Muscle failure is defined as repeating a movement until the muscles literally fail to complete one more repetition. Although training to muscle failure during every exercise of every workout will likely lead to overtraining, at least some of your workouts should be really challenging.
In my last post I explained that I like to follow a mix of repetition ranges, based on how my individual body parts respond. However, one of the reasons I’m not a fan of targeting higher repetitions (apart from looking like I’m trying to “lengthen and tone”) is that it is harder to reach muscle failure.
I can reach failure at 12 reps and, after much practice and calculation, sometimes 15. But anything beyond that, and it becomes difficult to reach failure while completing full reps (i.e. I often complete drop sets of partial reps to burn the muscle out, where I may perform as many as 25 repetitions).
I can promise you that most people underestimate the severity of complete failure.
All too often I see people bang out their 12 reps and replace the weight with no strain. The last two reps looked no different to the first two reps, and they could have easily banged out three, five or even 10 more repetitions without too much of a struggle.
It frustrates me when I hear people reaching a personal best every week. Unless you just started lifting weights last month, you’re not pushing yourself if you manage to increase the weights constantly. It means everything up until this point has meant nothing, as you likely could have gone heavier.
Training to failure should not be fun. Your body will shake, your mind will scream at you to stop, guttural sounds will slip out of your mouth, and that last excruciating rep will feel as though it lasted minutes, not seconds. Training to failure has left me crying in the middle of a busy gym, doubting all my abilities. Most times it takes me a good 30 seconds before I can even move.
Picking up the next heaviest set of dumbbells or sliding the pin down one notch further, and then completing 12 perfectly executed reps with a “Nine, 10, 11, 12, done” attitude is not reaching complete muscular failure.
If you can easily complete the target number of reps for a certain exercise, you should be reaching for a heavier set of weights during your next workout – not going back to the same ones. You must keep on increasing and increasing, until you physically cannot budge the weight or cannot perform the exercise with good form.
When you reach that last repetition, do not simply drop the weight. Try to move it, centimetre by centimetre until you just can’t anymore.
When you’re training to failure, you need longer rest periods. If you can perform an exercise “to failure”, but then complete another set 60 seconds later, guess what? You’re not training to failure.
The majority of your gains will come from that very last repetition. If your last repetition does not appear any different from the others, you are not truly pushing. Those last two or three repetitions will be an internal battle that will challenge you mentally.
Personally, I perform two or three exercises per workout to failure. I have recently stopped targeting numbers of repetitions – unless it is something above what I know I can do, which inspires me to keep going. Instead, I like to follow a range – for example, four to five, eight to 10, or 10 to 12. Usually I fall within the range but if not, I’m pretty close. At least I can go home knowing that I pushed myself to the limit.
So tell me, are you really pushing yourself in the gym?