To Fail or Not to Fail
To fail or not to fail... that is the question.
We're talking training to failure, of course.
On one side of the spectrum, you have strength coaches such as Chad Waterbury and Charles Staley (and I suppose myself in recent years) who seem to never recommend training to failure. On the other side of the spectrum, you have the great strength coach Charles Poliquin, and bodybuilding writers/trainers such as Steve Holman, Eric Broser (and whoever the hell invented that Doggcrapp—yes, that's the actual name of the training system for those of you who don't know— crap) who seem to always recommend training to failure.
The million dollar question: Who's right? I think the answer is both—as long as certain criteria are adhered to for the most part.
I haven't always felt that way.
If you read my early writing for Iron Man magazine and MuscleMag International—I used to write quite a bit for those magazines 10 to 15 years ago—then you would have assumed I was a training to failure sort of guy. And I was.
I began writing for Iron Man and MuscleMag when I was 19 years old. I had devoured those magazines for years—ever since I first picked up a weight at the age of 15, an old DP set. My early training inspirations were writers such as Stuart McRobert, Bradley Steiner, Steve Holman, and then not long after that guys such as Greg Zulak and Gene Mozee. The first set of writers recommended brief, ultra-intense workouts. Zulak and Mozee tended to recommend a lot of volume. By the time I was 19—and at the time when I first put pen to paper for Iron Man—I had come to use an amalgam of the various writers above. I trained using a lot of intensity—almost every set to failure—but I also did plenty of volume, and generally trained my muscles about once every 5 to 7 days. (At the time, such infrequent training was just becoming popular—it now seems to be the norm.)
Being young, I thrived on such training. I also had the perfect lifestyle to allow such training to work. I worked as a personal trainer and taught some weight training classes at a local college—which means that the only really stressful stuff I did all week were my actual workouts. I also had enough to time to eat 6 to 8 meals a day, consuming somewhere between 1 to 2 grams of protein per bodypart, and between 3,500 to 4,000 calories per day. I was lean and pretty big—only 5'6" but my weight fluctuated between 205 to 215 pounds.
I thought my style of training at the time was the ultimate. I trained so hard that very few people wanted to be my workout partner. That fact kind of made me proud.
But was such ultra-intense training really the best way to train?
Around 1997, I discovered the writings of two important people—Brooks Kubrik (he of the "Dinosaur Training" fame) and (even more importantly) Bill Starr. Starr had always written stuff for Iron Man, but for some reason I had ignored him until then. Like a lot of readers of that magazine back then (and now), I thought that Starr was too "old-school", that his methods were outdated.
I also discovered powerlifting around this time, and fell head-over-heels in love with the sport. Long story short: I switched over to more frequent workouts, lost a lot of weight to compete in the 181 pound division in powerlifting, stopped training to failure, started experimenting with workouts that were essentially a combination of Bill Starr, Kubrik, and Louie Simmons' methods, and got a hell of a lot stronger than I had ever been before.
I also started to write even more articles for Iron Man—sometime during the late '90s it was not uncommon for me to have an article in each issue for almost a year straight. Because of my exposure to Simmons, Staley, and Bill Starr, I rarely ever recommended training to failure—instead I relied on volume and frequency to illicit gains in both myself and my readers.
But things change—that is the nature of life, after all.
Recently, I have once again started recommended training to failure. Not all the time, but I now know that it does have its place in a properly designed workout program.
What happened? For one, I started to have a lot of injuries (including surgery for some herniated cervical disks), and I also hung up the powerlifting singlet. I have no intention of ever stepping on a platform again—or a bodybuilding stage, even though I'll always be somewhat of a bodybuilder at heart.
Yet I love to train. I now probably train harder than ever.
I'm bigger than I've been in a long time: I weigh somewhere around 200 pounds. I'm gaining muscle mass, but I'm also training for strength.
And I've discovered that it's best to train to failure, but only toward the end of the workout. (At least, it's best to do this kind of training if a combination of strength and muscle size is what you're after—and I'm assuming that fits the bill for most readers of my articles.)
Never—or at least very rarely—should you train to failure at the beginning of the workout. Train easier at the beginning of a workout so that you can train harder at the end. (For a more in depth explanation of this line of reasoning, I recommend this article by Chad Waterbury.)
As an example, here is what I did at my workout today (which was a chest and lat workout):
Flat bench presses: 135 x 2 sets x 15 reps (these sets were very easy), 225x10 (nowhere near failure), 275x6 (strong, fast reps; nowhere near failure), 295x4 (fast and explosive as possible), 315x2 (another explosive set)
Keep in mind on the bench presses, I was trying to use compensatory acceleration on all my sets.
Flat bench presses (225 x 4 sets x 12 reps) alternated with wide-grip chins (bodyweight x 4 sets x 6 to 8 reps). Each one of these sets was stopped as soon as I felt myself slowing down. I was actually surprised I stayed fast on all of my bench press sets.
Incline dumbbell bench presses (80s x 4 sets x 10 to 12 reps) alternated with close-grip chins (bodyweight x 4 sets x 6 to 8 reps). Once again, all of these reps were performed as fast as possible—nothing slow.
At this point, I switched over to some failure training:
Wide-grip dips (bodyweight x 4 sets x absolute momentary muscular failure—usually around the 8th to 10th repetition; I was a little fatigued from all the flat and inclines) alternated with machine pulldowns (140 pounds x 4 sets x momentary muscular failure—somewhere between 30 to 15 reps; 30 toward the beginning of the sets, 15 toward the end).
If I would have performed so much failure training at the beginning of the workout, there's no way I would have been able to perform that much total work—which would not have been a good thing.
To fail or not to fail... I guess it's still one of THE questions even after all these years.