Unless you crawl out of the gym in a puddle of sweat, you haven’t worked hard enough. That’s the stereotype anyway, blasted out by ‘motivational’ speakers and personal trainers who, after doing a two-week diploma (if that), consider themselves qualified to teach the masses about fitness.
Fortunately, there are some evidence-minded fitness coaches out there, with PhD holder and Instagram gains coach Brad Schoenfeld being one of the best. Even better (especially for your fear of lactic acid), Brad says there’s no need to train to failure every time you enter the gym.
So what’s the ideal number of times a week to train to failure? Well, there’s no generic amount, because each person has different bio-makeups, but according to the latest research, you should train to failure only so often as it allows you to maintain a good volume of workouts (which, from our personal experience, is no more than once a week).
This idea is backed up by numerous sources, the first of which is a study published in the Strength & Conditioning Journal, which – according to Brad – showed that “failure training doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.” In other words: it’s not a mindset you have or you don’t. It’s something you can sporadically implement over the course of a training cycle.
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Does training to failure maximize hypertrophic adaptations? As with most applied exercise topics, the answer is nuanced. This figure from our new review details some of the complexities on the topic; note that factors such as age, training experience, relative magnitude of the load, and type of exercise (single vs compound, free weight vs machine) all must be considered. Importantly, the use of failure training doesn’t have to be an either/or choice: you can periodize its implementation over the course of a training cycle. 💪🏽 Google the title to read the full paper: “Does training to failure maximize muscle hypertrophy?”
This idea is also backed up by Firas Zahibi, trainer of Georges St Pierre, a former UFC welterweight and middleweight world champion, who – as we reported earlier this year – revealed on the Joe Rogan podcast that when it comes to performing at the highest level, volume beats intensity (for most workouts).
“Let’s say the maximum amount of pull ups you can do is ten. If I pointed a gun at you you couldn’t do eleven. Should I make you do ten pull ups on our workout? No, I’m going to make you do five. Why? Because I’m setting you up to work the next day. And the next day we’re going to do five. And then the next day we’re going to do six. And then when six is really easy we’re going to do seven.”
Using the example of two gym goers keen to increase their gains, Firas unpacked his ‘consistency over intensity’ philosophy like this: “If you did ten pull ups on Monday, you’re going to be sore ’til Thursday – if it is really your max. So between Monday and Thursday you’ve only done ten pull ups. Me? I’ve been doing five pull ups every day, so I’m at 20/25 pull ups already; I have more volume than you.”
“Now if you add up at the end of the year, who trained more, I’ve trained way more than you.”
According to him, success at the gym comes down to how much training you can pack into the week (without getting sore), and how much volume can you expose yourself to – as getting this right can spark more energy, as opposed to over-training, which can induce lethargy.
“Let’s say I’m feeling a seven out of ten. If I get up and I do the right amount of exercise, I can feel like an eight point five – exercise can give me a tonic effect. But once you get that high: shut it down. Don’t go into that phase where your body is beat up, tight and broken up; don’t redline the body – that’s only for training camps [or for the rest of us, ad hoc moments] for a small period of time.”
However, before you replace every chest-bursting drop set with some casual Instagram scrolling, remember: just because you’re not training to failure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train with intensity…
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The overall takeaway? The ideal frequency with which to train to failure is that which enables you to maintain sufficient volume for your fitness goals (to work it out, consult a qualified personal trainer). In other words: treat training to failure as a tool, not a staple.