What is good once in a while is not optimal every day. Training is about preparation and adaptation. However, there is always this feeling and need to crush every workout and work till failure. But little do you know this works against you developing your strength.
If you want to train hard, you have to be smart about it and implement rest and recovery.
Paying the Price of Training Failure
So, why does struggling for that next rep have a negative effect? Well, if you are driving your car and it runs out of gas, the car stops. It cannot drive anymore. Your body is the same. When you struggle and struggle to do those last reps, your muscles hit a point where they cannot do anymore. This is the point to stop. Your body has an injury protection mechanism that flicks on so you cannot move more weight and/or slows you down. Any reps or sets you do after this point will not contribute to strength. The more you keep trying to force those last reps, will not disable the protection mechanism. And, forcing against it, turns training innocently hard, into a possible injury.
A Spanish researcher Dr. Mikel Izquierdo found that training to failure every set significantly increased hormone levels that decreased strength and muscle growth and inhibited a hormone responsible for increasing muscular strength and growth. In another study, they found that training till failure decreased the ability to rebuild muscles. This simply means that doing your sets till failure hampers your training goals. Like everything, there is a place and time to train to failure. However, it is something done sparingly and not so often, like once a month.
Remember What Training Is All About
Strength training involves neural adaptation for strength development and growth to occur. You have to remember what training is all about. What you train is what develops. For example, once you tax the nervous system by failure sets, you create fatigue, not only muscularly but, central nervous system fatigue. And truthfully, in doing this repetitiously, trains your body to act accordingly, to fatigue.
When you reach failure during a set, it's a sign that you're pushing yourself too hard and generating a large amount of muscular fatigue. This will have a diminishing impact on the next set. The reason your next reps in your next set will be much lower. For example, if the first set is 8 reps, using failure on the last rep, the second set will likely cut in half to about 4 reps.
However, if you terminate at 6 or 7 reps on the first set, you can do about 5 or 6 on the second set before the failure. Also, you can probably do more sets, without fatiguing. This does not tax the system and does not activate the muscles and nervous system's inhibitory response. And, this allows you to do more reps to move more pounds of force per rep.
For example, if you use 100 lbs. You can do 5,4,4,3,3 reps in 5 sets, which is 19 reps (1900 lbs). If you do 5 forced reps to begin, your next set will be about 3 reps. And forcing 3 reps leads to maybe 2, 2, 1, resulting in 13 reps (1300 lbs).
Understand, the rep where the movement begins to slow down, the next rep will be forced. Stop on the slow down rep or before the slow down rep and you will do more reps in your next sets. There is nothing wrong with doing more sets, but those sets need to be clean and not forced. Strength is about injury prevention, it is about adaptation. Stimulating strength and adaptation require you to reach your threshold point, not go over it. Going over it activates the injury prevention mechanisms.
Alternative To Training Failure
If you want to work till failure, you need a strategic way to do it. Drop sets are an excellent way to accomplish it by acclimating the weight with the sets and reps. The key is to continue the movement based on adaptation for muscles to absorb, not dissipate force.
Start with a weight between 5-8 reps. Again, the last rep in the set will be the rep where the movement slows down. So, if you are doing an 8-rep max, then stop at 6 or 7. The only rest is changing the weight for the next set. Lower the weight 5-10 pounds and do the next set. Again, do the reps in the set until the reps slow down. Do about 5 sets. Just continue lowering the weight until you hit failure, but failure by not forcing it fails by lowering the weight by adjusting adaptation.
Adjust, Acclimate, Adapt
Drop sets are done once a month to stimulate and adapt, and it works. If done too often, it will work against you. Excellent techniques are not to be done all the time. They are done periodically to get you to the next level. Adjust, Acclimate, Adapt.
Building muscle and strength can be fast, but you have to understand how to do it. High-level performance, strength, and power athletes never train until failure. They vary their workloads through percentages. Crushing it all the time will lead to decreasing your results and injury. Your body adapts and adjusts better from small increases of intensity gradually over time.
For more information, check out the book, Instant Strength, to understand how the process works and to learn more strength training methods.
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