Written by Andrew Carruthers
When it comes to training, everyday is an uphill battle to get bigger, stronger and take our training to the next level. The aim is to build a physique and not become a strength expert. Challenging yourself strength wise is important though because with more strength comes a greater ability to train harder.
Training instinctively and developing the perfect mind/muscle connection through training means that you learn to train the muscle group you’re prioritising more efficiently and more effectively, resulting in greater muscle stimulation and growth. Learning how to apply resistance you are using to the muscle you are training means you recruit less secondary muscles and keep the effort and work load primarily focused on the primary muscle group being trained. This is where the key to success in training really lies.
The heading of this article is actually a contradiction (if you didn’t figure it out yet). Failure isn’t an option in the sense that we’ll never give up on our goals and our aims inside the incredible sport we call bodybuilding, but the truth and the fact of the matter is, failure will hit you during training, whether you want it to or not. Learning how to push through failure or how to maximise its benefits for training could be the single most useful and productive tool you can ever learn.
Facts about training to failure
- If you’re not training to failure – you’re not progressing. I don’t care how easily you think you build muscle, if you’re not training with maximum intensity to failure then you’re not growing. Only through the experience of constant and bigger strain will your body evolve (get bigger) to accommodate for the stresses you place against it.
- Most novice bodybuilders, even intermediate guys will stop their set once they’ve reached failure, thinking they’ve given their all in that set. This in fact is where a more advanced athlete will tell you that the set has only just begun.
- Training to failure with intensity is like anything you practice in life – if you keep at it you’ll get better with time.
- If you learn to harness the power of failure training – you’ll progress at your fastest possible rate, given that all the other aspects of good solid nutrition, supplementation and rest are all in place.
- It’s impossible to train to failure and expect absolute maximum intensity through every workout, every day, all the time. The truth is, you’re not a machine and your body can only handle certain periods of excessive strain before it’ll require rest periods of downtime, or you simply end up fatigued and inevitably injured.
But failure is failure. Surely when I can’t push anymore that’s the end of the set?
True, but only temporarily. I’m a firm believer that all training sessions require you to slowly build up to your heaviest sets in the beginning stages of your workout. Once you hit maximum weight (intelligently and by selecting a weight that is realistic as a working set) then you need to start training intelligently. Anyone can walk into a gym start squatting 1 plate a side, build up to 4 or 5 plates a side and think they’ve trained hard. Squat until it gets difficult, try one or two more reps, stand up, put more weight on, do another set, walk out. If it was that simple, everyone that ever did a squat would have huge legs. Another note to mention is that not all strength athletes have legs like bodybuilders. Why? Because strength training doesn’t recruit all the muscle fibres needed to grow muscle and shape a physique. Think about it – it’s not always about the weight but more about what you do with it.
So how do I push beyond failure?
That’s easy, you get smart and you start hitting the target muscle from all angles using lighter weight, different rep speeds, different rep ranges, short to full length form movements and rest-pause sets (probably the most intense thing you can ever incorporate into your workouts). A typical rest-pause set requires you to train to failure, put the weight down, take a small breather and then go at it again. Repeat this 3-4 times in one set and you push past failure limits in each set.
Use Lighter weight
Once you’ve reached maximum intensity with your bigger weight sets (your actual working sets) and you know that if you had to try do another set with the same weight, you probably wouldn’t be able to reach the same rep range, then it’s time to put the heavier weights away and get smart. Start by incorporating drop sets into your training and straight after your last heavy set, pick up a weight that’s maximum 50% of the weight you’ve just pushed/pulled and bang out a last set for as many reps as you can. Performing a volume set immediately after a heavy set forces the maximum amount of blood into the muscle and helps increase the pump and stamina ability of the muscle you are training.
Change the rep speed
During training, your body becomes accustomed to the movements, the weight and even the speed at which you perform your reps. It’s your body’s way of learning to adapt to the stress and the strain that you’re placing onto it. Getting a great pump from training also doesn’t happen from simply pushing large amounts of weight, so by changing up the rep speed of the lighter weight movements during the drop sets, rest-pause sets, 21’s or any other training style you choose, you’re placing even more demand on the muscle and also forcing much more blood into the muscle.
Change the range of motion
Believe it or not, full rep ranges aren’t the only holy grail of bodybuilding. During your working sets you need to work through a full range of motion, taking the muscle from full contraction to full stretch, but when you start performing sets to failure after your bigger working sets, simply by changing the range of motion you can actually take your training well beyond the limits of full range of motion training. Take a bicep curl movement for example. You’re standing at a cable machine and you’re doing curls. You reach the point where you’re struggling to perform a full rep, so why not reduce the range of motion, shorten the length of the movement and pick up the pace a bit? Try it! 21’s are a perfect example of how you can perform 3 ranges of motion in one set. Starting with the bottom range of movement to halfway up, perform 7 quick but focused reps. Once you’ve completed those, move up to the middle of the movement and then perform 7 reps from the mid point to the top (full contraction). Once you’ve reached the count of 7, open the arms up again for the full range of motion and perform the last 7 reps of the 21 set with a full range of motion (if you can by that stage). If you’re really tough and want to take your training up yet another notch, after you’ve done the full range of motion, bring the bar back up to the top point (contraction point) and hold the contraction for a count of 7 seconds.
Simply put, rest-pause sets are exactly what they say they are. Take 1 set, split it into 4 and perform 4 sets to failure with whatever exercise you’re doing and reach failure during a set, put the weight down, pick it up and do it again. Do that 4 times in a row until you can’t move the weight anymore and call it one set. Now we’re starting to understand what real failure training is.
I can bet you that your training is not at the level it should be right now to really forge new muscle onto your frame. Everyone is quick to blame nutrition, supplementation, drugs and any other reason for their lack of progress, but the truth is this: more often than not, guys just don’t train hard enough. The human body is resilient. It requires a lot of resistance to change. So no matter how hard you think you might train, tell yourself there is room for improvement and add some of these training methods above into the mix – they’ll change your mind on intensity. Remember, the first few reps of a set are simply a means to an end and that means that you’re just doing them for the sake of reaching that point in the set that really matters and that’s the point in which you need to tell yourself that your set has just started. When it gets tough, that’s when it counts. It just all depends on how you push through the barriers of failure. Like anything in life, every set is a test of how bad you want to grow your physique to reach your goals. Never tell yourself you train hard, just try harder next time. Telling yourself you train hard enough cancels out any chance of being able to grow and you limit yourself before you’ve even begun. Training through failure is where the successful guys separate themselves from the rest. Make the decision to work harder, use these techniques to push through failure and take your training to the next level. It’ll be worth it.