Training to failure is not always the best thing. Actually it is not recommended at all to do so, because it can create an unbearable amount of fatigue, which can negatively impact the rest of your workout, even the rest of your workouts that week. You should stop 2-3 reps before your technical failure if you don't want to pay the cost of fatigue.
Anatomically speaking, failure occurs during your lifting rep when your muscles become unable to produce enough force to continue to move the weight upwards. Training until your muscles completely break down is training to failure, both literally and figuratively. Training to failure is commonly present in most gyms, and while frowned upon by many performance athletes, there is, in fact, a time and place for failure.
Costs vs. Benefits
Training to failure can have benefits within a training regimen, but a great cost. Research conducted by Dr. Mikel Izquierdo found that training to failure every set can significantly increase cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and suppress anabolic growth factors, like IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor 1). What this means is that, in the long run, athletes who train to failure slow down and even prevent muscle growth.
However, a study conducted by the Research and Sport Medicine Center in Pamplona, Spain, found that training to failure significantly increased AMP (nucleotide adenosine monophosphate) levels, compared to non-failure training. This means that protein synthesis was decreased, but is it worth the cost?
The Right Time For Failure
In the right context, training to failure can have an anabolic effect and help increase lactic acid within the muscle, which boosts increases in intramuscular growth factors. So, when should you do it?
1.Small exercises and muscles
If you train your bicep curls to failure, it won't do much damage or stress, so muscles like your biceps and calves are safe to train to failure.
2. Exercises with light weights
If you are only able to lift light weights and your max squat is under 200 pounds, you could take your training to failure without too much worry. However, keep in mind that 'less than 200 pounds' doesn't feel the same for everybody.
3. The Last Set
Unless it's a deadlift or a squat, the last set of you exercise can easily be taken to failure for greater hypertrophy. Training to failure on the last set of a given exercise is the only safe way to ensure you benefit from it at a very low cost.
4. Before Your Off Time
If you're going to take the next week lightly and know that you'll barely exercise, like if you're going on vacation or won't be able to hit the gym, consider taking your training to failure on your last couple of sets if you feel strong enough.
5. Strength Testing
The best time to fail is when you want to break your PR or prove your strength. Considering that this is a one-time event and that you don't go around the gym proving your PR with every exercise, a single rep to failure can be enough to boost your self-esteem and help you take your training to the next level.
6. Just One Set
If you're going to train for one set only because of limited time or energy, you can successfully fail. This seems to be the most acceptable situation for failure training. One hard set is better than no sets, so if you can only do one, go for it hard!
Never go beyond failure, but if you must, make sure that you are assisted by your personal trainer, otherwise, forget about it! You could cause irreparable damage to your muscle and sabotage your entire routine for years to come. Learn how to successfully fail, instead of failing at... well, failing! On the same note, despite its benefits, training to failure becomes catabolic if done too often, so only do it as a one-time event and ONLY on your very last set.
Going to failure and beyond can be extremely taxing on your body and it will significantly impact both your short term and long term recovery. Training is a long term process, not a one-time event, so treat it accordingly. Only fail when you break your PR, when you are going to do one set anyway, and on your very last set of a given exercise, to ensure your safety and further performance, and make sure that you take extra recovery time.
Sometimes, when you push yourself hard, you can fail unintentionally. When this happens, take extra time to recover and don't be too hard on yourself. As long as you don't purposefully try to reach failure, the occasional event is alright, as it will teach you about your limits and how many reps you can actually take. So, remember: it's always better safe than sorry!
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