Intensity is one of the hardest things to dial in for people in the gym. Everyone has a different perception, a different goal and a different body. In my experience, I’ve had times when I trained too hard and did not allow for adequate recovery. On the flipside, other times I’ve trained too lightly and did not push myself hard enough to elicit a proper stimulus for growth.
Many people may also think they are training hard, but in fact do not know the extended boundaries of their potential. Finding a personal trainer or experienced friend may help you figure out what your actually capable of.
There are a few terms I want to go over and make sure are understood:
Absolute muscle failure — Also known as muscle failure, this is when the body is not capable of producing anymore repetitions of the exercise you are performing. True failure might mean forcing out a rep or two with poor form. I don’t recommend doing this often for most.
Technical failure — Performing repetitions until form starts to breakdown and then stopping. Form breakdown is subjective, and keep in mind that form will NEVER be perfect. There is a variance in which you can learn to “leverage” when lifting weight, but I wouldn’t ever say it’s OK to use bad form.
Submaximal — This type of training means staying beneath failure in repetitions. This could be as little as leaving one rep in the tank, or leaving up to five reps in the tank.
Volume — This is the number of sets and the number of reps you are doing in a workout, week, month or sometimes even year, depending on your programming.
What is failure? Fortunately, and unfortunately, many people don’t know what true failure is. True failure is something that you probably won’t be motivated to experience or be able to experience unless you are in decent shape already and have been guided to by someone. True failure is painful and even scary at times. For example, taking a squat set to failure is brutal. True failure is going to cause very heavy breathing, ears ringing, nausea and the effect it has on your central nervous system is unexplainable and also unforgettable.
Why would anyone train to failure? The benefit to training to failure is you get to find out what your body is truly capable of. How can one stay one to three reps away from failure, if they don’t know what failure is? Taking sets to failure can sometimes produce a different stimulus on the body that will cause growth, if you don’t do it too often or too much. The downside to failure is that training to this intensity is very hard to recover from, and you might not fully recover sometimes.
Once every couple of months, I like to take some of my sets to failure on different exercises so I can see what my new fitness level is like, as it is ever-changing. This is a good reminder of what it feels like to train a few reps away from failure.
Whether you train to failure, or not, will largely depend on your experience, your level of fitness and your goals. As a simple overarching rule, if you are looking to gain maximal strength and build your one rep max up, it would be best to put yourself on a program that involves submaximal training. It has been shown in studies that in order to grow stronger, you must have a sufficient amount of volume in your training. One of the best ways to make sure you can recover from having a lot of volume in your training is to make sure that you are training submaximal. This doesn’t mean the workout won’t be hard and it doesn’t mean you won’t be afternoon either. You will simply recover a little better so that you can do more volume needed to become stronger. This concept is very hard to dial in for anyone. And although we might not be taking our sets to the very last repetition humanly possible, studies have also shown that you will need to get close to failure in order to produce proper stimulus for the muscles to grow. The idea is to be able to have maximum stimulus with minimal amount of fatigue in strength training.
Not everyone will need to go to absolute failure. Older populations, those with serious prior injuries, or those who just wish to attain general fitness will not need to know what it feels like to vomit after a hard set or get close to passing out.
However, I do believe everyone could benefit from knowing what technical failure feels like. Technical failure is a safe way to take your muscles as far as they can go whilst keeping injury risk at a minimum. Technical failure should only be sought out if your joints and muscles are conditioned after months of training, and if you’ve never reached failure before, do this with a professional or an experienced friend.
Nate Wilson is a certified personal trainer through NASM and is the owner of Elite Fitness LLC. He is certified for Fitness Nutrition and is a Behavior Change Specialist. Contact Nate at 719-640-0668 or [email protected].