Most likely you’ve heard the mantra, lift to failure. In strength training, this is common advice to ensure that the muscles are sufficiently fatigued (and swole enough to be in beast mode). In fact, training to failure is a principle routinely used by bodybuilders to elicit the most muscle gains possible.
Some would argue that there are two types of failure: technical failure, in which your form breaks down, and absolute failure, in which you can no longer physically move the weight. Either way, should you ever train to failure?
In practice, a very experienced lifter may be able to manage decent form on a brutal final rep. But many strength experts believe that lifting a load to near-failure is a more effective and safe way to make gains in the long term.
Dig the Right Trenches
Scott Dueball, a biomechanics engineer and certified Performance Enhancement Specialist who has trained elite-level powerlifters and athletes, maintains that always training to failure is a big mistake.
Dueball likens how our brain controls movement to digging trenches. “Each time you perform an activity, your brain digs a small trench,” says Dueball. “Each time you perform that activity in the same way, the trench gets deeper. The deeper this trench gets, the easier it is to slip into that mode of performance.
“These trenches can be dug for both efficient and inefficient methods. Obviously, you want to dig the trench for the most efficient method. This concept is what is often referred to as “muscle memory” (although there’s no actual memory in your muscles). Over time, the brain learns to activate muscles in a specific order to improve the efficiency of the motion. The effect is that you lift more weight.”
Not only that, Dueball says, but ineffective or careless warm ups teach the brain the wrong patterns as well, and that can translate into learning the wrong movement and neuromuscular patterns.
Another area to be concerned about when you constantly training to failure are negative impacts on your recovery. And inadequate recovery between workouts can mean a not-so-nice training plateau or injury.
Train Your Brain During Warm Ups
Competitive powerlifter Brian Carroll, who experienced potentially career-ending back pain and injuries, learned this when he sought the advice of Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading spinal expert.
“The first comment Dr. McGill made was that over time Brian had become sloppy and lazy in his warm ups,” Dueball says. “The warm up is the best time to perfect your form because you’re typically using lighter resistance and your body is fresh,” Dueball says. “Performing lazy warm ups can fatigue the weaker muscles that are essential when lifting heavier weights. In Brian’s case, that led to relying solely on his vertebrae, which fractured over time.
“The nervous system is responsible for the much of your gains,” says Dueball. “The mechanical strength in your muscles and bones is greater than we give it credit for. We just need to teach our musculoskeletal systems properly. In essence, we can ‘learn to get stronger’.”
“When teaching the powerlift bench press the first thing we see is the lifters’ elbows winging out when they get tired,” Dueball says. “Reverting to their older pattern is unacceptable; even though they can grind out another rep, if it’s not perfect it hurts their development.”
The take-home? Let’s redefine “training to failure” to mean “training until your form deteriorates.” Rather than pushing until you cannot move the weight, lift only as long as you have good form. And spend time on high-quality warm ups. (I require my virtual and in-person clients to spend about 10 minutes on dynamic warm ups to strengthen stabilizer muscles and increase mobility.)
Sounds like a better path to success to me!