Training to Failure – The Hidden Benefits (and 8 sessions to try).
Does your exercise program include ‘training to failure’? Sets of exercises where you keep going until you cannot physically compete another rep?
No? Maybe it should – there are loads of benefits you might not know about.
A couple of clarifications on this.
Firstly, we’re not talking about completing rep after rep of movements with poor technique and deteriorating mechanics. We’re defining failure as ‘technical failure’ – going to (ideally) the rep before your form falls apart.
And secondly, we don’t recommend this all the time. It’s a tool that should be used as part of your program – not as the whole program. It’s a tool we use with great success with our online Range of Motion Individualised Programming clients.
There are x big benefits of training to failure. Let’s explore them, then look at eight of our favourite ‘to failure’ training sessions.
1) It provides a stimulus to a great percentage of motor units.
Simple put, a ‘motor unit’ is a nerve and the muscle fibre it ‘turns on’. There’s something important to understand about motor units – they’re either on, or they’re off.
You can’t half turn a motor unit on.
Let’s use the bench press to understand this concept.
At a moderate weight, let’s say that you need to turn on 50% of your motor units to lift the weight. Remember, you’re not turning them all half on, you’re turning half of the completely on.
By doing one rep at this moderate weight, you’re only training 50% of the muscle fibres.
But as you do more reps, these 50% of fibres start to fatigue, and so your body recruits other motor units to help out. If you do reps to failure, you will train the highest possible number of muscle fibres. The more you train, the more your body will adapt to create long term improvements in strength, stamina, and hypertrophy.
2) It’s an efficient way to train with lower volume.
If we look at the total amount of work done during a session where we’re going to failure, it’s often not as high as a normal training session. The total repetitions are often much less.
And yet, because of the very high level of muscle fibre recruitment, we can get a huge training effect.
3) It can increase the fatigue-resistability of our muscles.
Although the total work done over a session may be less, the volume in each set is often higher. This can result in improvements in the efficiency of slow twitch (fatigue resistant) muscle fibres. This improves our stamina and can play a role in increasing muscle hypertrophy.
As a result of the volume of repetitions, this can also increase the mitochondrial density in your muscle cells, allowing them to more efficiently convert energy into fuel. This means you can sustain higher rates of muscle contraction before fatigue or failure.
The higher volumes will also increase capillary density in your muscles, allowing for efficient delivery of oxygen and fuel, and removal of waste products (further adding to the fatigue resistance).
Here’s an example of the sorts of sessions we may program for Range of Motion Individualised Programming clients using these principles:
Heavy Loaded Conditioning: Complete the following three exercises every two mins until failure, starting with one rep each and increasing each exercise by one rep each round. One bar per exercise, each at 75% max.
– Hang power clean and jerk
– Front squat
Heavy Loaded Conditioning: Complete three rounds of: 60s max unbroken hang squat clean at 75% max. 120s rest. 60s max unbroken deadlifts at 75% max. 120s rest. 60s max unbroken back rack push press at 75% max. 120s rest.
Moderate Loaded Conditioning: Complete squat clean and jerk at 60% max every minute until failure. Start with one rep each and increase by one rep each round.
Moderate Loaded Conditioning: Max unbroken squat clean and jerk (60s cap) at 60% max. 240s rest. Five rounds for max total reps.
Relative Stamina: Complete one rep of exercise A in the first minute, two in the second, three in the third etc until failure to complete. Then, immediately, repeat for exercise B. All unbroken. Choose difficulty where you will reach approximately 10 mins of each.
a) Parallette push-up
b) Strict chest to ring pull-up
Relative Stamina: In the first minute, complete one rep of each exercise. In the second minute, complete two reps of each exercise. Continue until failure to complete. Then immediately, start again from one, this time swapping the order.
– Strict ring dip
– Strict hanging leg raise (rings)
Relative Stamina: Complete four rounds of the following. Complete max unbroken reps of each exercise in 60 seconds, resting 60 seconds between exercises.
– Handstand push-up
– Toes to bar
Relative Stamina (static/isometric holds): 5 rounds of: Max unbroken static hold exercise one (60s cap). 60s rest. Max unbroken static hold exercise two (60s cap). 60s rest. L sit, chest to bar body row hold.
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.