A Closer Look at Muscular Failure, by Matthew Romans
Posted September 23, 2020 by Matthew Romans
If you are a Total Results client or regular reader of our blog articles, you know that a major tenet of our philosophy is to take each exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure. This is the stimulus point that the body requires in order to make physical adaptations in terms of building muscle and bone, and improving cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning. It is also critical to reach muscular failure so that glycogen (stored carbohydrate) can be emptied from the muscle cells and insulin sensitivity can be maintained. How do we define momentary muscular failure, and why does it seem to occur differently in some clients than it does in others? What really goes on when we reach this point?
Confusion can sometimes occur when we talk about the assumed objective versus the real objective of exercise. The assumed objective is to perform as many repetitions with as much weight as we possibly can. This is false, and can lead to injury, as one may take liberties with their form just for the sake of completing more repetitions. The real exercise objective is to inroad (fatigue) the musculature as thoroughly and efficiently as we can, and that entails going to momentary muscular failure. We can define this as the point in a dynamic exercise (which we use the vast majority of the time in our workouts) where forward movement is no longer possible in good form. The primary function of a muscle is to produce force to enable movement. To go a little further, your muscles are momentarily weakened enough so that they are not capable of generating sufficient force to overcome the resistance on the machine you are using. In a Timed Static Contraction, there is no real way to know when failure has been reached, since no movement is performed. When clients perform an exercise in Negative-Only fashion, I define the point of failure as that juncture when the weight cannot be lowered in at least eight seconds. However, Negative-Only exercise involves transference of the resistance from the instructor to the client on every repetition, thus resulting in very brief unloading of the musculature. These are reasons why I believe that performing a dynamic movement is optimal, whenever possible.
Can you still achieve physical benefits if you don't go to momentary muscular failure? The short answer is yes, and some of those benefits include reduction/relief of joint pain, stress relief, and improved confidence. While we do encourage our clients to push to and beyond the point of muscular failure, there are certain situations in which we stop short of that point. If a client frequently experiences exercise-induced headaches (EIH), we often stop the exercise just before they feel head pain. This enables the exercise subject to get some benefit without exacerbating the problem. We might also go just short of failure if a client has a tendency to panic or perform unsafe behavior near the end of an exercise when fatigue has increased. Safety is paramount, so we are willing to make that our priority over a deeper muscular inroad.
Clients often remark that reaching momentary muscular failure seems different on certain exercises. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, certain exercises involve a greater or lesser amount of muscle; the Pulldown exercise encompasses almost the entire upper body musculature, so it is going to have a greater systemic effect than a smaller exercise like the Tricep Extension. The second reason has to do with equipment design. Many of our machines are designed with cams that vary the resistance based on leverage; your muscles are stronger in some positions and weaker in others. In theory, the cam effect should allow you to reach momentary muscular failure at random different points in the range of motion. In practice, that's not always the case. These machines are an engineering marvel; you won't find better equipment anywhere else. However, most of them were not mass produced; they were made one at a time and have subtle engineering differences in the design of the cams. Years of experience have shown me that on certain exercises like the Leg Press and Lumbar Extension, most people reach muscular failure at or near the bottom out position. Finally, each individual client has a different mental and physical makeup, temperament, and tolerance for discomfort, so it only makes sense that the experience of reaching muscular failure can vary for many people.
You can still derive much benefit if you don't work to momentary muscular failure, but in my opinion better results come from pushing to the point where movement in good form is no longer possible, followed by a five to ten second thorough inroad. In addition to the physical benefits described above, there is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment in giving your best momentary effort and knowing that you did all that you could do to stimulate physical improvements. Take pride in knowing that you are doing something that most other people are not. The word failure has a negative connotation in all other walks of life, but at Total Results failure equals success!