Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Death By Training

First and foremost, I need to acknowledge that I have been extremely bad at keeping up this blog. I really have no excuse. If it helps, though, I did get an article published with the Strength and Conditioning Journal earlier this year (planning another as we speak), and my long-promised cookbook is currently being organized and edited and will hopefully be ready to go by end of summer. I've also been writing a ton of music lately, something I haven't felt inspired to do in ages, and that's been awesome. So...forgive me? Pretty please?

In any case, better late than never. Today I got inspired to post because of our friend, Social Media. Social Media is awesome in many ways. It connects us to people we may never have been able to connect with otherwise, lets us learn and discover new things, and helps us disseminate information to large groups of people quickly and easily.

Those things can be great. They can also be... erm... problematic. Because while good information is awesome, bad information can be extremely detrimental.

Today, I saw that a well-known and very impressive trainer/athlete posted the following:

"If you don't feel DEAD by the end of your training, did you even workout?"

I get that this is the philosophy of many trainers and athletes, and I get that it works for some. This really seems to be the norm amongst the fitness people I have observed, and seems to be the expectation in the clients who approach me. The assumption appears to be: if your body parts still work and your clothes aren't soaked through and you don't want to puke after you're done training, you haven't done it right.

However, I personally do not ascribe to the theory that you have to feel absolutely trashed in order to get great results from your training. I believe that once in a while, it can have some benefits, but done habitually, I'd say that that sort of training can be detrimental for a number of reasons. You ready for some sciency crap? Here we go.

1) Training to failure has limited, if any, performance benefits over not training to failure. In a meta-analysis of 8 studies, Davies, et al. (2015) noted a statistically significant improvement in strength in non-failure training individuals over those training to failure. Izquierdo-Garraben, et al. (2009) also note:

"once a given ‘‘optimal’’ volume is reached, a further increase in training volume does not yield more gains and can even lead to reduced performance in experience resistance-trained subjects." (p. 1197)

There may be some slight advantages for muscle hypertrophy for those training to failure (Nóbrega & Libardi, 2016), and it appears that it can be beneficial or even sometimes necessary when performing low-intensity repetitions (Nóbrega & Libardi, 2016) but for the most part, training to failure does not appear necessary for performance gains.

2) Training to failure can produce less-than-optimal hormonal responses, at least for the short term. Consistently training to failure or exhaustion can lead to decreases in resting testosterone (Willardson, et al, 2010). In an 11 week study performed on 42 physically active men, Izquierdo, et al. (2006) noted that individuals not training to failure had lower resting cortisol and higher resting testosterone than individuals training to failure. The failure group also demonstrated a decrease in IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), which is a hormone involved in muscle building. In this study, the failure group had some beneficial responses in localized endurance in the bench press, but for the most part the non-failure group was superior to the failure group in improvements to strength and power output. It is important to note that these hormonal responses are acute, not chronic-- meaning that they appear to be short-term. So this may or may not have any major effects for the long term, but it is interesting to note, anyway.

3) Rest and recovery are necessary for performance and hypertrophy gains! In a study by Schoenfeld, et al (2016) (Yeah, that's my brother, yo!) longer rest periods (in this case, 3 minutes over 1 minute) were associated with better strength and conditioning gains in younger, resistance-trained men. Personally, this makes all kinds of sense to me-- you will generally not be able to properly perform a lift of any significance if you aren't well-rested. Trying to push through multiple sets of heavy training without enough rest will usually either result in not being able to complete the lift, or in completing the lift poorly.

This reminds me of an extreme example-- several years ago, an elite Crossfit athlete was paralyzed from the waist down after performing multiple sets of complex lifts to exhaustion without adequate rest in between. Unable to complete the lift, the athlete lost control of the barbell and ended up with a severed spine. Now, I repeat-- this is an EXTREME EXAMPLE. Chances are, you're not going to sever your spine. But if you want to get your best lifts in, resting adequately first will produce optimal results.

Which reminds me...

4) Training to failure may increase risk of injury. Training to failure has been noted as an injury risk factor (Nóbrega & Libardi, 2016; Willardson, et al., 2007; Stone, et al., 1996). I think it's important to note, though, that there do not appear to be any studies that actually demonstrate increased injury due to training to failure. That being said, the logic is this: if form degrades, risk of injury tends to increase. Form degradation tends to occur when training to exhaustion, so the potential for injury (or overuse, if constant high repetitions are used consistently) increases. Does this mean that training to failure will cause injury? Not necessarily, and the science has not proven this to be the case. However, given that training to failure does not appear necessary for optimal gains in strength and hypertrophy, I'd personally take the less risky path.

So, to answer the question posed by the trainer/athlete that inspired this blog:

If you don't feel dead by the end of your training, well, yeah. You still worked out. If you trained to fatigue, but still were able to complete good reps, chances are, you did just fine and will see great results even if you came out of it alive.

Did he even train, bro?

Questions? Comments? Post 'em here!


  1. Welcome back to writing! With this bang of a return, all is forgiven! :D

    This really needed to be said. I think the problem is that people don't make any difference between acute feedback and long-term result. Having trained at a commercial gym for a few months now I'm amazed how happy people are with The Pump™ of the day but after a year or more of training still can't squat more than their body weight.

    Personally I learned this lesson by wasting a year of six days a week of intensive CrossFit. I realized I hadn't gotten stronger at all – not an ounce on my squat or any other lift. So I switched to Starting Strength, doing three sessions per week, and after just three months my squat had gone up 25%! It was an incredible experience.

    If anyone's interested, I write about it here:

    Btw, is that study of yours accessible anywhere for free? Sounds super interesting and I'd love to read it!

    1. That's very cool-- thank you for the link to your article! I'll check it out. Unfortunately, I don't think it's available for free at the moment. I'll see if I can get you a copy somehow.