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  • Writer's pictureLisa Magnuson

Training to Failure Sounds Terrible

Who sets out to fail? Not me, so when someone says do this one thing until failure, my knee jerk reaction is, no thank you, that sounds counter-productive. However, training to the point of failure (occasionally) can be immensely beneficial for muscle growth as well as psychological understanding of your actual end point.

For the sake of argument, in this article let's assume the failure point is momentary muscular failure and not technical failure. Those are two versions of similar things, but have some nuances that can get very confusing. So momentary muscular failure for our purposes means not being able to lift or lower a weight (or body weight) one more time. An easy example; you are doing a bench press and you have a spotter (someone helping you if you can't raise the bar, and so you don't get crushed), and you pump out 10 reps and try to push the bar up one more time, but you physically cannot move the bar back up without the spotter's help. In this example, you have reached momentary muscular failure on your 10th rep because you are unable to raise the bar for an 11th rep.

Now I'm going to back track a bit to write about "reps in reserve" (RIR). This is a very smart way to stimulate muscle growth without pushing your body into such a beat up state that your recovery suffers (which can often occur when training to failure too often). Reps in reserve is simply how many reps of any one exercise you have left in your tank. So if we are aiming for 2 reps in reserve on your loaded bicep curls, when you get to 10 reps, you should only have 2 reps left until failure, but you finish the set at 10 reps, not 12. Make sense? This is what Myles is commonly referring to when he says a certain movement or exercise should feel REALLY hard by the final rep, it's not so hard that you can't physically lift the weight again (that's failure), but almost there.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for most of us to know exactly what weight (or resistance level) we need to use to get to this point. In many studies, when subjects have been asked to lift a weight that will only allow 2 additional reps before failure, they commonly underestimate their weight and are able to complete as many as 5-10 reps beyond that set number.

You may think, well, that's more volume so that's good- at least they are burning more calories right? WRONG!!! If you want to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains, you have to push your body to the point of near total fatigue to get results. Sure, as a novice weightlifter, you can see results by just showing up at the gym, but many of you reading this have been strength training for years- you are no longer novice lifters, you need to lift heavier weights to stimulate change. So if you have been wondering why you feel stagnate, or you haven't seen results from all your hard work, it's most likely because you need to start working smarter, not harder/longer. If you can find where your 2 RIR is on many of your major lifts, you will see results- I promise!

How do you find this magical resistance level??? One way is to train to failure. If you grab a 20lb dumbbell and can bicep curl it 30 times before hitting that point, you probably need a heavier dumbbell. This gets a little harder to do with squats or deadlifts, because of the technical failure issue I touched on above, but if you are squatting with a 50lb kettlebell and can rep out 30 squats, you need a heavier KB, or added resistance in the form of a band.

For those of you who don't have 70lb KB's in your home gym, as your trainers we use tricks like messing with tempo, or adding iso holds, or shifting to single leg/arm work to maximize your lighter weight while trying to push towards the failure mark. BUT, in order for this to work, you have to load those slower movements as heavily as you can to reach that RIR.

If you need help from us to figure out what this may be for you, ask us for a challenge set. Myles will happily hand you a heavy weight and watch you lift something to failure. I have a feeling it will be a MUCH heavier weight than something you would pick yourself and you will be surprised how many reps you can do with that heavy weight AND what failure actually feels like. No, you won't hurt yourself because as long as you have good form lifting heavy weights won't cause damage to your joints or tendons. Of course this isn't something you need to do all the time, but pushing to this point in some of your movements will help you build your own confidence and knowledge about what weight you can actually lift.

This all being said, if you have been working out at home with the same weights since 2020- it's time to up your game. Go get some heavier weights and push yourself. If you don't want to spend a fortune check out Play it Again Sports, or look online for people selling used kettlebells, dumbbells, or Powerblocks. Both Myles and I want to see our clients get results and hit the goals they have been working so hard to achieve, but you will have to push yourself to lift heavier in order to maximize your potential (see what I did there??!!!)

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