It may have been Arnold Scwarznegger who first said the last rep in a set gives you the gains. Scientifically speaking this isn’t 100% correct, but it is still a valid concept to consider in terms of motivation.
In order to challenge muscle and elicit growth, you need to subject it to more work than it is used to. This sends a message to your body that basically says, “Hey, if we’re going to be asked to do this time and again, we’ll need to be bigger and stronger so we don’t get injured!’.
DO WE NEED TO TRAIN TO ‘FAILURE’?
Training until failure means that you continue with a resistance movement or exercise until you can no longer complete another full repetition. Training like this can be of benefit, but it’s not something we should aim to do every session. As a matter of fact, you can still make lots of improvements to your physique and increase muscle mass without training to failure.
Both your muscles and your nervous system require break periods in order to recover. This doesn’t mean you have to stop heading to the gym or going for a run, it just means a small decrease in weekly loading or not progressing your resistance for that week.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE TRAIN TO FAILURE?
This is dependant on so many variables, so there’s no correct answer that will cover every situation and person. Instead I’ll list some factors that you should consider:
- How long have you been training for?
- We call this ‘training age’. Generally speaking, the greater your training age, the greater your ability to withstand increased loading (such as failure sets) and still achieve optimal recovery between workouts.
- How often can you have a spotter help you with lifts?
- This is almost a ‘must have’ for training to failure. If you’re training to failure on the bench (for example), you’ll need someone to stop that bar from landing across your throat….apart from hurting, it’s never a good look!
- Experienced lifters who are competent with the use of gym equipment can utilize safety bars and the like to act as a spotter.
- Remember that bailing on a rep is a skill in it’s own right, so I generally recommend a spotter for all failure training situations. In addition, a spotter can help you keep your technique dialed as you fatigue.
- How long does it take you to recover from your normal sessions?
- This will mostly come down to two things; your amount of weekly loading and the quality of your recovery i.e. hydration, food and sleep.
- Are you still achieving gains from your current training regime?
- If you’re still achieving performance increases and moving towards your goals with your current program, then you have no need to step it up right now. To do so would skip a step. Training muscle groups to failure is a good tool for busting through a plateau, but to utilise it early, lessens it’s worth.
See the second part to this article for the value of prescribing repetitions and completing sets to the best of your ability.