Friday, August 7, 2020

Training to Failure - Two Perspectives (1997)

Is Failure Necessary
by Peter Sisco

Over the past several decades a great deal has been written about the idea of going to failure in bodybuilding training. In my books I advise bodybuilders to go to work to failure to ensure growth stimulation. 

However, as with every other aspect of bodybuilding, the concept of failure is one that has fallen victim to misapplication, misunderstanding and faulty logic. Used properly, failure can be a constructive tool, but there's really no valid reason for the near-mythic importance it's given by some bodybuilders who believe they cannot make progress unless they train to failure. 

In fact, training to momentary muscular failure is not - and never has been - a requirement for stimulating muscle growth.

Failure refers to performing a set until you are unable to complete one more rep. In other words, despite all effort you fail to complete the last rep. The fact is, outside of a gym there's virtually no human activity that involves going to failure. 

For example, a person who makes his living by digging with a shovel would never dig until he could not lift one more shovel full of dirt, nor would he swing a pickax until he couldn't lift it one more time. Yet people who perform such manual labor can develop tremendous muscularity. 

Similarly, sprinters often develop formidable hamstring and quadriceps muscles compared to the nominal muscularity of distance runners. This occurs because sprinting requires a great amount of muscular work in a unit of time. But who sprints to failure? 

Indeed, you might find bodybuilders in your gym who have made great gains in size and strength without ever training to failure. Those people are able to stimulate new muscle growth, so how can anyone say that failure is an indispensable requirement for growth All the evidence goes against that assertion.

The human body operates with very complex mechanisms that are always taking variables into account. In a normal day your body adjusts to accept X amount of sunshine, Y amount of temperature variation, Z amount of humidity and so on for hundreds of different environmental and biological factors. For every variable the body makes calculations and adjustments in terms of blood viscosity, hormone levels, degree of skin tanning and muscle growth. 

If on average you're exposed to the same amount of sunlight every day of the year, your skin will darken to the point at which it has sufficient protection from that average level of sunlight - but no more. 

If you lift weights on a regular basis using the same amount of intensity at every workout, your muscles will develop to a point at which they can comfortably handle that intensity without unduly depleting your body's resources.

In order to increase the thickness, or viscosity, of your blood, it's not necessary to subject your body to the absolute coldest temperature that it can stand before you lose consciousness. By the same token, if you want to increase the darkness of your tan, it isn't necessary to subject your skin to the most intense sunlight it can stand without blistering. 

Muscle growth stimulation also operates on this principle. It's not necessary to operate a muscle to its absolute limit of failure in order to stimulate new growth. 

So What Good is Going to Failure? 

While failure is a crude gauge, it can be an effective tool for finding your baseline intensity. For example, if you're performing 3 sets of 15 reps with 200 lbs and on your first set you do 15, on your second set you perform 15 and on your third - to failure - you do 25 reps, you have a good indication that your first two sets were at submaximal intensity and that you should be using a heavier weight or more reps.

Furthermore, if you're seriously overtrained, you'll reach failure at a point lower than the progressive intensity you require in order to stimulate new muscle growth. To exaggerate the point, consider what happens to your strength when you're recovering from a serous bout of the flu. You can return to the gym and take every set to failure, but the intensity will be so low that it cannot stimulate new growth. That's the reason some people can train to failure on every exercise for month after month and never show any sign of progress even though they're convinced they're going all out and delivering 100% of momentary muscular effort. What matters is a tangible progression of overload intensity. 

Is the Last Rep the Most Productive? 

Advocates of training to failure, particularly those who adhere to the high intensity model of performing only one set, believe that the last rep is the most productive rep of the set. As the rationale goes, the first rep takes very little of your effort, the second, third and fourth take correspondingly more effort until you reach that last rep, which requires all the effort you can muster and still cannot be completed. Many people believe that this most difficult rep is the one that triggers muscle growth stimulation. 

As we have already discussed, however, it's the progressive increase in intensity that triggers muscle growth, and since you can accomplish that increase without ever going to failure, the last rep, which is described as being impossible to complete, can be entirely unnecessary.

For example, if you reach the required increase in intensity at the sixth rep of that set, then the sixth rep is the one that triggers growth and anything beyond that is not even necessary. 

The number of reps is irrelevant; failure is irrelevant. The only relevant factor is the amount of intensity generated. 

 Failure: The Key to Growth Stimulus
by Steve Holman 

There's no doubt that training until another repetition is impossible at every workout an take a heavy toll on the body. But that's exactly what makes it so productive.

Joe Horrigan stated in an anti-failure training article that workouts of this type can cause overtraining after four weeks because they're so stressful. I agree, give or take a week or two. In fact, I'd say that makes the point for training to failure, not against it. 

Stressful equals productive. While some seem to think this stress is a negative, I think it proves just how powerful this mass-training style really is. 

The key is to ratchet back the intensity after four to six weeks, coast a little and watch your body grow as it fully recuperates. Then hit it again.

Unfortunately, most bodybuilders are overtrained because they don't follow this phase training philosophy. And don't try to kid yourself that if you don't train to failure you won't overtrain. Chances are, if you don't train to failure, you do more sets, and extending the duration can be just as stressful - sometimes even more so.

Back in the early '70s when Arthur Jones had bodybuilders visit his Nautilus headquarters for a dose of real high intensity, he proved this point emphatically. He'd have them rest completely for three days before starting, and most of them grew during this downtime. Sometimes arm measurement increased a full quarter inch after three days of rest. 

Why? Because previously these bodybuilders were doing lots of sets - usually not to failure - but simply not allowing their bodies enough time to recuperate. After the rest, Jones put them through a few workouts of brief, high-intensity - to failure - training, and their arms would have another growth spurt - sometimes up to an additional quarter inch.

The question remains, is going to failure really necessary for mass gains? No. As Pete Sisco points out above, many manual laborers have built impressive muscle size with repetitive tasks, like chopping wood; however - and this is a big however - if you're looking to add mass as quickly as possible there's no better way to get radical surges in size than by going all out in the gym. 

Bodybuilders who train to failure do so in order to hit as many muscle fibers as possible. It's known as the all-or-nothing principle, which says that a muscle fiber contracts completely or not at all.

For example, if you're doing curls for a set of 8, your first rep may require, say, 20 fibers to move the weight (these numbers are merely hypothetical, as there are thousands of fibers in any one muscle). Those 20 fibers fire completely. With the next rep those same 20 fibers fire completely again, but now they're somewhat fatigued, so three more fibers join in and fire completely for a total of 23. On the third rep those 23 fibers fire completely again, but they're fatigues, so five more fibers are called in, and they fire completely for a total of 28. This goes on until you hit failure, at which point the majority of your biceps muscle fibers that can contract during this exercise have fired completely.

From this it's obvious that to hit as many fibers as possible during any set, you must go to failure. What if you don't? Will additional sets bring in the fibers the first set didn't get? 

Perhaps, but additional medium-intensity sets mean - 

1) you add more work and your time in the gym becomes less efficient. 

2) you burn more precious energy - energy that could have been used after the workout to help you grow, and

3) you don't know if you've hit the muscle hard enough to stimulate growth.

Many experts will say that you know you hit the muscle hard enough if your training weights are going up. Fair enough, but if you're advanced, you know poundage increases are few and far between. Plotting out your poundage increases for a few months looks great on paper, but when you take it into the gym there are too many factors that cause your strength to fluctuate - such as biorhythms, daily stress and sleep patterns.

How about adding sets? Using more sets with less intensity will eventually produce some muscle growth - is that a guy I hear chopping wood in the distance?  - but as  I said above, it's very inefficient. How would you like to be in the gym all day long? That's what you end up doing if you add sets to increase the overload. 

Here's the bottom line (finally): To increase muscle mass, you must increase the overload component or growth simply won't happen. Somehow, some way, you have to continually up the stress on your muscle structures to force adaptation, or hypertrophy. 

More sets? Add weight? We've covered those. The better answer is, use techniques that change the stress on the target muscles. 

Some of these techniques require you to take a muscle to failure and beyond, and some don't. For example, with forced reps you push a set to failure and then your partner helps you get two or three more reps.

Other methods can stimulate growth without your having to push to failure - at least for a few workouts. Take supersets, for example. If you do barbell curls and then immediately follow with a set of undergrip pulldowns, you increase the overload on the biceps. The reason overload happens is that you increase the amount of time the target muscle is under tension. 

Once the newness of these medium-intensity supersets wears off - after three or four workouts - you can take your supersets to failure to trigger another growth spurt. Of course, adaptation soon occurs - after four to six weeks - and gains stall.

Then what? 

Introduce a new stress - the key for another growth surge. Try using hypercontraction training, in which you do a stretch position exercise first in each bodypart routine. For example, for biceps you start with incline dumbbell curls - one set done regular style, one set double impact style - before you move on to regular barbell curls. 

This type of training shifts the target into emergency mode for better contractile response during the compound movement, barbell curls in this case. Hypercontraction for a week with medium intensity on all sets, then after this break-in week attack your work sets with an all out vengeance - except for your preliminary stretch position movements. Training to failure can be dangerous on a stretch position exercise when you do it first. 

To get the best possible results, however, you should go to failure on all your other exercises to hit as many fibers as possible at every workout - many of which were primed for recruitment by the stretch position movement.

As so it goes. After four to six weeks downshift your intensity and at the same time introduce another new stress component, such as using static contraction training on contracted position movements like concentration curls. I call this X-Rep training, and you'll be seeing more on it in future issues.

A good rule of thumb is to do something different every four to six weeks and introduce it with medium intensity for one week before ramping up your effort. 

No matter how you change things, you still want to increase your training poundages at every opportunity, but don't forget to use new stress techniques along the way and go to positive failure most of the time. 

If you rely solely on poundage increases to give you the mass you're after, the road will be a lot longer. 

You'd do almost as well chopping wood.

Enjoy Your Lifting!     

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