Should you train to failure?

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A common misconception in strength training is that each and every set must be taken to failure in order to yield positive adaptation.

When it comes to high repetition hypertrophy and endurance training, the body will ultimately discontinue work as a result of your intolerance to bear the high level of hydrogen accumulation known as “lactic acid.” This is a natural process, as the body is trying to protect itself from excessive muscle damage.

When it comes to low rep maximal strength work, (1-3 reps) the body discontinues work in your inability to adequately recruit muscle fibers for the job. In certain situations, carrying sets of exercise to repetition failure are advantageous, such as one rep max testing or short microcycles aiming to achieve maximal strength. In most cases however, training to failure is both unnecessary and detrimental to performance.

WHAT’S THE ISSUE?

Unfortunately, the notion that training to failure is necessary has come about in the past few decades. Advocates often cite that it is necessary to drive adaptation and push the limits.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the most effective methods are often less complicated than you’d believe. The issue with training to absolute failure in the sense of maximal strength is that it causes neural fatigue and disruptions in resting hormonal concentrations. Athletes and recreational gym users pushing to the point of failure in one session set themselves up for the inability to properly recover and repeat performance over the next few days. In a phase where one is seeking to gain strength, they will find that they are fatigued and becoming weaker if they consistently push to failure. Additionally, this leads to injury and retraction from strength training all together, with the label that lifting heavy makes them stiff, tired and hurt.

When seeking hypertrophy or muscular endurance, reaching absolute failure is less detrimental from an injury, hormonal and neuromuscular standpoint however it is still not necessary. It can lead to overuse, excessive muscular damage and other similar peripheral issues.

TRAINING SMARTER

If you resist the urge to bury yourself and always push for that last rep, you will find the results rather pleasant.

The most effective method of training is the incorporation of the idea “reps in reserve.” What this means is that when you are working at a percentage of your one rep max, say 85 percent, you should theoretically be able to complete four reps with the attempt of a fifth resulting in failure. Rather than pushing for four reps at 85 percent of your one-rep max, the idea should be to aim for two or three technically sound reps. This is a continuum that can be implemented with nearly any rep range. In 2011, the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science for Sport presented a study that displayed two subjects both doing squats at approximately 80 percent of their one-rep max. Subject one quit squatting with the weight when his movement velocity decreased by 20 percent (leaving more RIR) and subject two quit squatting when his movement velocity decreased by 40 percent (leaving less RIR). These two subjects followed the program for several week and the results were astonishing. Despite subject two completing more overall work and pushing himself closer to failure, he encountered a significantly lower gain in strength than did subject one who quit each set earlier to failure. This and many other similar research studies have displayed the same result.

What this means is that strength training should always be performed with technical proficiency and that in most cases pushing to failure is unnecessary or even detrimental. Obviously, certain situations will be different in the cases of novice vs. experienced trainees, however the general takeaway is the same. Remember to train intelligently and understand that sometimes the old adage that “less is more” can still reign true. Thanks for reading.

Jimmy Pritchard has a BSc in exercise science from Colorado Mesa University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the director of strength and conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at 970-331-3513 or jpritchard@skiclubvail.org.

Thoughts On Concurrent Training

More often than not, my clients and athletes wish to obtain every performance attribute all at once. They want endurance, strength, power, hypertrophy and fat loss, simultaneously. Unfortunately, concurrent training does not yield optimal results in each area, unless you are completely novice and or recovering from serious injury. The body cannot concurrently train to squat as much weight as possible while training for a marathon because of the competing metabolic and hormonal pathways.

WHAT'S THE ISSUE?

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Training to squat as much weight as possible whilst concurrently training for a marathon simply doesn't work. In order to optimize strength, high rates of force development are required as well as greater proportions of Type IIx fibers and higher muscle glycogen stores. These are all blunted when endurance training is performed, which ultimately decreases overall rate of force development, shifts Type IIx fibers towards Type IIa and Type I, and depletes glycogen stores. Done concurrently, endurance training will decrease protein synthesis, and serve as a competing pathway way to strength training during recovery. All of this is only an issue if your goal is to increase strength and optimize performance in sports that require powerful explosive movements. Paradoxically, endurance athletes can benefit from the addition of strength training. Contrary to popular belief, these athletes will not "bulk up" or slow down when adding resistance training to their program due to the mechanisms previously mentioned above. They will benefit from an increase in overall power generating capacity, and rate of force development that is ultimately beneficial.

HOW SHOULD YOU TRAIN?

In most cases, however, athletes compete in sports that require high levels of fitness using multiple energy systems. More common are general population clients of mine who are seeking to improve overall health and improve incrementally in all areas of fitness. It must be understood that all of the previously mentioned information above is describing optimal performance in one area at a time. It is possible to improve in multiple areas at once, however, full potential will not be reached in anything specific. If you are seeking to become a more well-rounded individual in regard to your fitness, some general guidelines can be followed to help you maximize your results. First, periodize your programming. What this means is focus on building general endurance and hypertrophy first for a few weeks, then transition into to a strength and power phase. Second, separate your strength and conditioning sessions. If possible do them on completely separate days, but if you must do them on the same day, aim to have at least 6 hours of separation between each. Last, fuel for whatever it is you are about to do or have just completed. Long endurance type training is highly lipolytic, therefore good fats are essential to use for fuel whereas as brief intense weight training or sprints are highly glycolytic. This require glucose and stored muscle glycogen to perform optimally.

I hope what you've gained from this article is that fitness attributes are a lot like running a business. You have to decide what it is you'd like to specialize in, and how you will devote your resources to making it happen. In training, you have to also decide what it is you'd like to specialize in, and then make a plan of how you will get there. My goal with this is to help inform you of how to make it possible. Thanks again as always for reading.