Saturday, April 27, 2013

Training to Failure - Why it's exactly what it sounds like

I remember reading an article back in school. There was some up and coming fitness guru who ran a facility that was half strength training and half research. Granted, the types of research they did usually involved slapping electrodes to people and shocking the f*ck out of them while they were working out to elicit increased motor recruitment or something along those lines. In hindsight, I can tell you several things that are wrong with this picture but at the time when I was 19 it seemed edgy, new and scientific. I totally fell into the trap.

One of the things this guy was advocating at the time was training to muscular failure; working out until your body is quite literally not capable of going any more. His argument was that it's the easiest predictor of the proper intensity. You should be able to do x number of sets and x number of reps, and if you don't reach failure, you didn't use enough weight. Basically what he's saying is that if you can complete every rep of every set with perfect form, you need to increase your intensity in some way which I don't totally disagree with. The problem was that his theory was not, in his mind, open to any kind of interpretation. If you were lifting, you should be training to failure.

So I did. I trained to failure on every exercise and initially I saw some great improvements. I tried to tell all my workout buddies about it, tried to push them into my mode of thinking but they mostly shrugged it off. I told myself it was because they weren't hardcore enough to train to failure. Maybe they were just smarter than I was at the time. The reality, as usual, probably falls somewhere in between.

Training to failure is just like any other modality, it's a tool for your tool belt but you can't use a hammer for every task. Training to failure on every set, every time you go into the gym is a great way to get overuse injuries by overtaxing your body and not giving it a proper rest interval. It's also a great way to short circuit your progress. Now, don't get me wrong, I think I've made it pretty clear that when it comes to fitness intensity really matters. I'm not saying otherwise. What I'm saying is that you can keep your metabolic engine at a really high rpm without redlining the damn thing for an hour straight. Would you do that to your car?  No, you wouldn't, so why would you do it to something you can't replace every couple of years?

It's list time ladies and gents.

Why Training to Failure is BAD:
1)CNS fatigue - If your goal is to become as strong as possible, you need your nervous system in tip top shape in addition to your muscles and joints. Maximal lifts or max effort exercises fatigue the nervous system in a way that takes several days to recover. Most strength gurus do not advocate going for a max on any big lift more than once a week. That doesn't mean if you maxed your deadlift monday you can max your bench on wednesday. It means you get one max per week, and a lot of these guys would say even doing one per week might be too much.
I understand that if your main goal is strength this may seem discouraging or frustrating but you can increase your 1RM by doing sub maximal lifts. In fact, in a lot of ways it's more effective in addition to being less dangerous. Going for a max lift when your body doesn't have the energy is a great way to shred your joints and put yourself out of the gym for months, not just a few days.

2) Reinforcing improper motor patterns - I addressed this a little bit with my article on form. Every exercise has an ideal movement pattern. Now, these movement patterns are somewhat different person to person because all of our bodies are unique, but I am a firm believer that there is an optimal, if not ideal movement pattern for every exercise for every body. If you are constantly lifting to failure, you are constantly in a state of fatigue. In addition to the primary movers being fatigued, the secondary stabilizers required for any of the big lifts are going to be fatigued as well. I don't really care if you can get all the way down on a squat and then re rack the bar with 300lbs. If you can't maintain good posture, your lower back is rounded and your chest is pointing at the ground the whole time you are using too much weight. No, I don't care that your legs are strong enough to lift it and that going down in weight won't "stress" them adequately. Don't be a meathead. You can only make up for poor form with raw strength for so long before you either stop making progress, hurt yourself or both.

3) Overtraining - Overtraining is one of those things that, to be completely honest, I'm not really sure the scientific community has pinned down. There are several different modes of thought on the subject and a lot of them are pretty different. On top of this there's also people who just seem to disprove all the scientific "knowledge" we have about it by training more than should be humanly possible and still making gains.
All I would say is that you need to listen to your body to know if you are overtrained or not. If you are always waking up sore and your joints never seem to stop hurting, stop working out or lower your intensity. If you aren't making the progress you used to but you're still doing two a days and sprinting until you vomit every time you go in, seriously, chill the f*ck out. It's easy to get carried away with all the fitness crazies out there yelling at you to go harder and faster but take my word for it, that's not always better. If you are training to failure on every set of every exercise of every workout, you are probably over training. Stop. Stop it right now. You are working too hard to be short circuiting your own progress. A little rest goes a long way.

So I've gotten to this point and realized that a lot of this seems like a re-hash of my entry on proper technique. In a way it is, but it's coming from a different angle. Muscular failure compromises technique, compromising technique compromises your progress and can ultimately compromise your health. The reality is that a lot of this fitness stuff really isn't that complex and it's all extremely interrelated.

So what's the take home? Killing yourself in the gym is good from time to time, but don't do it every workout. Strength and power are only two of the facets of what defines fitness. Mobility, flexibility, coordination and agility are all just as important and if you're training as hard as you possibly can sprinting and jumping and lifting weights, you're probably missing out on some of the finer points. Take it down a notch. Go stretch or maybe even swap out a workout for a sport. Your joints will thank you, and so will your gains.

As always, good luck and good lifting.


Today's Workout:

Dynamic Warm-up/Jump Rope - 15 min

Clean and Jerk 5x3
Front Squat 5x5
Parallel Grip Chin Up 5x5
Dips 5xAMRAP

FRISBEE. Frisbeefrisbeefrisbee. Today my metcon is pretending to be a dog and playing fetch until i fall over. Fetching to failure....wait...wait a minute...what was I just saying?

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