Training to failure is something that's done in hockey gyms across the world on an almost daily basis. And in my opinion, it's a gigantic mistake.
When you're a coach designing strength and conditioning programs for hockey athletes, it's important to keep in the forefront of your mind that you are designing a system to make a better hockey player, not a better weight lifter.
We use sports science research to create programs with the goal of developing the highest degree of weight room transfer to an on-ice setting. Everything else should be secondary.
Some research suggests that training to failure may improve gains in hypertrophy, which has caused many hockey coaches to incorporate a significant number of sets to failure in their programs. Failure refers to the point where an athlete becomes so fatigued during a set that they "fail" a movement mid-rep and are forced to bail on it. While many people reserve training to failure for tricep- and bicep-focused movements to finish off a workout with an impressive arm "pump," many hockey coaches are using the tactic more frequently and in broader contexts.
However, I think this is a very short-sighted approach and one that's not a good representation of the abundance of data we have access to today. There are a number of reasons why this approach can be downright backwards for hockey athletes. Here's why I believe hockey players should never train to failure.
1. No Added Benefit With Heavy Training Loads
At some point in a hockey athlete's periodization, there is going to be a phase where an emphasis should be placed upon absolute strength.
This is because training with heavy loads enables a wide range of other adaptations that enhance maximum strength outputs, such as increasing tendon stiffness, lateral force transmission, neural drive, voluntary fiber activation and load-specific coordination.
Since these are largely absolute strength-based adaptations, you're going to need to get under a heavy bar every now and then. There's little to argue with there.
Training to failure may enhance gains in muscle mass by increasing the motor recruitment, however, doing so is a redundant and inefficient way to go about it if you're already using heavy loads. Why? Because with heavy loads, your motor recruitment is already full irrespective of how much fatigue you are experiencing. In other words, the load itself is what is causing maximal fiber recruitment, not the fact that you are reaching muscular failure.
Because of this, I find it very hard to make sense of working to failure if your training periodization already includes you using loads that are equal to or greater than 85% of your 1-Rep-Max.
2. A Major Increase in Muscle Soreness
It's common knowledge to equate muscle soreness with eccentric muscle contractions. That's something we have known for a long, long time now. Essentially, it causes major disruptions in muscle fiber damage through high levels of mechanical loading.
However, what seems to be mentioned much less frequently is that muscle damage also occurs by sustained time under tension during extremely metabolically stressful events.
Essentially, that "extreme burn" feeling you are getting in your muscle tissue causes a release in fatigue metabolites that can cause muscle soreness (and muscle damage) to a similar degree as eccentric contractions, even if you don't emphasis the eccentric portion of the lift at all during the set.
Thus, training to failure causes much more muscle damage than not training to failure, even when using light weights. This degree of muscle soreness can decrease an athlete's motivation to train, negatively impact their movement quality in practice or games, can reduce the expected training volume output in subsequent workouts, and can detract from them performing proper technique in the movement they perform in the following days after the training session.
Since we can accomplish muscle fiber activation, training specificity and overload without going to failure, adding more muscle soreness to the mix becomes a very difficult position for me to logically rationalize.
3. You Become Slower!
Hockey athletes all know one thing about performance on the ice: Speed kills.
It's the one thing that will separate you from the pack and allow you to blow by your opponents at any moment. Not to mention, it's one of the most glaringly obvious advantages you have that the scouts, agents, coaches and parents will all see.
Hockey athletes need high-velocity strength if they want to be explosive out on the ice. Because of this, lifting sub-maximal loads with fast bar speeds while avoiding fatigue is a valid approach for reaching this goal.
Research has clearly shown that stopping sets before fatigue kicks in allows you to move faster, which results in gains in high-velocity strength. This is also known as power training. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Physiology and Performance found that a training program which did not include training to failure produced superior improvements in vertical jump, rate of force development and maximal strength than a training program that included similar weekly volume load but included training to failure.
Power training is a great way for hockey athletes to train to become more explosive on the ice via enhancements in first-step quickness, acceleration and agility "stop-start speed." The additional fatigue that comes from training to failure can cause significant reductions in bar speed, jump height, jump length, etc., which makes it hard to truly train power.
In intelligent hockey-specific programming, you should always be stopping your power-based sets before fatigue causes a significant reduction in bar speed, jump height, or jump length. This helps better target the the right type of muscle fibers needed to get a positive hockey-specific speed result.
Although I feel these three reasons give you more than enough ammo to stop training to failure, I could still come up with plenty more. Training to failure impacts your recovery, training frequency and nervous system in a negative way that is not conducive to hockey performance.
It's my opinion that training to failure is unlikely to have an additive effect in hockey training program design, especially considering all the work they still must commit to outside of the gym.
What I have my hockey athletes do is employ an autoregulation system where if they feel great, we will use a 2 Reps In Reserve (2RIR) strategy, and if they feel under-recovered, we will use a 4 Reps In Reserve (4RIR) strategy. Reps in reserve refers to finishing a set when you feel you still could perform more reps before failing. 2 RIR refers to stopping a set at the point you feel you could only do 2 more reps before failure, while 4 RIR refers to stopping a set at the point you feel you could perform 4 more reps before failure.
Training at a 2RIR still allows them to achieve effective gains that transfer over to the ice, but bypasses many of the negative consequences of training to failure. Whereas the 4RIR strategy is put in place so that the athlete can still attend their training session for the day, but treat it more so as an active recovery/deload rather than an intense training session. Training to failure consistently may make for "harder" and more fatiguing workouts, but the harder workout is not necessarily the smarter workout. The quicker coaches can realize this, the better off their athletes will be.
Photo Credit: simonkr/iStock
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