Some fitness advice is so often repeated that it seems common sense at this point — assumed facts that people don’t even question. Perhaps one of the best examples is “train to fail”. Now, however, experts have questioned that established strategy, arguing that it could even be harmful.
“I’m always happy to see rationality triumph over fashion,” says Daniel Fulham O’Neill, an orthopedic surgeon, sports psychologist and author of Surviving Healthy. He told Cycling that it’s usually a bad idea to “fail” any activity.
“What you’re asking to fail is the energy system in your muscle cells,” he explained. “That’s great on paper, but connective tissues like tendons and ligaments are also at risk of failure, which is a good idea for the average runner, cyclist or athlete.”
Below we take a look at the limitations of train-to-fail and what to consider instead.
Focus on training to failure
When you lift weights to failure, it means that in order to build muscle and increase strength, your resistance training should focus on getting your muscles to the point where they get very tired and can’t even do one more lift. Then, you rest, allow the muscles to recover, and do one more set, again reaching the point of extreme fatigue.
Proponents of this type of training argue that it recruits more muscle fibers, which means your muscles get bigger and stronger. Another idea is that this stress on the metabolic system releases chemical signals that promote muscle growth, and that the release of certain hormones optimizes the whole process.
“It goes without saying that doing a set of movements to absolute failure is more beneficial for muscle and strength growth than doing it mindlessly,” Mike Matthews, C.P.T., author of Muscle for Life, told Bicycle. He added: “Bodybuilders who push themselves hard on a regular basis will see more benefit (to a degree) than those who don’t, but” having said that, training to failure is not about building muscle and A necessary condition for strength.
A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that training to failure leads to disproportionate amounts of fatigue, soreness and wear and tear compared to training to near failure. This means that the more often you train to failure, the harder it is to optimize your training volume — reps or reps per week — and intensity or load for maximum muscle and strength gains, Matthews said.
“You’re simply not going to have enough energy to train over and over again [if you lift every training session to failure],” Matthews said. “Over time, this can hinder progress and even lead to altitude sickness.
Another downside of train-to-fail is that it often causes your technique to crash, he adds. The more fatigued our muscles are, the harder it is to feel that our muscles are working properly and performing movements with good form. This is especially true of exercises like weightlifting, squats, and military presses, which are difficult to do correctly when pushed to the point of absolute failure, he said. As a result, your last few moves tend to be careless, and when that happens, it doesn’t take much time to adjust the muscles or joints.
Get rid of the fulcrum of training to failure
If you decide not to train to failure, what are your options? First, you can train to fatigue rather than complete failure — your muscles will feel work and fatigue, but you can still maintain proper form with each exercise.
Plus, you can still focus on progressive overload in other ways, which are more helpful to your body and your form, according to Anna Victoria, C.P.T., creator of the Fit Body app. Examples include, she told Bicycling.
Tension time, which means holding the weights for longer periods of time, you can do this by slowing down the tempo.
Isometric hold, when the muscles are in a static contraction, like in plank pose or pause at the top of a pull-up.
Increase your total volume with lighter weights and more reps
Increase frequency by lifting more sets and/or how many days per week
All of these offer ways to put your muscles under additional beneficial stress without training to failure, she says.
Another factor in seeing results is your experience with strength training, says Michelle Wong, a trainer at Life Time in Georgia, C.P.T. She told Cycling that if you’re just starting out with weight training, it’s highly unlikely that going to the limit is the best way to integrate with your cycling workout.
“Most beginners will want to start slowly with light weights and higher reps so the brain builds neuromuscular connections for each movement pattern,” she says. “The brain takes longer to recover than the muscles, so the repetitions actually start to teach the brain how to move the body better.”
Watch out for the red flags of overtraining
No matter what type of strength training you’re doing, it’s important to know when it won’t work, especially if you’re going the train-to-fail route.
“If you have any nagging pain, inflammation, tightness or swelling that persists, those are red flags that any amateur athlete should not be dealing with on a regular basis,” O’Neal said. “Also, are you making excuses for not going to the gym? Listen to this, it’s telling you something.”
Wong adds that other signs of overtraining — which can definitely happen if you fail to push too hard during strength training and then hit the saddle — include digestive discomfort, energy fluctuations, water retention, menstrual irregularities, and brain fog , and changes in sleep patterns.
On top of that, O’Neal says there’s one overriding question that should drive your training. Are you having fun? If strength training isn’t your thing, you probably won’t train with joy, but when you’re done with a workout, you should at least feel satisfied and accomplished.
“Even professional athletes have a hard time getting themselves to train if they’re in pain,” he said. “Training to failure is mentally and physically tough. You don’t want to be afraid to go to the gym.”