By James Collier BSc (Hons)
Bodybuilders and strength athletes are always saying you have to train past failure to make good strength and size gains.
What do they mean? There are a number of different ways of going beyond the pain barrier in order to work a muscle as much as possible, all of which take dedication and enthusiastic training, with the absolute want to make gains.
The aim of a workout is to stimulate as many muscle fibres in the muscle as possible, and to do this the muscle must be trained to complete exhaustion.
Some of us think we train hard. I used to think so, but looking back that was only at a level of about 80% of how hard I train now. Even if your diet is perfect, and you take quality anabolic aids, you will not grow if you don’t give it 100% in the gym. And 100% means 100%, i.e. until you physically (not psychologically) cannot do anymore.
Some bodybuilders claim they train better without a partner, but most find they need one, not only for encouragement, but to give assistance in order to do a few more reps after reaching failure on a weight.
Ways of training past failure are discussed below, many of which require assistance from a training partner:
Train to failure, then get a spot to assist you in lifting a few more reps out, but keep your form strict.
This is where you train to failure with a weight, then immediately use a lighter weight. Typically triple-drops are used, but there’s no reason not to go all out sometimes and drop until hardly any weight is being lifted, going to failure on each weight.
Positive failure is where it is no longer possible to lift the weight. This is reached before negative failure, which is where it is no longer possible to control the negative movement of the weight. Here, after you have reached positive failure, your training partner will lift the weight, and you have to control it on the way down for a few reps.
Negative resistance reps
This is where, after positive failure, your training partner lifts the positive part of the movement and then pushes the weight down lightly and you have to try to resist the force. For example, in biceps curls, do a set until positive failure, then your partner lifts the weight up to your shoulders; he then applies some downward pressure while you attempt to keep the weight in the curled position.
Be careful with these as they can cause injury – keep your form strict, only do 2-3 reps like this and only do them occasionally.
Obviously, cheating should be discouraged, and try to keep perfect form on all exercises to minimise risk of injury and maximise isolation effort on the muscle. However, if you have reached failure with perfect form, cheat reps performed carefully can help you squeeze an extra few reps out and go past failure.
I don’t see many trainers using this method, but it’s very simple and effective. Simply train a set to failure, put the weight down, shake off the pain, then pick the same weight up and go again, 2-3 times.
When you cannot do another full rep, do a few more with just half the movement; as this is still stimulating the muscle.
Two or more different exercises may be performed in succession with no rest in between. This may be two exercises for the same muscle group, or 2 for antagonistic muscles (I feel the latter is not very effective, as you cannot give your all for the second muscle after training the first set to failure).
In a workout, to maximise exertion on a muscle, try performing isolation exercises before compound movements. This will ensure that the muscle in question will be well worked from the isolation movement, so during the compound movement it will tire before other muscles, so is maximally worked. This principle is more appropriate for bodybuilders and not strength trainers.
Different ways of training past failure can be incorporated together in the same set. For example in bench pressing: Train to positive failure, followed by 2-3 forced reps with your training partner; put the weight down, and strip some weight off and go again with the same principle as a triple drop; after the last drop try banging out 10 half reps. Precede bench press by dumbbell flyes, so the isolation movement is first.
My philosophy is, it doesn’t matter how you train as long as you are genuinely training to maximum effort, and you are training safely.
Try some of these ideas in your workouts from time-to-time, if you are not already. Enjoy your workouts, folks!