Should you train to failure?
Posted on 7th November 2019 at 13:03
Trains balls to the balls or leave some reps in the tank?
Training to failure and terms like RIR and RPE is something I presume you’ve heard a lot of conflicting information on?
You hear some coaches saying you should smash it every single week not leaving anything in thank and then you've got others saying you need to ensure you never reach actual failure otherwise you'll overtrain.
At the end of the day you just want to know whats right for you so you can make the best gains possible every time you step in the gym.
In this blog I want to delve into what training to failure really is, how hard you need to push yourself and also help remove a lot of confusion you may have heard about this subject.
What actually is training to failure?
To start the blog I think it’s important we truly understand what training to failure is and the mistakes that people can make when they don’t truly know their own limitations. My personal view is that training to failure is when you can’t perform another rep even if your life depended on it, or if you did perform another rep this would lead to your form breaking down.
However the biggest issue with training to failure is that for 90% of those who train in the gym haven’t ever actually trained to this point. Most people think they train to failure but they actually have a lot more in the tank than they realise.
This was defiantly found to be the case in a recent study where asked participants to select a weight they could perform for a maximum of 10 reps on bench press (1). What they actually found was that only 22% of them hit 10-12 reps on the selected weight. Everyone else hit at least 3 more reps than what they thought could achieve with 26% hitting 9-10 reps more.
That’s a massive difference from the weight that people believed would give them true failure at ten reps.
To get a good idea of where your true failure is I would suggest you arrange a session with a friend who also trains and really push each other on some exercises. Do this for just one set, because if it’s true failure then you should only need one set to feel and experience it. The last of an exercise being the ideal time to do this.
What is RIR/RTF/RPE?
RIR (reps in reserve) and RTF (reps to failure) are terms that are commonly used in programming to monitor and control training intensity. They basically mean how far away from failure you are. So an exercise with an RIR of 3 would mean that by the time you reach your last programmed rep you could maybe achieve 3 more reps but this would take you to absolute failure. RPE is a more general way to measure intensity where you gauge your effort out of 10. 1 being so easy it’s like you’re lifting nothing and 10 being very hard throughout and you are being pushed to the max. The reasons why RIR/RTF can be useful is because they can allow trainers to progressively build their loads and intensity. Below is how you might use RIR in five weeks of training to allow you to make steady and consistent progress.
Week 1 – Bench press 4x8 – RIR 3
Week 2 – Bench press 4x8 – RIR 2
Week 3 – Bench press 4x8 – RIR 1
Week 4 – Bench press 4x8 - RIR 0
Week 5 – Bench press 4x8 – RIR 5 (De-load)
You can see from the above that you would be able to incrementally build your bench press loads as you get closer to failure.
The issue with all of the above is that some people might not be training hard enough to benefit from this structure. Take the previous study into account and you can see that a lot of people could be training so far away from failure that the stimulus is not greater enough to see optimal gains.
To look at whether training to failure or a RIR/RTF model is more appropriate we need to look into considerations that also play a big role.
Muscle gain or fat loss
Your training goal will have an influence into your training intensity. When in a muscle gain phase you will most likely be consuming more calories and be able to recovery more effectively. With this in mind you could argue that you may want to lean towards training closer to failure more frequently. When dieting your recovery and energy may start to diminish over time so you may benefit from a more programmed way of training and utilising RIR/RTF. When dieting your goals are more about retaining muscle mass rather than gaining and through longer periods of dieting you could argue that your chances of injury may increase so using RIR/RTF could be prudent.
Compounds V Isolations
What do you feel like the day after a heavy squat session? Probably fatigued as hell and like you’ve been hit by a bus I would guess. The fact is that bigger compound movements are much more fatiguing as we are moving higher loads while using larger and more muscle groups. Isolation movements can still be very demanding but they will only involve one joint so therefore less muscle groups and as a result lower loads. With this taken into account I would advise that you monitor your compound exercise intensity even if you don’t bother with your isolations. Taking your bicep work to failure every week is not much of an issue and won’t be that fatiguing. However going balls to the walls each week on deadlifts will not end well long term.
This is a big one. The younger or newer you are to training the more potential gains you can make early on. With this in mind you could look to train closer to failure more frequently. Also at this stage you still might not be as sensitive to what your true failure feels like. So look at cashing in by pushing yourself closer to failure. The more experienced you are the more you need to look at really monitoring your intensity such as allowing peaking weeks and then de-loading weeks. The more years you’ve been training the closer you will get to your genetic ceiling so you need to look at more specific ways to see continual progress such as utilising weekly changes in intensity.
Hopefully the above has given you more insight into this area and made you question your training intensity and whether you need to look at training harder or look at periodizing your intensity more specifically.
It can be hard to give recommendations on the above as everyone is different. Even things like your training split and how many days a week you train can play a big part into your training intensity.
With all my clients I ensure they have a weekly focus which will help guide their intensity. They will have some weeks where they will focus more on form and less on pushing loads, weeks where they really push it hard and then de-loads weeks where they reduce intensity. For those clients who are much more experienced and can almost push themselves too hard I will use RIR/RPE recommendations so they will see progress but not overdo it.
For you I would just ensure you do five things.
1. Really understand what training to failure feels like for you
2. Have a de-load week programmed in every 4-6 weeks
3. Be progressive with your intensity where some weeks are harder and some are easier
4. If you do train to failure do so on just the last set
5. Don't overthink things too much
If you want to learn more about training intensity and de-loads make sure you download my FREE muscle gain training guide.
HIT THIS LINK to download it now.
1. 17. Barbosa-Netto S, dʼAcelino-e-Porto O, Almeida M. Self-Selected Resistance Exercise Load. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2017;:1
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