It’s Bench Press day. You hop under a bar loaded with more weight than you can handle. You complete one sloppy rep and barely grind out a second. You attempt a third rep, getting the bar a few inches off your chest, then over extend your back before the weight stalls. Your spotter rescues you and takes the bar. And you’ll attempt the same weight to failure training next week, all part of a vicious cycle that is too common.
If you’re stuck in this routine, heed this advice: Stop missing reps.
Too many young lifters are constantly missing reps, stalling their progress and failing to realize why they can’t get stronger. You may not realize the disadvantages of consistently missed repetitions with heavy weights, but this style of training has serious drawbacks.
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Increased Injury Risk
When lifters fail to complete repetitions with heavy weights, the risk outweighs the reward, because most injuries occur when attempting a max rep. Do a quick YouTube search of weightlifting fails, and you’ll notice that most mistakes are made when lifting at or beyond max. To limit your injury risk, only lift at or over your max on testing days—with a spotter, of course.
True Maxing Out Isn’t Necessary
A failed rep on a compound movement heavily taxes the nervous system. Get crushed under a heavy Squat, and you’re too fried to perform your best for the rest of the workout.
Sports scientist Chris Beardsley reviewed the scientific literature on training to failure, determining it has benefits but lifters “should use it carefully within sensible limits.” Missing a rep each week on a big movement such as a Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift or Power Clean breaches the sensible limits, because it can affect recovery for the entire week and beyond.
A challenging, gut-busting set increases size and strength, but it shouldn’t be so difficult that you can’t finish it. The popular strength program 5/3/1 created by Jim Wendler is a perfect example. Each training day is centered on a compound lift performed for one all-out set, but not to your absolute limit. “I hesitate to tell anyone to do anything to failure, because that’s not what I’m after. I wouldn’t prescribe this,” says Wendler. Instead, he recommends performing your max set at 90 percent of your true one-rep max.
Ed Coan, whom many consider to be the greatest powerlifter of all time, spoke on Mark Bell’s PowerCast about how he hardly ever missed reps in the gym, explaining that maxing out frequently leads to both physical and mental burnout. “You can only stay at that 100 percent level so long before it breaks you down.” Donnie Thompson, the first man to total 3,000 pounds in the Back Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift in competition, echoed this approach at a seminar he hosted. He shared a story about how when he missed a rep while squatting, his training partners were in such shock, they didn’t know how to respond.
If the greatest lifters don’t want to miss reps, why should anyone else?
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How to Lift Heavy Without Hitting Your Max
There are ways to consistently train with heavy weights without reaching the point of no return—for example, the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) system. An effort scale ranging from 1 to 10, this allows you to challenge your body based on how it feels, rather than on your true max. Ideally, lift at no more than a 9 out of 10, instead of using every ounce of energy and effort before failing.
Also, working with a partner is invaluable. If someone is barely able to complete a rep, an aware training partner can advise him end the set. To do this, use the three-second rule. If it takes more than three second to complete the concentric (raising) portion of a lift, the set is over.
When to Train to Failure
If you’re an athlete, set aside two or three times per year to go for a true max attempt on your lifts. If you’re a competitive lifter, save max lifts and possible failures for competitions. When you step into the weight room, leave your ego at the door. Don’t get under the bar to test your strength. Your goal is to build it!
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