The idea of going to failure is a polarizing topic within the strength community.
Some say failure is good. Supposedly it’s what sends the signal throughout your cells that tells your body to grow.
Other’s say it’s bad and should be avoided.
I’ve been on both sides of the debate over the years and now I believe I’ve found a middle ground which brings better results and safety than both stances on the subject.
When we talk about failure, we’re really talking about fatigue. When we reach failure during an exercise we have really reached a point of fatigue where we cannot continue to do the exercise. This is the case for both absolute failure and for so call “technical failure.”
My approach changed once I figured out the 3 dimensions of exercise progression:
To recap, frequency and intensity are both finite variables but technical progression is infinite. You can always improve your technique.
Your success, in any exercise or program boils down to your technical progression. It’s about how strong your technique is. Period.
The role of adding frequency (or volume) and intensity to an exercise is actually a means through wich you test your technique. You don’t get in better shape just through making the exercise harder to do. Rather you get results through strengthening your technical quality so it can withstand more frequency and intensity.
The thing with technique is that the better your technique is, the better your results will be regardless of your program. If you do 10 push ups with weak technique you will not get stronger regardless of how hard you work. However if you do those 10 with the best technique you can muster you’ll get better results even if they feel easy.
When you go towards failure, you’re reaching the limits of how much intensity and frequency you can handle. But you don’t get results by pushing those limits. You get results by trying to maintain as much technical integrity as you can against those forces. It’s only natural that your technique will erode as you fatigue. Your speed will change, your range of motion will shorten and your body position will start to shift. This is technical erosion.
Your mission is to fight technical erosion as much as possible. Going to fatigue is simply a way to fight it to a higher level. You don’t have to push your fatigue as far as you can, but it can be a fun tool to use here and there. It’s just one of many ways you can test and challenge the strength of your technique.
It’s also worth noting that it’s safer and easier to push yourself towards deeper levels of fatigue with calisthenics. As your technique erodes, you don’t have to worry so much about getting trapped under a weight or being in control of an external object. I believe this is just one more reason why body weight training can not only match the results of weight training, but potentially exceed them.