We have all heard it before. Pounded into our skulls by well-meaning personal trainers and resistance training specialists for as long as the word Arnold has been synonymous with pumping iron for massive muscles is the notion that we must train to failure; that if a given set is not taken past the point of no return to where rep cadence slows to a snail’s pace and our training form is sacrificed beyond recognition to allow for those few extra curls or presses, we are, in effect, short changing our muscle building potential.
Along with this old school mentality commonly paraded in bodybuilding training systems such as the famed HIT (High Intensity Training) method and where working to temporary physical exhaustion is a primary mandate, is another line of thinking, which posits that so long as each rep is of the highest quality and demonstrates consistency of speed, stopping short of ‘momentary muscular failure’ can be a positive move. So says Chad Waterbury, neurophysiologist, trainer and author of bodybuilding bestseller Men’s Health Huge in a Hurry who feels resistance training myths were made to be broken. When we train to failure, says Chad, the final reps of a set are typically low force reps which, by their very nature, do not target muscle fibers with the greatest growth potential (unlike high force reps where the largest, strongest motors units – nerves which control corresponding muscle cells – are activated). “If your acceleration slows down, as is the case during the end of a set to failure, your force decreases,” says Chad. “As that happens, motor units drop out, and the first to bail are your biggest, strongest motor units.”
What this means for the muscle hungry amongst us is that whenever we train to the point where one further rep is all but impossible, we have probably gone beyond the ideal range which produces the gains we are seeking. And, as with most things in life, if we continue to do what is not necessary at the expense of what is, then we risk wasting valuable time while sabotaging the efforts we could apply to what works to secure concrete results.
Waterbury, C. (2008) Men’s Health Huge in a Hurry: Get Bigger, Stronger and Leaner in Record Time with the New Science of Strength Training. Rodale: USA