Is this the secret to success?
What is muscle failure?
Muscle failure is the point when your working muscle is fully fatigued to the extent that it can no longer complete another repetition of a movement with strict biomechanics.
Why is it important?
In order to achieve recognisable growth, you need to apply an overloading stimulus to the muscle. This creates micro-tears in the muscle, which are subsequently repaired, and grow back bigger and stronger after the appropriate rest and nutrition. For the best results, you should work the relevant muscle group to failure once or twice a week, with a minimum of 48 hours recovery before working that muscle again.
Muscle failure is also a good gauge of intensity. For example, if you need to up your reps during the third set to achieve failure, it is clear that the first two sets were sub-maximal. To improve your workout, increase the weight or the number of repetitions throughout.
How do I know I have worked to failure?
This one’s easy – if you don’t know it, you haven’t achieved it. The muscle will be burning, stiff and look pumped as blood rushes in to the muscle to replenish the depleted fibres.
Feelings of moderate to extreme discomfort during the last few repetitions, an inability to adhere to strict technique for the last few reps, and the funny faces you are pulling in the mirror are all signs you’re working to failure.
How can I ensure that I am working to failure?
If you’re finding it hard to hit failure try the following:
• Cheat. During your last few repetitions allow a few sloppy reps during the concentric (contraction) phase, keeping to your normal technique during the eccentric (lengthening of the muscle) phase. This will maximise the amount of micro-tears in that muscle group – and maybe create a few tears of another kind.
• Drop and blast. On the last set of each exercise drop the weight by 50% and pump the reps out till you can go no more. Be prepared for some grimacing and a little sting. This is a foolproof way of reaching failure.
• Reduce recovery time. This means that the muscle fibres have less time to replenish their energy supply between sets, which allows increased intensity and stress on the preceding set. Try dropping recovery to 30 or 45 seconds between sets with a maximum of 60 seconds. This is not the time to be admiring the hot girl on the cross-trainer.
• Pre-exhaust the muscle. If you’re targeting your quads and glutes, fatigue each target muscle in an isolated manner before hitting the squats, lunges and leg presses. For quads, perform some fixed resistance leg extension. This pre-exhaustion forces the muscle group to work a little harder at the same time as recruiting more intensity from assisting muscle groups such as the glutes.
Using a spotter should give you the confidence to push hard on those last few repetitions without compromising your own safety. They can also pick you up off the floor when you’ve gone to pieces.
Training to muscle failure is not for the weak-willed, but the results are hard, healthy muscles to be proud of.
Words by James King.
For more information on working to failure and general training advice visit jameskingperformance.com.