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Should you train to failure?

Keep going! The lead coach screamed as the participants around him struggled to get in another rep, then another. Some had given up, and walked away from the workout in shame.

This is the scene of many popular bootcamp style workouts. Made even more popular by “The Biggest Loser” television show that highlighted Jillian Michales, media sensationalized trainer, screaming at her team to keep going and not quit. Training to failure has become more popular with heavily shared quotes like “Don’t stop unless you finish or die”. We see group classes, and individuals all working their hardest in the gym. Because you have to train harder and do more to see results right?

Weeeeeellllllll….. Not quite. As I always tell my clients, it depends! I want to tell you guys a little personal story before I drop all the science on this one.

The Strongest Men in the World

Over the winter of 2015-2016 I spent time in Iceland training strongman at Jakaból (The Nest of Giants). I also competed in a powerlifting meet up there and proudly display the medals in my office to this day. I got to know some of the legendary strongmen like Magnús Ver Magnússon, Stefán Sölvi Pétursson, and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. In the 90’s Magnús won the title of World’s Strongest Man four times! He has also been in multiple Superbowl commercials for brands like Coca Cola, Dodge Ram, and Coor’s Light. In 1995 Magnús was able to squat 437.5 kg (964.5 lbs) at the World’s Strongest Man competition! Hafþór recently won the title of World’s Strongest Man and we expect him to win many more. Stefán holds records in traditional feats of strength, as well as some Guinness World Records for some other less traditional strength feats. I say all this to paint the picture that these guys are the real deal. So when they gave me advice, it was not like the typical bad gym advice that bros love to give out to the ladies who walk into the gym.

Day in the office with medals behind me

One day after I had put in a 3 hour training session, Magnús motioned for me to come over. He placed his hand on my shoulder and leaned in to give me some of the best advice I have ever been given. He said “Do you want to know a secret to getting stronger?” I smiled back and tried to hid how giddy I was at the whole situation “Yes! Of course!” I replied. Then he said “The secret to getting stronger, is you always leave something at the gym. Don’t train to failure, because then you are teaching yourself to fail. Always make sure you are lifting weight you know you can lift. It will teach your muscles more than not lifting weight that is too heavy.”

Brilliant.

Of course I paraphrased a little, I don’t remember verbatim what he said, but this was the closest my memory could recall of that conversation. Leave something at the gym, don’t train your reps to failure. This goes against everything we hear on the Under Armor commercials that say things like “Leave it all on the field. Give everything!”. Which is one reason why I really wanted to emphasize that these guys are the real deal. Magnús still trains and competes! He is not a crippled old strength athlete “has been”. He was and is a powerful force to be reckoned with and he is a fountain of knowledge. I am blessed to say I even know him and even more blessed that he so generously taught me so much.

Now the Science

The NSCA Essentials, second edition says “The scientific literature shows clearly that training to failure results in reduced training adaptations and may increase the client’s risk for over training and experiencing injuries. Therefore it is prudent for personal trainers to avoid both the RM target and the RM target zone methods when establishing a client’s training load.”.

In other words, training to failure will keep you stuck in the cycle of “Train hard, get hurt, recover, train hard, get hurt, recover, etc) You can train hard, but if you don’t train smart, you will stay trapped in that cycle. If  you are newer to the gym, don’t worry about establishing a training load, this is something a strength coach can help you with and you can work into over time. For now, just focus on working in the right ranges and not going too hard or too easy.

In one study, published by the Journal of Applied Physiology, they looked at anabolic and catabolic hormone productions in various training programs. There were three groups; to failure, non failure, and control. The group that trained to failure did actually increase their ability to perform more reps overall. However, they also saw reductions in resting concentrations of IGF-1 (Insulin like growth factor) and a few other indicators of long term loss. With the non failure group, they saw increases in strength, power output, reduced resting cortisol (stress), and elevated resting serum total testosterone. You can read the full 10 page study >>HERE<< Overall, this research talks about the hormonal effects of training. These little details are what make the difference between exercise and training. Exercise is very general and everyone should exercise every day. Exercise is great for your health, even if you don’t see specific progress. Training on the other hand, is very specific and goal focused. You train using very clear metrics for predicted outcomes. Just getting in a sweat at the gym is not training, general group fitness or cookie cutter workout templates is not training. Specifically tailored load, volume, reps, sets, rest, macro cycles, meso cycles, and micro cycles are what make up training. These are something a good coach will calculate for you, and they should be taking into account all the training variables in the athletes life to come up with these prescriptions.

Another publication by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, talks about the dose response for strength development. Dose response meaning how much load, volume, etc and what the outcome is. This was an incredible compilation of two different meta-analytical investigations. Which included 177 individual studies. The conclusion of all this was that maximal strength gains come from training at an intensity of 85% of your 1RM two days per week and a training volume of 8 sets per muscle group…. Hmmm, sounds like something Louie Simmons would suggest… (In my personal opinion, the Westside Barbell method is actually heavily supported by research, Louie just words things different. All roads lead to Rome, many methods all consist of the same meat and potatoes.) You can download this 9 page publication >>HERE<< I also highly suggest the Westside Conjugate method for powerlifters and strength athletes. I personally like training for strength 3-4 days per week, and take the other days to work on athletic development, cardio, or goof around with my dog.

Women tend to be able to tolerate a higher repetition volume than men, so I suggest that women use a modified percentage when doing programs like Brandon Lilly’s Cube Method, which was created around male athletes. However, this does not mean that women should stick to those silly workouts where they do a million reps with tiny 3 lb dumbbells, I really don’t know why that is still a thing. I have built my lean and feminine physique by training for strongman and powerlifting. Worried about getting bulky? Don’t eat excessively and you will not gain the fat that makes you look bulky.

In Conclusion

I am not calling out any gyms or methods, the sciences speaks for itself. Some popular gyms and methods are still fun workouts and have their place, but if you are trying to increase muscular strength and size, I would highly caution you to analyze your training volume and percentage. A good sweat and hard workout does not equal improvements in power output or myofibrillar hypertrophy. Like I say over and over, you need to know your goal. If your goal it to get more reps, then train for that, if your goal is to get bigger and stronger, TRAIN FOR THAT. I wrote a great post on some differences in training. It was called “Health VS Fitness” read it HERE. You can also read a little more about my personal why and see why my training focus for myself has shifted in “Chaos and Clarity” read it HERE.

So what do you guys think? Do you have any stories or research you want to share with us? Leave a comment or shoot us an e mail! Body Temple Aesthetics is a team of passionate and educated coaches who want nothing more than to help lead our members to success! If you need help in deciding what online coach is best for you, download our guide on choosing a coach >>HERE<<

 

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