Training to Failure
What the Hell Does it Mean?
by Matt Phelps, MS, CSCS
Strength coaches are throwing the term "failure" around WAY too loosely.
As strength and conditioning professionals, we all know that in order to get bigger and stronger, progression needs to be applied. Now what exactly does that imply?
Yup, hard ass work, and the blood, sweat, tears, and the occasional trip to the altar of the porcelain goddess that comes right along with it. The thing that makes me chuckle is the horror that the word "failure" strikes into the heart and soul of the modern strength coach.
"Failure? Oh no, we don't want to do that! Our Central Nervous System will be fried! If we lift to failure we will be in a bed ridden state for 3 weeks in an over trained induced coma, pissed as hell that we didn't listen to our resident internet strength coach about the perils of daring to work this hard in the weight room!"
You see, my first experiences in this field were performed using principles of High Intensity Training, and while I've deviated quite a ways away from several of the "rules" of HIT, I agree that its principles are sound in theory.
The thing is, I quickly learned something; 99% of the population does not want to, or is not capable of, training to the ball busting, eye-vessel exploding, pants-shitting level of failure that will leave us feeling like we got hit by a MAC truck! The solution is simple, we add a little volume to the workout and get the cumulated effects of muscular fatigue to essentially create the same result that Arthur Jones was after.
So where does the problem lie? Let's just work hard with a moderate amount of volume, and we'll be set... or so it would seem.
When discussing the overload that training to true failure has on the CNS, we're largely talking about a physiological reaction that the human body has to this type of training. There's no doubt that exercise physiologists have discovered that there's such a thing as working too hard in the weight room.
So am I saying that this isn't true, that that scientific evidence is wrong? Hell no! What I AM saying is that these deductions were made by guys in labs wearing white coats who were pushing their subjects to the edge and beyond in order to make an assessment.
The reality is that as strength coaches, we're the guys out here in the trenches, working with real athletes, not test subjects. We look at training to failure as something we see, a visual cue that we perceive, not a physiological reaction. It's my hope that after reading this article, you'll have some food for thought, and with this you may realize that perhaps pushing our athletes to the point where they perceive failure isn't such a bad thing, and more importantly, we're all a hell of lot closer in training philosophy when it comes to this matter than we may think we are.
Apples and Oranges
The problem lies in the fact that we have two different groups who possess two different definitions about failure: strength and conditioning coaches, and exercise physiologists.
The exercises physiologist is like a World War I era field general. He's sitting far back from the action, plotting, strategizing, and putting some pretty damn good ideas together to form his battle plan.
Exercise physiologists or field generals?
The strength coach is like the average soldier who actually does the dirty work and executes the battle plan. This is all well and good, only there's one problem: while the general is using toy soldiers on a paper map to envision the unfolding battle, the soldier is running through the trenches, having shots fired at him, and seeing men dying all around him in a state of pure chaos. So you see, even though these two men have the same objective, the world they live in is very different.
I'm not saying that exercise physiologists have no experience working with athletes, and that we shouldn't value their opinions... this couldn't be further from the truth! We've learned an invaluable amount of information from these men and women for many years, and without their efforts this field would not have evolved the way it has.
I'm simply saying that many times exercises physiologists are like the aforementioned field general; they're idealists who have the opportunity to work with a select population and make conclusions on their findings.
Sometimes the definition of their findings may be interpreted too literally by your average strength coach, who's applying an exercise physiologist's definition to his own real world situation. In essence, this strength coach is listening to the exercise physiologist's instructions on how to make apple pie, and using oranges to make this same pie. As we've all heard many times before, it's never a good idea to confuse apples and oranges.
Definitely NOT the same.
Let Them Wheels Start Turnin'!
So now that we have the wheels turning, as strength and conditioning professionals, we need to pose several questions. What does training to failure really mean? How often is it attained? Do we really need to train to failure as Jones and other HIT gurus have asserted? Are some of who think we're training to failure, and some of us that are strongly against training to failure, actually training with the same level of effort?
It appears to me that there's a strong misunderstanding between strength coaches and exercise physiologists as to what training to failure actually means, not on a scientific level, but on a practical level. This definition is scaring people away from THE most important aspect of developing muscular strength and hypertrophy: exercise intensity.
If you want to make gains, you need to work hard, plain and simple. Let's clarify what failure really means, from both the strength coach's perspective and the physiologist's perspective, and bring light to the fact that maybe those of us who are proponents of training to failure and those of us that who dead set against it, are closer in agreement than we may think.
From a strength coach's perspective, training to failure, or Momentary Muscular Fatigue (MMF), is demonstrated when an individual can no longer perform another rep with proper form (i.e. no bouncing, shortening pre-determined range of motion, etc. on a given exercise).
From this definition of failure, we're on our last rep on the bench and we need a spot; otherwise we wouldn't be able to complete the rep. We've all reached this point many times in our training lives, and I know that most of us, albeit early in our training careers, have had to "dump" the weight because we tried to be He-Man and unleash the power of Greyskull without a spot!
Embarrassing? Yes. But is that training to failure, at least by the average strength coach's perspective? You bet.
Leave the "Power of Greyskull" to THIS guy...
This is where things get a little tricky. While a strength coach can see when it's perceived that true muscular failure occurs, an exercises physiologist has the added benefit of being able to analyze what's going on inside of your body.
They know all the nasty things that overtraining and overworking your CNS can do to you, so naturally they're going to advise you to stay far, far away from anything that'll cause it harm.
As I stated earlier, this is all well and good, but the training intensity that causes this type of CNS damage has to be EXTREME. We're talking about things like excessive use of eccentric training, forced reps, limited recovery periods, etc. Notice that I did NOT mention reaching perceived failure during a set.
While I've no doubt that subjects in studies outlining the ill effects of training to failure did indeed train this way, I'm someone who's actually out doing the "gruntwork" every day. As such, I have to question the reality that most people can train this way unless the strength coach truly wanted to absolutely obliterate them on every set.
It takes a VERY advanced athlete to train to true failure, leaving nothing behind. If it's the objective to leave nothing in the tank on every rep that an athlete does, well, the strength coach is an idiot. The reality is that the term "training to failure" has gotten a bad rap, and this bad rap has been blown way out of proportion.
The Ghost of Mentzer!
Unfortunately, there are just too many people out there who can't differentiate between true failure and perceived failure, and they're depriving themselves from reaping the rewards of busting their butt in the weight room.
We've all heard the "Mike Mentzer" example which Jason Ferruggia brought up in his article on overtraining several weeks ago — you know, the one where you're supposed to walk up to the squat rack, pick a weight that you could normally get 12 reps with, and then get 20 reps because you're visualizing the ghost of Mentzer holding a glock to your head and urging you to squeeze out "one more."
This is a very realistic scenario.
Riiiiight, I'm gonna go harder now because some crazed ghost is friggin threatening me! Okay, it's tacky, but the point is simple enough; many of us may have reps "in the hole" that we didn't even know we were capable of producing, and if so, the point at which we hit muscular fatigue is simply a perception of failure and not the reality.
"Think you are done? Sorry Charlie, give me three more!"
I've seen the same thing time and time again; some athletes are certainly capable of pushing their bodies to the extreme, getting every last rep on every last set they do... or so it would seem.
How do we really know how hard they are working? Let me tell you something, we don't. But then again, so what? Are they going to failure, or do we think that they are... but they really aren't?
Confused yet? It doesn't really make a difference, because not many of us are training with the level of ball busting intensity that would leave our CNS shattered for days... and Mentzer's ghost pleased.
As you can see, I'm not a big fan of metaphors to explain real life situations and problems. I guess it stems not only from my background in English as an undergrad, but also because of the emphatic and powerful message that metaphors always seem to bring. Don't like it? Too late, because you're too deep into this article to get out now!
Closer Than We Think
Strength coach A is your typical multi-set, "5x5" guy. He's not only the guy who thinks training to failure is one of the seven deadly sins, but also the guy who states that it's okay if you don't make all the reps on your last set: "Just keep the weight there the next week and you'll make your sets."
Um, dude, I'm confused, isn't that training to failure? You failed to make all the reps in your set...
Strength coach B is a self proclaimed HIT "guru." He only does one set of each exercise (oh, I forgot to mention he does them every 10 days, lest he "overtrain") and kisses the picture of Arthur Jones on his bed stand before he falls asleep each night.
Strength coach B thinks his athletes are really "working it," getting the most out of each and every set. Only what this coach doesn't know is that his athletes are a hell of a lot smarter than he is. His athletes sometimes come to him after practice and mentally can't take the drain of knowing they have to train with this insane amount of intensity for each and every session.
So what do they do? They fake it. They hoot, they holler. They grunt, they groan. And you know what? It works... now THATS training to failure... Just give the illusion that you're passing a kidney stone the size of a hand grenade before each and every rep you do (and we all know who those guys are), then dammit, you're training to failure my friend!
Nope, sorry... you might be winning an Oscar, but that sure as hell isn't failure.
Let's stop and just think about something, something very simple for one second. It takes HARD work to get bigger and stronger... .there's simply no other way around it. You need to give a good effort...no, you need to put forth a GREAT effort in order to maximize your gains, perceived failure or not. How many of us, as strength coaches right now, are conveying this to our athletes? I would hope that we all are!
I hope with the aforementioned metaphor I was able to convey that we're all a hell of a lot closer in philosophy than some people would have you believe. We need to stop being such softies and putting such a negative connotation on things!
Have you ever trained an athlete who couldn't perform another rep in good form on a set? Yes? Okay, and did he function the next day? He did? Wow, amazing... And on the flip side, is it a good idea to test the cajones of your client, swear at him, question his manhood, and ask him to give EVERYTHING he has on EVERY rep he does in EVERY workout.
No, it isn't. If that's what you do, his gains will be few and far between, and he won't be your client for long.
As Mentzer's ghost would say, perceived failure and true failure are two entirely different things. We need to face the fact and accept it unless you really are putting your athletes through hell.
Don't kid yourself, they're probably not training to the level of fatigue that you think they are. Instead, do yourself a favor: rather than worry about your CNS running out of gas faster than you did on prom night, just keep doing what you do best and cranking out gains in strength and size with your athletes!
Just glance at the websites of Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey, Alwyn Crosgrove, Joe DeFranco, Zach Even-Esh, Jason Ferruggia, Jason Hadeed, and Dos Remedios, to name a few. What do they all have in common? Though the means are different, their athletes are all working hard!
There's a moderate amount of training volume, and a lot of hard work put in, plain and simple. And you know what? While they all have a different way of doing things, I'd be willing to bet that sometimes perceived failure is reached and their athletes live to tell about it!
The bottom line is that if your athletes are progressing, then you're doing just fine. And if they aren't? Well then, just tell Mentzer's ghost to take a hike — that Ron Jeremy mustache of his went out of style years ago...
Matt Phelps is a Strength & Conditioning Coach for Elite Athlete Training Systems in Rockville, MD. He's trained hundreds of athletes at high school, collegiate, and professional settings. He was also the Head Strength Coach at a Division I School for 3 years. He has his M.S. in Exercise Science, as well as a CSCS.
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