When it comes to weight training, there is a common approach to “go hard or go home”. This gives people a sense of satisfaction and belief that because they have pushed their body to the absolute limit, it will result in a bigger and stronger physique. While this is a great way to show your mad desire and dedication to work hard, I believe there is such a thing as training smarter, not “harder” for optimal strength and hypertrophy results.
Instead of training to complete failure, I prefer to train towards the upper end of momentary failure. This means pushing outside of my comfort zone but generally keeping 1-2 reps left in the tank. This allows my body to recover faster and has less temporary performance limiting stress on multiple systems of the body. With sufficient or controlled rest, I am able to reserve enough energy to complete every exercise with a desired intensity.
What I see a lot when it comes to training to complete failure is; trainees will plan to do 3-4 heavy sets on their first exercise. They will go too heavy and rely on a training partner to assist in the last few reps of every set. They will be completely exhausted and burnt out by the last set of that first exercise and will have to reduce the weight used to be able to complete the desired rep range. Moving on to the next exercise they have already depleted their mental strength, energy, and crushed their central nervous system. However they will continue to train in this manner week-to-week generally resulting in very slow progress and many plateaus.
It is important to consider that in order to get bigger or stronger you need to progress from where you currently are. Leaving room for progression on a weekly basis and utilising protocols such as training just short of failure and using periodisation will allow for minimal strength plateaus and greater progress. I am not however entirely against training to complete failure, as I do believe it does provide results when used correctly. Often times it just comes down to effective programming.
My training programs provide a structured setup that suggests lifting a specific percentage of my 1RM (one rep max) within a specific rep range, for every set of every exercise. This is a very controlled form of programming, as I am never guessing what weight I should “try”, but rather what weight I should definitely be capable of moving with high intensity, as it falls within a percentage of my 1RM.
This setup is true for all working sets, with the exception of the final set of each exercise (or specific exercises), where I will go beyond the rep range, into what I consider max-effort and complete failure. Training in this manner allows for high volume, high intensity, and consistent progression, whilst still allowing me to “outwork” if my second shot of mental pre-workout kicks in on my last set.
Alternatively, I also suggest incorporating intensity techniques that push your body to complete failure in the final set of an exercise, or ideally in the last 1-2 exercises of a workout. You could call this a burn set or a flush set where you are performing drop sets, super sets, rest pause, etc. to completely destroy your body right before entering the recovery phase.
I often relate training to driving a manual vehicle. If you care about the performance and longevity of your engine, you will change gears when appropriate. If you were to redline your engine on every gear change every time you drive, you are more than likely going to experience a less than desirable outcome. With weight training, utilising an effective and controlled training program will ensure you are changing your gears when appropriate, providing sufficient intensity when needed.