THE late Mike Mentzer, an American competitive bodybuilder around the time Arnie was cleaning up Mr Olympia a few years in a row, was always the most prominent advocate of training to failure in the gym. It has to be said, he looked damn good for it. Nowadays, training to muscle failure is still very prevalent, and still controversial.
While it’s generally a lost cause talking to those who’ve taken a stance already – they either couldn’t live without it or think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever – for those of you still on the benches, here are a few encapsulating points to contemplate:
- Training to failure is a gym thing (it’s best applied as an approach to muscle gain, as few other sports make it practical) and it ‘clicks’ for some and doesn’t for others. It does sometimes seem to take a certain temperament to practice and, frankly, there are fantastic, competitive physiques out there on both sides of the fence, so go figure. For those who’ve never pursued it, it does present a whole new horizon to explore. It is a very useful novelty to employ in a stultified regime or when you feel like you’re going nowhere, just going through the motions at gym nowadays.
- It’s an advanced technique. No skinny teenagers waltzing around a gym should be training to failure in their first year among the weights. You need to train your body regularly to understand it, to feel it, and it takes some time to know limits and capacities before training to failure, to derive the benefits of it. Yelling & moaning out loud and banging weights on the floor without knowing what you’re in pursuit of at the top end of your capacity isn’t just wasteful, it’s potentially harmful.
- Different things happen in muscle tissue that has been pushed to failure – with seemingly both beneficial and negative implications for muscle gain – and it should ideally not be a blanket approach, but rather applied cautiously and selectively, and always with a gym partner.
- It seems that, broadly, training to failure generates more lactic acid than a more reserved regime, and lactic acid in the tissue is essential to stimulate and allow for muscle mass growth. That said, it needs to be remembered that training to failure will result in an overall, deep fatigue of the central nervous system, not just localised fatigue, and so you need to balance your expectations of an hour or two in the gym against that.
- It seems that – echoing Schwarzenegger’s claim that the real growth comes from the last few reps of a set – training to failure at the end of a muscle group set generates higher levels of all that is conducive to anabolic growth. With that and all else in mind, it would appear that failing at the end of the last one or two sets is the route to go, as training to failure as a flat approach to every rep and every set induces higher levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol which suppresses anabolic growth capacity.
- Be patient. Look at the weights you’re employing a few months down the line, after regular training. Look at the visible gains. If you feel generally more fatigued and can’t honestly say that you’re in it now, it’s paying dividends, then perhaps your particular metabolism and make-up won’t benefit from failure training and a different regime would benefit you more.
Remember, in training to failure, you’ll experience a wholly different thing. You’ll come to a point where you have to say “I can’t.” if that doesn’t spur a determination in you, if you end a session feeling like you’re under-performing, like you’re going backwards, then the psychology behind failure training is going to defeat you and disadvantage you. Under those circumstances, don’t do it. You’ll need to be provoked, insulted even, by the experience of your arms failing on the curl, or your legs failing beneath the squat bar. If you do it, if you decide to practice training to failure as a component of your regime, keep at it. Persist. Now your growth point is your fail point, and you have to be failing at a higher weight a few months down the line to know that you’re going somewhere in terms of strength and muscle gains.
Employ that wonderful add-on, that freely given accessory of gym life – other people’s opinions. Talk to failure trainers. Talk to those who tried and, well, failed. Don’t get hung up on any particular study that says this or an experiment that indicates that. Look for toughness, courage, strength and gains and, if you don’t get them, it simply means that your body is telling you to take a different route to fitness and well-being. Again, remember the champions on both sides of the divide…
Finally, remembering Mike Mentzer’s insistence that still holds true today, get enough rest! No one of us is Superman. If you’re going to whack your tissues until they give up, then make sure you’re enabling their comeback with enough in the way of off time, rest days and docile activities. Failure training for muscle mass gain has always been a three or four day a week regime and isn’t really given to a split routine (shoulders today, arms tomorrow, legs the day after) as you’re asking your body to dig deep into the core with the practice. It’s the same core all energy comes out of so, if you’re demanding push-to-fail from your body five or six days a weeks in a gym, the gains you hope for and, ultimately, the strength you’re entitled to, is unlikely to manifest. Very much like Mentzer always insisted, apply your mental capacity, think carefully and practice thoughtfully. Failure training is intrinsically gung-ho, but only in that moment, on that rep.
Taking a broadly macho “Yeah!” approach to failure training as a constant, daily reality will probably just result in injury. It’s got to build, not break down, and to do that it needs to be applied judiciously. Try it. It might be just what you’ve always been waiting for but, either way, you’ll know. Your body will tell you after a few months of the practice just how happy it is with things. Remember your original goals, what you were after in the first place. If failure training doesn’t seem to be enabling it, rather switch tactics. There is no win or lose. Rather adopt different strategies to provoke muscle gain then, but, have fun finding out!