In this article I'll be talking about training to momentary muscular failure and how you can adapt it to better suit the more advanced or veteran trainee. Keep in mind this article is NOT targeted towards strength training athletes such as Olympic Lifters, Power Lifters, or Body builders.
All three sports, well... two sports and a freak show have distilled down the training that is generally accepted as the most successful per each activity and I won't go into that here other than to say, at the highest level of those sports it's the genetically gifted and the pharma enhanced that are competing so their methodologies really don't apply all that well to the high school sport setting.
In the beginning training to failure is easy. The subject doesn't have any background in strength training or understand perceived effort in any meaningful way. Training to failure is a great way to start out. Several reasons are:
After a few months of training, the trainee learns what fatigue feels like and builds up some tolerance to it and builds up the mental fortitude to push through it. As you go into a set lactic acid builds up and creates a "burn" in the muscles. Nothing new there.
Why this matters is the advanced athlete is able to push into this fatigue at much greater level, commonly called in inroading amongst the HIT lifters. The problem becomes that the veteran trainee becomes better at fighting through this fatigue than he needs to be and is willing to do so as he feels the harder he drives himself the stronger he will be and the more respect he will earn from coaches and peers. The trainee is training with more intensity.
Isn't that a good thing?
Yes to a point. Yes because you are upping intensity, and stimulating your muscular system more efficiently or perhaps the better term is completely. But, we have to keep recovery in mind and our capacity to recover. If you remember we covered that in an article about training volume.
There are advanced techniques that are sometimes employed. Negatives, drop sets or strip sets, where training partners will take a small amount of weight off the bar so the trainee can get a couple more reps, pushing further into failure.
These are specialized techniques and should be saved for the off season when there is more time for recovery.
Also remember that the athlete has learned to push himself/herself very hard and is motivated to do so in most cases. So sometimes they are eager to use these advanced techniques to fatigue the muscle. As a coach you want to avoid that.
Remember, the goal with the athlete is to enhance their play and keep them less injury prone in their chosen sport. Making them too tired to practice their sport is not helping them become a better athlete. If you are the coach of the sport as well, then it's bad enough. However in the day of dedicated strength coaches, if you want a long career, you should try to avoid having the head coach unhappy with you because his athletes are too tired to train the sport. The strength coaches job is to help, not hamper an athlete's progress at a sport.
So are you saying not to train advanced athletes to failure. No. Advanced athletes can train to failure and gain strength just as a new athlete.
The caution comes into play that because the trainee has learned to push themselves so hard through fatigue they start to work at odds against their recovery system. This would not matter if the trainee was just training for strength on their own and not for a sport. For the athlete, especially in season, when recovery is critical one needs to avoid pushing too hard.
Because the advanced trainee is stronger and can handle more weight AND push themselves very hard the risk that they fatigue the muscles beyond what is needed.
Momentary muscular failure on the concentric contraction is as far as one needs to or should go. You don't need stall and push for 5 seconds or resist the weight as your concentric turns into an eccentric. All this does is eat into recovery. As soon as you failed to move the weight concentrically, the muscle was as stimulated as it needed to be.
So to recap, as soon as form breaks down or the athlete can't move the weight concentrically, the muscle has been stimulated and the set should be terminated. Doing more will only eat into recovery and won't create any additional gains. The phrase "leave it all on the field or court" need not apply here.