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Training to failure – should you do it? There are varying opinions. Some feel the nervous system and bio-chemical effects training to failure stimulates are necessary for muscle growth. Others feel that the massive fatigue it creates isn’t worth it. Either way, there are times when it makes sense and when it doesn’t.
If you’re doing some version of HIT (“High Intensity Training”) as espoused by Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer, or Dorian Yates, then training to failure isn’t just okay – it’s the name of the game. This is a lifting style where you do only one main work set per exercise. In some extreme cases, you only perform one work set per body part.
Because the “to failure” work is so limited, it can be quite useful at building size. This is because even in what would be considered a very volume heavy workout, you might only be doing 5-7 total sets to failure – and that would be for an advanced lifter. However, be sure to temper this with adequate recovery as it is hard on the nervous system. And remember that it’s always better to err on the side of fewer sets to failure than more when doing HIT.
In what might seem like a contradiction to the above, very novice or weak lifters can get away with training to failure much more often. This is because they can only lift so much weight, and going all the way to failure won’t have the same effect on their CNS or recovery as it would a much stronger lifter who’s lifting heavier.
If you’re on the last set of an exercise, you can be open to the idea of taking it all the way to failure. However, you should still be judicious with your efforts. If it’s the first exercise of several for a muscle group and you still have other heavy movements still to come, you might want to hold off. And if it’s a big exercise like squat or deadlift, it could still be enough to have adverse effects on your fatigue levels. Also be sure to watch your form so you don’t inadvertently risk injury.
If you have a planned deload or backoff week coming up, then you can make take some of your normal sets in the week preceding to failure. This is because the following week will see a massive reduction in volume and/or intensity, which will give you additional time to recover from any fatigue you might build up.
When it’s time to go for a new 1RM, then training to failure is obviously going to be necessary. This is allowable as testing your 1RM doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) happen that often and is usually followed by a period of lighter lifting. So even if it does do a number on your CNS, you’ll have adequate time to recover later on.
If you’re going for a new 3-5RM, this can be done more often as the weights won’t be as heavy, therefore won’t create as much fatigue. Working up to a 3-5RM could be done as often as weekly, depending on your training history and strength levels. Note that it’s could be a good idea to rotate exercise variations every 3-4 weeks so as to avoid CNS burnout on any one specific range of motion or movement pattern. Use our One Rep Max Calculator here.
You don’t need to be afraid of training to failure, as it can be quite beneficial. However, you just have to be smart about when you do it. Newer lifters can get away with it more often, and more advanced trainees can use it on the last set of an exercise, prior to a deload, or when going for a new max. HIT, one-set-to-failure type training also produces good results, you just have to take extra care that your recovery is on point. Either way, use your head and it can be another tool in your training arsenal.