82 Years Ago.
To succeed one must fail. That is a simple frequent fact in business and, more often, in the gym. The question in bodybuilding remains, "How often should one achieve true muscular failure?"
We know that changing one's program is part of avoiding stagnation and that utilizing failure is one of the steps to progress. But how do we fit it into our program without the unwanted results of injury, overtraining, and wasted effort?
Let's first observe what happens to our muscles during true muscular failure. It's important to note that for a muscle to achieve full muscular failure you must use the muscle throughout its entire range of motion until you are no longer able to perform a compete concentric contraction. Multiple back-to-back drop sets are required to achieve the three types of muscular failure one can experience:
1) Myofibral failure, when the force of the weight is too great for the exercise.
2) Intermediate failure, when the muscle fibers exhaust along with the glycogen stores.
3) Mitochondrial failure, when the cells can no longer fuel the muscle and a contraction at any weight can no longer happen.
To further avoid falling into a pit of stagnation, we introduce the FITT Principle, which stands for Frequency, Intensity, Type, and Timing. Our specific focus is a variance in rep ranges when doing drop sets to failure to benefit from all dimensions.
For the first set, use a weight you can perform 4 to 6 reps to myofibral failure. Lower the weight slightly and repeat 4-6 reps without rest. Sets three and four should follow the same pattern regarding weight adjustment but should be done in the 6-10 rep range producing intermediate failure. Sets five and six should be approximately 15-25 reps, but the focus should be set six, where the lifter should continue until full range of motion cannot be actively achieved indicating mitochondrial failure.
Nick Hunt of Fitness 19 Algonquin in Illinois and I have designed a biceps workout to demonstrate how to incorporate this failure program into your hypertrophy routine. Nick and I have worked closely together for the past two years, and our best results in gains have been from sets to failure for each muscle group, one time per week, utilizing both machines as well as free weight.
I have always told clients, "It doesn't matter if you lift 5 pounds 500 times or 500 pounds 5 times - if you struggle to perform the last rep, you will change just as long as your program changes." Now, let's get out and implement some responsible failure into our mesocycles and get your biceps popping.
The Biceps Failure Workout
Begin each workout with 5 to 10 minutes of moderate intensity cardio. For the first five exercises, perform 2 sets of each exercise for 4-6 reps. Begin this failure plan with the 1set set of the 6th exercise (the 12th set overall), which is the machine preacher curl. There are 6 total sets for that exercise (and only that exercise). Perform all 6 sets with little or no rest between sets.
1) Standing Biceps Curl, 2 x 4-6:
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent. Your shoulders should remain retracted throughout the exercise and elbows should remain pointing downward. This allows the weight to work directly against gravity without displacing the stress to the hinge.
2) Alternating Dumbbell Curl, 2 x 4-6:
In a seated position on an upright bench, perform the curl unilaterally. Begin with your palm in a pronated position and supinate as you go through the contraction. Raise the weight until it comes close to chin level. As the dumbbell descends, pronate your wrist and begin the exercise for the opposite arm.
3) Low Pulley Cable Concentration Curl, 2 x 4-6:
Sit facing the low pulley. Perform the exercise unilaterally. Rest your working-side elbow on the inner portion of the same knee. Flex hard as you bring the hand inward toward the middle of your chest.
4) Seated Alternating Hammer Curls, 2 x 4-6:
Let the dumbbells hang straight down with your arms extended and your palms in a neutral or "hammer" grip. Keep your elbows pinned to your sides as you raise one side at a time. Come up until the angle of your elbow is just past 90 degrees and then slowly return.
5) High Pulley Cable Curl, 2 x 4-6:
Set the crossover pulleys at the highest elevation. Stand in the middle and use both hands at the same time to curl inwards with the elbows facing out laterally. Not only is it a means of recruiting muscle fibers from a different angle, it is also a functional pose for competitors.
6) Machine Preacher Curl, 6 x Failure:
Set 1 - 4-6 reps to failure
Set 2 - Drop the weight and immediately perform another 4-6 reps to failure
Set 3 - Drop the weight and immediately perform another 6-10 reps to failure
Set 4 - Drop and weight and immediately perform another 6-10 reps to failure
Set 5 - Drop the weight again and immediately perform 15-25 reps to failure
Set 6 - Drop the weight and immediately perform as many reps as possible until your form completely deteriorates.