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Q | What are the pros and cons of training to failure?

Training to failure” is a strength-and-conditioning approach that involves performing a movement or set of movements until you simply can’t do any more.

When implemented correctly, this can be a useful tool for building strength and power, as well as burning fat. But because training to failure requires pushing your body to the limit, there are some potential downsides. So it’s important to know what you are getting into.

According to Meredith Butulis, DPT, MSPT, Life Time Academy instructor and fitness competitor, training to failure can take different forms.

One option is to select a weight that you know you can lift only, say, 10 times (but no more) with proper form. You would perform that final lift safely (but with difficulty) and then stop, knowing that on the 11th rep your form would fall apart.

Another method involves intentionally selecting a weight that you can lift only eight or nine times before your form deteriorates — but still performing that 10th rep with improper form.

The first option pushes the body up to failure while the second pushes past the point of failure. (This can be done with any number of reps, not just 10.)

Training to failure isn’t relegated to the weight room. Butulis names high-intensity interval training (HIIT), CrossFit, Insanity, and Tabata as mainstream forms of training that encourage people to work to failure.

Training to failure when doing resistance training has been shown to improve strength and power, Butulis says, and during high-intensity workouts, has been found to burn more calories in a shorter amount of time and contribute to improved cardiovascular and muscular endurance.

Yet, this training methodology isn’t a foolproof way to make gains. “There are risks — chief among them  is overtraining,” says Butulis.

Symptoms of overtraining include a decrease in athletic performance, prolonged recovery times, general fatigue and irritability, persistent muscle soreness, elevated heart rate, increased risk of infection, insomnia, appetite changes, and overuse injuries. (See “What Is Overtraining?” to learn more.)

Butulis says the key to training to failure is to do it responsibly — by giving your body time to recover within a workout and between workouts.

Here’s what she doesn’t like to see: “People engaging in high-intensity, high-volume forms of training where they work both their cardiovascular and muscular systems to the point that they can barely walk or function after the workout. For several days, they feel fatigued and have muscle soreness, yet they continue to push through this sensation with another similar workout.”

When performing resistance training to failure, follow a program that uses a progression of reps, sets, and weight with sufficient recovery time between sets. Aim to perform your last rep with good form to avoid injury.

In the case of HIIT, Butulis recommends limiting high-intensity sessions to three times per week.

Maggie Fazeli Fard

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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