Article written by Alanna Casey
Training to failure: performing an exercise to a point where you physically can no longer execute the movement; performing repetitions to the point of not being able to complete the final repetition.
Training to failure can be beneficial or hurtful to your training, depending on your personal goals. Training to failure is a method of training and it’s not necessarily “good” or “bad.”
Generally, I do not train to failure when training for Powerlifting and I rarely train to failure when training strongman events. Am I crazy? Am I not pushing my body hard enough? I would argue that
1. I probably am crazy
2. I am pushing my body hard enough.
Let us examine the logic behind my reasoning. For your sake, I will skip the first question and get to the second one. Personally, I do not train my main lifts (squat/bench/deadlift) to failure.
Why NOT to train to failure:
Central Nervous System: My primary training lifts are the most taxing on my body, especially my central nervous system. When you train your main lifts to failure you are more likely to exhaust your central nervous system. Your central nervous system takes about 10 days to recover. Since odds are you don’t have ten days to recover before your next training session, you may want to save yourself for when you REALLY need 100% effort (during a meet or competition). By not training my main lifts to failure I am protecting my central nervous system and preventing over training.
Practicing Success: For my primary lifts I like to strictly practice success. This is a mainly a muscle memory point. I do not want my body having muscle memory of failing a lift. I want my body to develop muscle memory that is based on successfully completing a lift.
Mental stability: When you are working your main lifts and you fail a repetition, it can mess with your head. I find that training my main lifts to the point of failure is mentally exhausting and I don’t like it. When preparing for a Powerlifting meet or a Strongwoman competition I want to be on my mental A-game. My goal in my training program is not only to build my strength and technique but, to build my confidence. I want to have success after success after success on my main lifts. I don’t want my brain to even comprehend that failure exists!
Personal application of NOT training to failure: I only attempt a repetition if I KNOW I will get it. On squat/bench/deadlift, if I doubt myself more than I believe in myself, I stop my set. Sometimes I just need to regroup, get my mind right, and try again. Other times I am completely satisfied at the rep number I achieved. Remember, you are most likely training for the long haul. Most programs are 8-12 weeks long. So, your central nervous system and your mental stability need to last throughout that entire program. Sometimes “saving yourself” can be beneficial.
Personal application of training to failure: Sometimes I do train to failure. When I do apply this training technique, it’s likely during my assistance exercises. My reasoning is that my assistance exercises almost always require less weight than my main lifts and are less taxing on my central nervous system. Additionally, my goals are different when performing my main lifts compared to my assistance work. When I do assistance work, my primary goal is to build a smaller muscle group that may be lagging behind. Technique isn’t as important and I know that if I fail a rep, it will not mentally mess with me. Basically, I just want a good muscle pump, I want the muscle to grow. So for movements like triceps extensions, dips, push-ups, pull-ups, or grip work, training to failure can be beneficial. When training smaller muscle groups the total weight moved by the body is less, so the exercises are less taxing on the central nervous system. This means that training to failure is less likely to result in over training.
In conclusion, I believe that an athlete should decide if he/she is training to failure before she begins a set. Your decision should be a direct reflection of your goals in performing that specific exercise. I am a big advocate of training efficiently and effectively. Ever exercise I perform has a purpose, every set is completed with a specific goal in mind. If I decide to train to failure, it is because I think that specific training tool will benefit me.