To Fail or not to fail…

Training to failure is a topic of prime importance these days. Failure can be defined in a couple different ways: In the Olympic lifting world, failure is defined by missing a rep. In Bodybuilding, failure is the result of training a movement to the point of momentary muscular fatigue (i.e. the point at which you can no longer complete a successful repetition with good form). In CrossFit, the definition can be either of the two above, depending on what part of the sport we are referring to.

As an athlete, what are the benefits and drawbacks of training to failure? Is it possible that the notion of training to failure is specific to the sport which you practice? Could it be beneficial in some sport applications and destructive in others? What is the impact of failure on the mental psyche of the athlete? And furthermore, how might training to failure be impacted by the relationship of intensity versus volume?

Defining “Failure”

A. Olympic Lifting – Missing a repetition – Technical failure (not muscular)

a. Is this result of missing a lift that was part of progression plan or training agenda for the day. I.e. percentage work, and something just went wrong, or this miss a result of failure of protocol (i.e. going heavier than defined daily percentages?) – Three miss rule? Do you adhere to this?

b. Focus should be on making every rep. Make goal to complete an entire cycle without failing a rep until testing week (example of clients doing this). Versus those that consistently exceed percentage work and are constantly trying for new 1 RM, missing over and over just hoping to make a lift. Is this really a true PR? One lucky make out of 10 misses?

c. Focus on always ending on a good rep. Drop weight to 70% of weight missed, and make a couple good reps with perfect technique to enhance motor learning process.

B. Bodybuilding – Muscular failure

a. Failure in bodybuilding dogma, refers to pushing a set so far that you reach a point of muscular exhaustion and cannot complete another repetition with good form and full ROM (without using momentum or cheating in some manner).

b. In Bodybuilding, success is derived from volume. If you can complete more reps at given weight than you did the prior week, you are increasing volume. Think of following example – If you are doing 4 sets of DB bench press, and you complete a set of 10 to failure, you will prob make 8 on the next set, then you have to really struggle to get 7 on set #3, then you barely eek out 5 reps on the final set. for total rep count of 10+8+7+5 = 30 reps. But what if you didn’t do 10 reps on the first set? What if you only did 8 reps on the first set, stopping two reps shy of failure, then you were fresh enough to complete 8 reps on the next set, and 8 reps on the set after that. Then, on the final set, you have to struggle, maybe even reaching failure, but you also get 8 reps? Now we have completed 32 reps, which is an increase of 6.5% total volume (versus 30 reps), and only had to do one REALLY hard set at the end, versus having to do 4 sets to failure, only to get less total volume? Not that this is the only way, but it’s food for thought.

C. CrossFit – There are multiple ways to fail in CrossFit.

a. When doing the strength training side of CrossFit (Oly lifting, Squatting, benching etc…), the failure is the same as it would be in examples above of Bodybuilding and/or Olympic Lifting

b. Bad strategy – Example: Doing a WOD with lots of CTB Pullups and/or muscle-ups. Presume you have to do 50 CTB Pull-ups, 30 Squat snatches, and 10 Muscle-ups. If you don’t strategize correctly, and you reach a point of MUSCULAR failure on the CTB pull-up, think about the impact this will have on the remainder of your Pull-ups. Think about how long you now need to rest and recover before you can do more pull-ups? And furthermore, think about how this failure on CTB will transition into how much pulling strength you have left when you finally get to the muscle-ups? What if you fail a muscle-up because you are so fatigued from the CTB failure? Now how long is your recovery time before you can do another muscle-up? In CF, steady pace will generally win. Most athletes would be benefited by working on doing SMALLER sets of CTB (stopping well shy of fatigue) so that they can get back on the bar and do more ASAP. This will also keep the athlete fresh for the next movements in the workout.

c. Technical failure as a result of fatigue – So this is where the CF line starts to really blur with the BB and Oly lifting worlds. In CF, you are expected to complete technical movements (like a squat snatch), while you are extremely fatigued. Because of this, CF athletes need to take extra precaution in the midst of their WODs. So, in the WOD example from earlier, you get to the 30 squat snatches, and you are extremely fatigued from 50 CTB. Your pull muscles are tired, and now you have to throw some heavy weight overhead and catch in a squat 30 times. How do you approach this? Do you try to bang out 5-10 reps right off the bat, or do you take a more cautious approach? Do you keep in mind that you have to then get to 10 Muscle-ups, or do you ignore that fact and focus exclusively on getting through the squat snatches as quickly as possible? How do you know when you are recovered enough to do another squat snatch? What if you fail a squat snatch? All of this is a process of learning how you, as an individual, will respond to this. CF isn’t so black and white as BB and oly lifting. Furthermore, if you do fail a rep, are you able to know, at that moment, what you did wrong and fix it? Or, are you just going to try again and potentially fail again? You must learn to increase your knowledge of how your own body responds to these issues within the realm of each specific crossfit workout.

Impacts of training to failure

A. Olympic Lifting

a. In Oly lifting, I challenge you to never fail a rep. There is NO BENEFIT in failing reps in Oly lifting (except as a means of testing your limit, in the sense of a max-out week that is specifically a part of a larger program). Let’s look at this way – Failing a snatch or a Jerk, if performed properly, is ALWAYS a result of technical failure. Your legs are strong enough to make the rep, but your technique suffers. Very very rarely has anyone ever failed a snatch if they catch the weight properly. Your legs will always be able to stand up. However, with clean, there is a larger possibility of failing because your legs are too weak to make the front squat. This is more “ok” because this is a result of muscle-failure, and not technical failure. In the example of the clean, “technical failure” would be a failure to catch the weight (slow elbows, too slow moving under the bar, forward lean of torso in catch position, getting on your toes too early etc…). Technical failure is what we want to avoid in Oly lifting.

b. Then there are two considerations of how failing reps will impact your Olympic lifting. First is the nature of “practicing failure.” You never want to teach your body to fail. If you are failing reps, that means that something within the technical precision of the lift is off. If you are consistently failing reps, you are just further reinforcing the habit of improper movement. There is an old saying that “practice makes perfect.” My basketball coach, used to hate this saying, and instead he would say “Perfect practice makes perfect, and any other form of practice makes bad habits permanent.” Oly lifting is so precise, that there is no benefit to missing reps. It’s not like in bodybuilding where attempting heavy weights will make you stronger. The second consideration is the impact on the mental psyche. If you are constantly failing Oly reps, aside from practicing bad habits, this is also creating negative self-talk (i.e. impacting the confidence you have in making reps). Think of this example: If you go through an entire cycle of oly lifting percentage work, and never fail a rep at 70%, 80% or 90%, your confidence will be as high as possible going into testing week. You followed the plan, and you have practiced good technique. When “test week” comes around at the end of the cycle, your confidence is going to be as high as possible going into it, and you will BELIEVE you can smash that PR and keep going!

c. So how can I overload the movement and “go heavy” without ever failing reps?
Solution – use heavy weights as ways of increasing proficiency of movement at different points and positions of the rep – i.e. Snatch lift offs, snatch deadlifts, snatch pulls, OHS, Snatch balance etc… These are all positive ways where you can increase weight and limit the potential risk of failure.

B. Bodybuilding

a. Bodybuilding is an entirely different animal when it comes to failure. Our concern here is not necessarily failure itself, but creating a balance between intensity and volume. Think of intensity as how hard you push each set (how close to failure). And think of volume as the total amount of work you can do in a session. The ultimate goal in bodybuilding is to fill the muscles with blood, which will then allow nutrients to inhabit the muscle, and the muscle will grow. However, it is physically impossible to do 25 sets of a bodypart to failure without creating drastic CNS fatigue and impacting recovery. You can literally crush a muscle so severely, that it puts the brakes on muscle growth, and it’s spending all it’s effort to repair the muscle. So we have to find a delicate balance between volume and intensity. If our goal is to fill the muscle with blood and increase volume, we might be more benefited by shortening rest periods and not training to failure. Think about this example: If you train a set to failure, how long do you need to rest between sets to do it again? Science states that it takes approx. 6 minutes for creatine and lactic acid levels to return back to normal after a set to failure. But this is pretty silly. How many sets can you fit into a workout if you are resting 6 min to ensure full recovery of the muscle function? The better approach would be to fit in more work in less time. Refer back to example from earlier, with the 4 sets of DB Bench. Do 4 x 8 for 32 reps, or train to failure on every set, for only 30 reps?

b. So how does progression work? How do we ensure we’re getting stronger if we don’t train to failure? Well, first off, if BB is your real goal, strength is a secondary concern. But, because I believe strength is important (a strong muscle is a big and well-developed muscle), there are great ways to achieve both goals. When we delve deeper into our bodybuilding program, let’s use the Back Squat as an example. We use 3 x 5 as our progression scheme. This is similar to the DB Bench example where the goal is to hit the same number on all sets. Therefore, the first 2 sets will be “sub failure” but you may have to reach failure on set #3 to make the 5 reps. This is good. If you had taken your first set of 5 to failure, what is the chance you could then get 5 reps again? Prob not great. Furthermore, the way we construct the strength cycle in the BB program, is to start your 3 x 5 with 10% more than your 10 RM. So, if you made 10 reps with 100#, then you would use 110# to start your 3 x 5. This will be relatively easy the first week. So then you add 5 lbs, and do 115# for 3 x 5 the next week. This is still easy, so you do 120# the next week. The progression continues. Eventually, you reach a point where you can no longer complete the 3 x 5. Then we drop the weight back down. In this example, we would start the 3 x 5 @ 105#, and work back up, with the goal of hitting a heavier 3 x 5 before we have to back the weights down again.

c. The final point on the BB program, in regards to failure, is the impact on the mental psyche. If you know you have to train every set to failure, it starts be burdensome on your mind. You may begin to fear training, whether it’s the fear of the pain this will cause, or the fear of missing reps and “not getting stronger.” So, stopping reps before failure has a double benefit – it keeps you excited to train, and also has intrinsic confidence aspect of knowing you will make all your reps each week.

C. CrossFit

a. When CF is “strength work” and not a WOD, the application of failure is the same as it is for BB or Oly lifting. You want to avoid failure in Oly lifts to work on technical proficiency, and you want to approach the “slow movements” (bench, squat, deadlift, strict press etc…) in the same manner you would approach BB training – with a progressive plan of getting stronger each week.

b. As it pertains to CF WODS, things get a bit murky. Failure is less about confidence, and it’s more about applying the proper strategy for your own individual ability. Each athlete will need to approach each workout in its own individual manner, based on your proficiency in the movements contained in that WOD. The sheer number of factors that you must be aware of are so abundant.

Using the same WOD example from above (50 CTB PU, 30 SQ snatch, 10 MU)

i. Strength level in relation to weight. If the WOD requires you to snatch 135/95 for 30 reps, and your max is 165, you need to take one approach, versus if your max is 250 lbs. The same idea can be applied to the CTB PU. If you can do 40 reps unbroken, you can take a different approach than if your max CTB PU is 10 reps.

ii. NME (neuromuscular efficiency) – This basically refers to how much endurance you have in your muscles. If you are predominantly fast-twitch muscle-fibers, like a sprinter, your legs prob don’t have the endurance to complete multiple squat snatches unbroken without accumulating excessive fatigue – whereas, if you have predominantly endurance oriented fibers, you might be able to keep your legs fresh for multiple reps. However, in most cases, athletes with great endurance generally happen to have lower overall strength, whereas an athlete with more overall strength will generally have worse muscle fiber endurance (like trying to get a sprinter to run a marathon).

iii. Training age – This refers to the numbers of years you have been training. The longer you have been training, the more knowledge you’ll have about the way your own individual body will respond to each type of stimulus.

c. Regardless of the above factors, the notion of failing reps has no place in a CF WOD. Your mission, as a CF athletes, is to continue to learn about your body and mind, and create a plan for every workout so that you can avoid failing reps. A failed rep requires extra recovery time before you can try again and successfully make the rep. Wasted time has no place in CF WODS. Failed reps also decrease confidence in subsequent attempts, especially as fatigue accumulates. CFers can learn a lot from the concept of pacing. Much like the example used in the BB write-up, about the 4 x 8 DB Bench press, it’s way easier to come back and make sets of 8 reps over and over when you stop shy of failure, than it would be to try and make 8 reps after failing at 10 reps. In the example of the CTB Pull-ups, assume your max reps are 20 unbroken. The wrong approach would be to try and do 15+ reps, because then you would have to rest excessively before doing more, or you would have to start doing sets of 1-3 reps to keep going. The better approach would be to do 10 sets of 5, with short rest. The same example can be applied to Burpees. If you have to do 100 Burpees in a WOD, does it make sense to sprint the first 20 reps in 40 seconds (2 sec per rep), and then be so tired that you are doing 1 rep every 5 seconds the remainder of the 80 reps? In overall time, this would take 440 seconds. But, if you started at 4 seconds per rep, and maintained that the entire time, you would complete the 100 reps in 400 seconds (and prob feel better at the end, too).