How Often Should You Train to Exhaustion?
Whether it’s wannabe power lifters trying to hit new PR’s every single day, group trainers pushing every heart rate monitor to read 100%, or a local dad sprinting until he falls off the treadmill in the office gym, gym culture today definitely emphasizes a “train to exhaustion” mentality. Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve had a handful of people ask how often they should train to failure.
It’s easy to see why, on the surface, this appears to be the most effective way to train. If you’re pushing yourself to your absolute max effort multiple times a week, your max capacity will quickly grow, correct? And as that limit and your fitness both increase, you’ll be able to go harder more often, right?
Wrong. In fact, the truth is pretty much the opposite. Not even – or should I say especially not – the top 1% of athletes train to failure very often.
We all know the basic training equation: stress + rest = recovery. If either side of the scale gets tipped too far, the desired adaptation diminishes. Training to exhaustion causes such a degree of physical stress that it takes the body much longer than normal to recover, which of course, interrupts the continuous training process, which is far more important than a single session.
Admittedly, there is something rewarding about ending a workout panting, bent over with your hands on your knees, or even occasionally puking in the nearest trash can. What’s not rewarding is showing up to your next workout and running short of juice to successfully complete it. Emptying all your effort into one day does not make up for days missed.
How often should you train to failure?
In order to answer this question, let’s look at how some of the best athletes in the world train:
Stephen Seiler, a Norwegian-born physiologist and one of the leading researchers on endurance training, has spent most of his career studying how top level rowers, runners, and cyclists train day to day and year to year. The results of his studies have surprised most traditional coaches: Across many different studies done on a variety of athletes, he found that 75% of training happened at a “low intensity”, below 80% of max HR.
20% of training happened at a “high intensity” with an average HR of 93% max, and a very small amount happened in the middle. Even though their workout days were very intense, these athletes accomplished the purpose of their sessions to a recoverable degree. In fact, Seiler explains that the key to elite success may be in the 75% that composes the day-to-day grind of showing up and getting the time in at an effort that doesn’t seem stressful at the time but produces excellent results big-picture.
Similarly, you don’t see high-level weightlifters repping out until they fall over. In contrast, if you look over at the platforms at Force, you’ll see athletes there for hours hitting quality reps, fine-tuning form, and actively improving mobility for better performance. I asked Wil how often he lifts until failure, and his response was “almost never.” If the best athletes out there are keeping things in check during even their most difficult sessions and their bodies are surely maximally adapted to recover well, working out until exhaustion shouldn’t be in the cards for you or me, either. It’s all about finding your maximal recoverable volume through auto-regulation, a concept on which Coach Matt recently created a great vlog.
So, how often should you leave it all out there?
Answer: almost never. Save it for competition day when it really matters. Rather than going to the gym with the objective of obliterating yourself, maxing out your HR monitor, or lifting until you can’t complete another rep, focus your energy on showing up multiple times a week, and training in a way that makes you feel ready for your next session. Even though we always say “quality over quantity,” the quality of training is very much in the quantity, because healthy training brings you back time and time again until it becomes a habit.
The pay-off of training is in the back-to-back sessions, week-to-week progressions, month-to-month periodization. It is in the process, in the undulating train-recover balance; it is in the sustainability, in the discipline of showing up when every excuse knocks at your door; it is in the focus of squeezing the most out of every session in accordance with its intention. Training this way is far less glamorous than lying on the floor depleted after you’ve given it your all, but it’s sustainable and I promise you, it is going to work.