Positive failure is an oxymoron term if ever there was one. When I bring this up with a new client they give me a funny look, as failure in most instances is seen as a negative thing. Only in the crazy world of bodybuilding could failure be a positive, sometimes I forget this given the amount of time I have been moving the iron.
But it is true, failure in a working set lets you know where you are strength wise as well as letting you know you have worked your muscles to a point where they failed, being temporarily unable to do another rep, thus making inroads into your existing levels of strength, endurance, and your muscles ability to handle the work given it. The muscles have two choices, die under the oncoming assaults or grow bigger and stronger to handle the loads imposed upon them, trying to overcompensate because basically the body is lazy being more interested in preservation and conservation, resenting being pushed beyond its comfort zone.
This can be a tricky balancing act that if handled wrong can lead to over training, the body’s last line of defense in getting you to back off. Training to positive failure successfully depends on a combination of factors, number of sets, body part splits, how often a given muscle is trained, and the definition of failure.
We hear the terms positive failure and absolute failure, these are not interchangeable and knowing the difference is vital to continued progress. As you may have already guessed absolute failure is far more demanding on your body and must be used sparingly.
Positive failure occurs when a point is reached during a set of reps where the muscles can not do another rep without breaking good form, though loosening form a little would still be considered positive failure but totally abandoning proper form and employing excessive body english would not. In most cases this is sufficient to induce a response from the muscles as the body does not see this as a threat but merely as hard work within the body’s ability to recover and compensate for the next time it is subjected to it, being ready by becoming a little bigger and stronger.
This training, recovery, and compensation relationship must be respected and not taken for granted or advantage of or like any relationship it will blow up in your face in the form of over training, a negative failure where only stalemate and regression reside.
Absolute failure on the other hand is like a lethal weapon that in the wrong hands can be disastrous, resulting in chronic overuse injuries and terminal over training. Absolute failure occurs with the use of intensity principles being added onto a set at its end when another rep is not possible in reasonably good form and some means of trickery is employed to keep the muscle working in the way of forced reps, drop sets, slightly pausing a few seconds, partial reps in the muscles strongest point of leverage, etc.
The fallacy with the notion of absolute failure is that there is no such thing, let me repeat this so you don’t miss it, there is no such thing as absolute failure because with a little rest the muscles are capable of moving a workload, even if it is a reduced amount of workload and this is where people get in trouble, believing they will reach a point where the muscles are totally incapable of work and never finding it, leading them to do far more work than necessary and causing only damage.
You see ignorance of this in every gym, someone will be doing a set and if it looks like the person is about to fail they jump in encouraging the person to do a few more reps, even taking hold of the bar and forcing them to do numerous forced reps before allowing the person to end the set.
I remember the time when I was doing wide grip pulldowns and as I was reaching the end of the set someone reached over me and pulled down on the bar, yelling at me to do a few more reps, ruining the last rep and pissing me off.
I informed him that it was improper to jump into someone’s set without being asked and not knowing the person’s current intensity toleration level. He walked away looking dazed, the thought that one’s training toleration having limitations and fluctuations that needed to be monitored and modulated.
My own brother found this out the hard way. On leg training day he decided to give his thighs a real going over. He did set after set of nonlocking squats with very brief rest between them. I lost track of how many sets he did, but he never found a point where he couldn’t do another set, but an hour later he vomited every half hour on the half hour for the next twelve hours. By the time he was done he looked like death warmed over and missed the next week of workouts and struggled through his workouts the following week, lesson learned.
To say we were hard core would be accurate but more is needed than the ability to push your body to the extreme, you need an understanding of how hard is hard enough, a lesson my brother will never forget.
Another example is the time much earlier in our training careers I decided to put together the ultimate compound set workouts operating on the more is better theory. I strung together the most effective list of exercises for each muscle groups, at least ten exercises in a row. I laid out the master plan to my brother and we proceeded.
The intensity was unreal and the pump was unbelievable, leaving us sore for days. Now in my experience you should not have to wait to start seeing results from your training, this isn’t magic but simple overload and compensation. The first week went by and nothing, the second week passed and still nothing. Even given my young age at the time I knew that to continue on would be foolhardy and more importantly a waste of effort.
It amazed me that the work given to the muscles had zero effect. We could complete all the sets, the muscles seeming to be able to handle the work. It was here that I realized that the ability to do the work did not insure success and that there had to be a turning point to which more is not better but instead more is just more. I took a good look at the workouts and began to reduce the amount of exercises linked in a row, figuring out different amounts for each muscle group according to its size and role of involvement in the workout as a whole.
After these adjustments were made we again commenced training and immediately saw results even though the workouts by comparison with what we had been doing seemed tame and not nearly as hard, learning that less is more or more accurately the right amount was enough to push the muscles without overwhelming them.
So your goal in training is to train to positive failure in good form most of the time with short periods of time using intensity principles to bring up only stubborn or difficult muscle groups, saving the more intense training for a shocking effect to jolt new growth without abusing this and undoing the good benefits of pushing to absolute failure, knowing when to end a set.