: Training to failure is training to fail. 

But, Pavel could have done better taking this idea to its logical conclusion.

If it’s true (and I maintain that it is) that the specificity of training to failure is specifically training to be better at failing, then it stands to reason that training with other undesirable qualities of movement is also training specifically to improve those qualities of movement. Want to be slower? Train past the point that your reps slow down. Want to rely on excessive tension? Then keep hitting reps until you have to tense every part of your body to complete the rep.

There’s a better way.

In Gym Movement, we call these undesirable markers of degraded movement quality the Elements of Effort.

  • Speed
  • Tension
  • Breathing
  • Alignment
  • Failure 

Some of the very best strength coaches at the highest levels of sport have realized this, and are using biofeedback to ensure that they are never going past the “speed” element of effort. Ben Peterson, PhDc, strength and conditioning coach and author of Triphasic Training, explains: “If, for example, an athlete is doing singles at 75 percent of his 1RM squat, I want to know when he drops below 3 percent of his best rep (velocity) for the day. At that point, I know he will no longer gain additional benefit from squatting, so we stop the exercise and continue with other aspects of the workout.”

The highest quality of reps, with the best form, produce the most benefit. Period.

In addition to all the additional gains you get from this high quality of movement, you also gain the x-factor: durability. Injuries often occur once the nervous system has depleted almost all of its capacity. When you are so tired you are shaking, after your 3rd wind, after your 42nd minute of competitive play, after your body has done more than 10 reps at 80% of your 1RM. Sure, it is possible that you COULD do another rep, another lap, another set. But that is the set that you’ll tear your ACL. The set that occurs AFTER most of your gains have been earned, and all that’s left is your ego and an injury.

It sounds brutal. It sounds counter-intuitive (and it is). I have seen it, I’ve felt it in my body as have countless athletes across the world. I know for a fact that that last rep is more productive in the tank than out of the tank.

That’s why we don’t train to failure. For progress, for safety, and for sustainability.

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