Learn how to maximise each and every workout to your full advantage!
Article by Andrew Carruthers, Editor-In-Chief. Athlete Mdu Green. Photography by Slade Mansfield (www.purephotography.co.za)
As progressive individuals we are constantly pushing boundaries. When it comes to training, everyday is an uphill battle to get bigger, stronger and take our training to the next level. With that said, there are a few stigmas to bodybuilding that are not quite realistic. One of them is that we should be getting stronger and stronger as time goes on. Lately, through my own training, I find that strength isn’t really an accurate benchmark to use to judge your own progress. It’s bodybuilding after all, not powerlifting or strongman so when I grow, I know I’m doing the right thing. The aim is to build a physique and not become a strength expert. Training instinctively (which I am a huge advocate of) and developing the perfect mind/muscle connection through training means that you learn to train the muscle group you’re prioritising more efficiently and more effectively, meaning that you need less weight to get the same job done. When I say less weight, I don’t mean that training just became a walk in the park and high reps are the new flavour of the times. I just mean that being more efficient in knowing where to place the resistance of the weight you are using and minimising the recruitment of secondary or supporting muscle groups is where the key to success in training really lies. And I mean, REALLY lies..
The heading of this article is actually a contradiction (if you didn’t figure it out yet). Failure isn’t an option in the sense that we’ll never give up on our goals and our aims inside the incredible sport we call bodybuilding, but the truth and the fact of the matter is, failure will hit you during training, whether you want it to or not. Learning how to push through failure or how to maximise its benefits for training could be the single most useless and productive tool you can ever learn with weight training.
Facts about training to failure
If you’re not training to failure – you’re not progressing.
I don’t care how easily you think you build muscle, if you’re not training with maximum intensity to failure then you’re not growing. Only through the experience of constant and bigger strain will your body evolve (get bigger) to accommodate for the stresses you place against it.
Most novice bodybuilders, even intermediate guys will stop their set once they’ve reached failure, thinking they’ve give their all in that set. This in fact is where a more advanced athlete will tell you that the set has only just begun.
Training to failure with intensity is like anything you practice in life – if you keep at it you’ll get better with time.
If you learn to harness the power of failure training, you’ll progress at your fastest possible rate, given all the other aspects of good solid nutrition and rest etc are all in place.
It’s impossible to train to failure and expect absolute maximum intensity throughout every workout. The truth is, you’re not a machine and your body can only handle certain periods of excessive strain before it’ll require rest periods of downtime, or you simply end up fatigued or inevitably injured.
But failure is failure. Surely when I can’t push anymore that’s the end of the set?
True, but only temporarily. I’m a firm believer that all training sessions require you to slowly build up to your heaviest sets in the beginning stages of your workout. Once you hit maximum weight (intelligently and by selecting a weight that is realistic as a working set) then you need to start training intelligently. Anyone can walk into a gym start squatting 1 plate a side, build up to 4 or 5 plates a side and think they’ve trained hard. It’s a no-brainer. Squat until it gets difficult, try one or two more reps, stand up, put more weight on, do another set, walk out. If it was that simple, everyone that ever did a squat would have huge legs.
So how do I push beyond failure?
That’s easy, you get smart and you start hitting the target muscle from all angles using lighter weight, different rep speeds, different rep ranges, short to full length form movements and rest-pause sets (probably the most intense thing you can ever incorporate into your workouts).
Use Lighter weight – Once you’ve reached maximum intensity with your bigger weight sets (your actual working sets) and you know you’ve reached a point in your training whereas if you had to try do another set with the same weight, you probably wouldn’t be able to reach the same rep range, then it’s time to chuck the heavier weights away and get smart. Start by incorporating drop sets into your training and straight after your last heavy set, pick up a weight that’s maximum 55% of the weight you’ve just pushed/pulled and bang out a last set for as many reps as you can.
Change the rep speed – During training, your body becomes accustomed to the movements, the weight and even the speed at which you perform your reps. It’s your body’s way of learning to adapt to the stress and the strain that you’re placing onto it. Getting a great pump from training also doesn’t happen from simply pushing large amounts of weight, so by changing up the rep speed of the the lighter weight movements during the drop sets, rest-pause sets, 21’s or any other training style you choose you’re placing even more demand on the muscle and also forcing much more blood into the muscle.
Change the range of motion – Believe it or not, full rep ranges aren’t the holy grail of bodybuilding. Sure, during your working sets you need to work through a full range of motion, taking the muscle from full contraction to full stretch, but when you start performing sets to failure after your bigger working sets, simply by changing the range of motion you can actually take your training well beyond the limits of full range of motion training. Take a bicep curl movement for example. You’re standing at a cable machine and you’re doing curls. You reach the point where you’re struggling to perform a full rep, so why not reduce the range of motion? Shorten the length of the movement and pick up the pace a bit. Try it, the intensity of the pump will be extreme.
21’s are a perfect example of how you can perform 3 ranges of motion in one set. Starting with the bottom range of movement to halfway up, perform 7 quick but focussed reps. Once you’ve completed those, move up to the middle area of the movement and then perform 7 reps from the mid point to the top (full contraction). Once you’ve reached the count of 7, open the arms up again for the full range of motion and perform the last 7 reps of the 21 set with a full range of motion (if you can by that stage). If you really want to take your training into overdrive, after you’ve done the full range of motion, bring the bar back up to the top point (contraction point) and hold the contraction for a count of 7 seconds.
Rest-pause sets – Simply put, rest-pause sets are exactly what they say they are. Take 1 set, split it into 4 and perform 4 sets to failure with whatever exercise you’re doing and reach failure during a set, put the weight down, pick it up and do it again. Do that 4 times in a row until you can’t move the weight anymore and call it one set.
I can bet that your training is not at the level it should be when it comes to wanting the progress that guys want these days. Everyone is quick to blame nutrition, supplementation, drugs and any other reason for their lack of progress, but the truth is this: more often than not, guys just don’t train hard enough. The human body is resilient and requires a lot of pounding to change. So no matter how hard you think you might train, tell yourself there is room for improvement and add some of these training methods above into the mix – they’ll change your mind on intensity. The first few reps of a set are simply a means to an end and that means that you’re just doing them for the sake of reaching that point in the set that really matters and that’s the point in which you need to tell yourself that your set has just started. When it gets tough, that’s when it counts. It just all depends on how you push through the barriers of failure. Like anything in life, every set is a test of how bad you want to grow your physique to reach your goals. Never ever tell yourself you train hard. The minute you do, you cancel out any chance of being able to grow and you limit yourself before you’ve even begun. Training through failure is where the successful guys separate themselves from the rest. Make the decision to work harder, use these techniques to push through failure and take your training to the next level. It’s gonna hurt like hell, but hey, it’ll be worth it.