Former weightlifter, now bodybuilder, genius trainer and neurotypicals populariser Christian Thibadeau wrote an article about approaches to failure. And we translated it.
High-intensity training with failure sets was extremely popular in the late 1990s, but to this day – although it’s gone out of fashion – jocks continue to debate whether or not approaches to failure are necessary.
For example, a 2012 study by Cameron and Mitchell found that training to failure at weights of 30% and 80% of 1RM prompted equal gains in muscle mass.
The disadvantages of extreme loads
Failures in the middle range (say, 3 to 12 repetitions) are extremely exhausting, especially for the nervous system. The muscles, of course, accumulate useful fatigue (stimulating growth), but the last rep for our nerves is almost like trying to lift a record weight.
I emphasize that we are talking about a medium range with the appropriate intensity. Low-weight multi-reps (sets of a minute and a half duration) are not so taxing on CNS, but they are interrupted not by muscle fatigue but by accumulation of metabolites in them. Failure sets of 6-8-10 reps are quite different.
Here is a practical example: let’s say you took 70% of 1RM and set out to do 12 reps. In each subsequent rep (after the first rep) the strength will decrease by about 3% due to muscle fatigue.
- Repeat 1 = weight perceived objectively – 70% of 1RM (no fatigue yet)
- Repeat 2 = perceived 73%
- Repeat 3 = perceived 76%
- Repeat 4 = perceived as 79%
- Repeat 5 = perceived as 82%
- Repeat 6 = perceived as 85%
- Repeat 7 = perceived as 88%
- Repeat 8 = perceived as 91%
- Repeat 9 = perceived as 94%
- Repeat 10 = perceived as 97%
- Repeat 11 = perceived as 100%
- Repeat 12 = just doesn’t work.
Although a failure approach of 6-12 reps does not put as much stress on our body (bones, joints, ligaments, etc) as a walkthrough (1RM lift), in this example the 11th rep is almost like a one-time record for the CNS.
This load is useful for stimulating hypertrophy, but if the nervous system is overworked, recovery may be impaired and muscle growth slowed. High CNS activity produces excessive amounts of adrenaline, and dopamine is used to produce it. Lack of dopamine after such exertion leads to loss of motivation, poor mood, decreased libido, drowsiness, etc.
And regular abstinence training leads to an excess of cortisol, which brings its own ‘joys’. In short, there are more downsides to quitting than upsides.
What to do?
You can work up to failure in simple and ‘small’ exercises that do not require a high activation of the CNS. If the movement is so hard that it tires the nervous system, you should not perform it to failure – there will be more harmful effects than beneficial ones.
I divide all exercises into 7 levels (according to the degree of CNS involvement), here is a table with examples of movements and recommendations on “failure” approaches:
Remember that significant strength and mass can be achieved without failure training. Even when I was into strength records (270kg barbell squat, 220kg front squat, 200kg bench press, 125kg standing press), I never once brought a level 1 or 2 approach to failure in my training.