Whenever I visit a gym, I always see a number of overenthusiastic guys training like there is no tomorrow. They‘re taking every set to the point of muscular failure, using a training partner to help them on the majority of their sets, and completely losing control over their lifts because the weights they’re using are far too heavy. Some people might look at them and think: “‘Wow, these guys are hardcore.” I’m not so impressed, because training to failure is a big mistake. Let me explain why.
You might have heard the saying: “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.” Unless you’re a drug-assisted athlete, you are simply not going to benefit from training to failure. After reaching failure, muscles take longer to recover. What’s more, you will quickly reach the point where you’re overtraining, and will neither look forward to your next session nor be able to use progressively heavier weights. In fact, you might even have to start decreasing the amount of weight you work with. Does that sound familiar?
A better idea is to plan to complete four sets of five repetitions on a given weight, completing all the reps without any assistance and without reaching muscular failure. Do this, and you’ll be able to lift progressively heavier weights, adding to your workload from one week to the next. Once you reach the point where you can no longer progress, either change the exercise, change your training protocol, or take a week off before resuming with a weight midway between the one you used in week one and the last week of training. If you’ve read too many bodybuilding magazines, you might be under the impression that if you don’t reach failure during your training sessions, you‘re taking the easy way out. Banish such thoughts – on the contrary, you’re just being smart!
Poor technique and no control
Let’s set a scenario that might sound familiar to you. You’re doing a chest workout, starting on the bench. After three progressively heavier sets on the bench press, you aim to get 10 reps with a 100kg bar. You push through the first five, somehow squeeze out a sixth and then your training partner starts to help. Together, you go through the seventh and eighth reps. Then the exhaustion becomes so severe that on the final two reps, the weight is literally lifted by your partner; you can no longer control it, your body is twisting on the bench, and your arms are shaking. You have no control over your shoulders and elbows, but finally you re-rack the weight, 10reps done! Now try do another set on that weight. Good luck getting four reps!
The problem is, you’d also planned to incorporate incline dumbbell presses, dips and cable crossovers into your chest workout. So you try to press the dumbbells after what you’ve just done on the flat bench. What happens? Nothing. No control over the weight. No focus on contractions in your pectoral muscles. Total reliance on the assistance of your training partner. The story continues on dips and crossovers. Good workout?
Now imagine using weights you could actually control. Picture getting good form on every exercise, full contractions, and having complete control over the weight. What happens this time? I’ll tell you what: great pump, great workout! Above all, you’ll come back fully recovered for your next session, when you’ll be able to use heaver weights. Meanwhile, the guy next to you is still labouring away, trying to get 10 reps on the flat bench with 100kg. He probably never will. Who’s the smart one now?