But isn’t it no pain no muscle-gain? In rare cases this can be true, but this depends on your particular goals, level of experience and training plan. For most guys stopping short of total muscle annihilation will get them to their goals much faster. For ectomorphs looking to quickly build muscle this is always the case—unless you’re such an enormously muscled ectomorph that no one would ever describe you as one. There’s a very big difference between uselessly fatiguing yourself and getting a good workout, but even most advanced trainees can’t recognize the difference. I’ve been there.
But isn’t that last rep the only one that matters?! Isn’t that last rep the one that separates the weaklings from the champions?! Grab a seat by the squat rack, and let me tell you about keeping 2 in the tank.
Why you shouldn’t train to failure
If you train to total muscle failure you’ll totally crush those muscles. This means they’ll require a ton of recovery to get back to the point where you can train them again. Most weightlifters do this because they think it’s the only way to make their muscles grow—not true. Your muscles will actually grow quicker by stimulating them with a heavy load, and steadily and progressively upping that load. Frequently. Not once a week.
… But most guys damage their muscles to the point where they can only train them once per week, and thus need to follow a bodybuilding split routine instead of a full body training routine. This results in much less frequent stimulation and a significantly reduced weekly hormonal response from your training. As ectomorphs we need those hormones.
The difference between giving it 95% and 99% are very similar—both will build you beastly muscles and allow you to train them often enough to build them really damn quickly. Take it to 101% (failure) though and wham—huuuuuge recovery time required before your muscles recover and you can train them again.
There’s also form to consider, and yours should be stellar. One of the biggest factors in putting on muscle rapidly is executing each exercise properly. We aren’t form nazis here—there’s a balance to be found. Training shouldn’t feel clinical. Pushing yourself to the limit on every single set though is taking things way too far. It’s almost impossible to maintain rockin’ form when you’re struggling against failure, so this should only ever happen rarely, once you’ve built up great habits and great form has become intuitive. At that point hey yeah, let your form twist a little as you struggle to break a new personal record, but as you’re training to build muscle this should not be a regular occurrence.
Now I’m not saying you should come out of the gym feeling like you didn’t work out. You should. You should need to rest between sets and you should definitely feel your muscles working—really damn hard. You shouldn’t come out of the gym feeling like crap for the rest of the day though. You should recover shortly after and feel fantastic. You shouldn’t be getting sick every second week because your body is struggling to keep up with your training regime, you shouldn’t be sore all the time, and you shouldn’t have trouble sleeping. Training is supposed to make you feel superhuman, not geriatric.
When should I train to failure?
Sometimes, when you’re struggling to push beyond your genetic potential or training to compete in a powerlifting event, you need to go really damn heavy. When you do, you need to back off for a couple weeks afterwards and train light. This isn’t the most effective way to build muscle or strength, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, depending on what your goals in the gym are.
And there’s a caveat with pushing yourself to your limits and taking an exercise to failure. It should only be done on particular exercises. Some joints and muscle groups should never be taken to failure. Your rotator cuff (shoulder joint) for example, should never ever be brought to the point of failure. That’ll be how you wind up with a messed up shoulder. It’s also totally unnecessary if your goal is building muscle.
If you’re a typical trainee—even one with a few years lifting experience—you’ll gain strength and muscle mass much quicker by lifting close to failure, and then training each muscle group more frequently. We typically train three times per week, and stimulate all major muscle groups each time. This results in much much more rapid muscle growth and strength increases when compared with the guy who’s absolutely wrecking his muscles with every workout.
How do you do it? Keep two in the tank. If you really feel adventurous leave just one in the tank every once in a while. Feel like you have more than one or two in the tank after an exercise? No problem. Count that set as a warm-up, up the weight a bit, and hit ‘er again. When you finish a set you should be thinking to yourself “Phew that was tough… but I prrrrrobably could have done one or two more if I had really given it everything I had.” That’s what we call keeping two in the tank. Keeping two in the tank will turn you into a tank.
Even when you aren’t going to total muscular failure, most advanced training programs include de-load weeks to allow for full muscle recovery. A de-load week is where you reduce the training volume to let your body catch up with itself and start fresh into the next phase of training. You should be doing one of these every few weeks. We go hard for 4 weeks and then have a de-load week in the fifth week before gearing back up.
As a bonus to building muscle more quickly, training with a bigger emphasis on recovery will also result in far fewer injuries, a stronger immune system, and less time spent suffering from muscle soreness and fatigue.
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