Failing to Fail

In my experience training, and even when conversing with some long time regular weight lifters it seems many people fear the concept of failure. I’m not talking about the disappointing your parents kind either, I mean mechanical physical failure. For some reason people dread the idea, as somehow it’s a big scary monster. What they don’t realize is that failure is actually an extremely important part in the process of building muscle. I often tell clients if your goal is to hit 12 reps, with proper form, there should be no 13th rep left in you. As I’ve discussed before, sets and reps are designed with very specific goals, but you want to max out on your last set. We do this in order to fully deplete the muscle. A 2010 study concluded that training to failure with lower loads with more repetitions can be more beneficial for muscle building than using higher loads with fewer repetitions. I.e., an overhead db press with 35lb for 12 opposed to the same exercise with 45 for 3. In this study, participants who trained to failure with a weight equal to 30% of their single repetition maximum (“1RM”) had higher levels of muscle-building proteins 24 hours after their training session than participants who trained to failure with a weight that was 90% of their maximum. In another study at the Research and Sport Medicine Center in Pamplona, Spain, researchers found that failure training ramped up levels of the nucleotide adenosine monophosphate (AMP) significantly compared to non-failure. Elevated AMP signifies  that the cell is drained of energy, this in turn activates protein synthesis decreases. In addition, according to Brad Schoenfeld, M.Sc., CSCS, greater increases in lactic acid in muscle are critical for muscle growth, because they trigger increases in intramuscular growth factors. Anyone who has trained to failure, especially utilizing drop sets, knows that crazy burn that makes you want to cry while lifting baby weight. Well, It’s also been established that training to failure increases lactic acid production (yeah and/or duhhh, hurts like a betch). A second benefit to training to failure is that, near the end of a set, all of your smaller muscle fibers become fatigued. Faced with the continued challenge of lifting a heavy weight, your nervous system is forced to use your body’s larger fast-twitch muscle fibers. The only major issue with this approach is that once you have taxed the nervous system on a set to failure, you develop “central fatigue.” This means that while there may be some gas left In the tank in your muscular system your nervous system is shot, and lifting is also a mental game. Once your nervous system is fatigued, all following sets will be performed at a much lower capacity. For example, if on one set you can get 10 reps at complete failure, you may only get 6 the second set. Anyone who has trained within these principles before knows how frustrating that can be. However, if you stopped at 9 reps on the first set, you likely would have been able to get 8 or 9 on the second set. For this reason I recommend training to failure only on the last set of a given exercise. Here are a few guidelines to go by when using the failure principle

  1. Failure training shouldn’t be used on every set.
  2. If you use failure training, do so only on the last set of an exercise when in a building or bulking phase (strength training has its place too)
  3. Factor in additional rest when doing so (I take 90 seconds – 3 minutes) Allow your body to recover both mentally and physically!
Your fitbetch,
JP xo

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