Training to Failure is a Tool

I just finished reading Solving the Paleo Equation by Matt Stone and Garrett Smith. With a minor exception, I really liked the book. The audience is not necessarily just those stuck on a Paleo diet, but any dieter that finds themselves stuck, especially those that exercise a lot. This book was an extension of some of the topics covered in Matt’s book 12 Paleo Myths.

Solving the Paleo Equation: Stress, Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep
Solving the Paleo Equation: Stress, Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep by Dr. Garrett Smith and Matt Stone

The one piece of advice I had an issue with was the blanket statement in a chapter written by Dr. Smith that one shouldn’t train to failure. For 99% of what people consider to be exercise, I agree that one shouldn’t train to failure. Not for stress reasons primarily, but for increased risk of injury. However, for High-Intensity Training, it is fine to train to failure, provided it is done safely. In 2011, I did two posts exploring the debate of if one should train to failure.

I consider Training to Failure to be a tool that I can use to meet my fitness goals. It can be a dangerous tool when used improperly, but perfectly safe and extremely effective when used properly.

My Guidelines for Training to Failure

  1. The exercise must be safe enough to stop at any point in the movement and still be safe. A push-up meets that criteria, a bench press doesn’t. 
  2. Reduced training frequency. I can lift 2-3 times per week with normal intensity. If I train to failure I only need to lift once every 7-10 days. If I go to all-out negative failure at a true HIT gym (low temperatures), I could probably reduce by training to once every 2-3 weeks.
  3. Cool temperature. This is something that affects me but may not apply to others. I discovered it is safer to go to failure when the temperature is lower. I am far less likely to get an exertion headache.

The core message in the exercise section of the book is that many people exercise too much and that is stressful to the body. I agree 100% and that is why I embrace the principles of HIT and Training to Failure. It reduces the number of times I go to the gym and the time I spend exercising. I spend more time resting and recovering. And I don’t get injured. What could be less stressful?

If you are interested in learning how to safely exercise to failure, I highly recommend the books Body By Science (gym-based) and HillFit 2.0 (bodyweight focus). An interesting side note is that on a page Matt Stone wrote in the same book, he recommends the book Body By Science which discusses going to muscular failure 30 times!

Nose Breathing

Solving the Paleo Equation also makes the case that inhaling through the nose is the least stressful way to exercise. Although that advice might make sense for most exercises, it doesn’t hold true for HIT. With High-Intensity Training, breathing will start slow and accelerate quickly as the set progresses. You do not want to do anything that will slow down your breathing. It is recommended that one uses a relaxed jaw.

Skip to 2:30 in this video. Watch and listen to Dr. McGuff perform a chest press. His jaw is relaxed and his breathing tempo accelerates as the set progresses. At 4:20 his trainer reminds him to relax his face. It would not be safe to nose breathe doing this workout. You’d get a painful exertion headache.

UPDATE: Maybe I am wrong about nose breathing and HIT? See The Nose Knows: A Case For Nasal Breathing During High Intensity Training.


Add yours

  1. “many people exercise too much and that is stressful to the body”

    I think that any effective exercise is stressful to the body. What I like about exercise is that it’s the one thing I can do that nobody can criticise me for doing too much, because life is one long series of “You ___ too much!” No matter what you like to do somebody (usually a woman) will tell you that you are doing it too much.

    Well so much for that. Guess my epitaph will be “He Exercised Too Much.”

    I have a friend who reads all the usual stuff on health, lately she is into Turmeric, when I tell her “All I care about is being stronger and faster” she gets this look on her face like I am the greatest disappointment of her life. She eats her Turmeric, I get busy living.

    But wtf else am I supposed to care about? Why would I want to REDUCE the number of times I go to the gym, I’m happy there, it’s the best of places. Why would I want to reduce the amount of time I spend exercising? Being a physical creature is as good as it gets in life, while you are being a physical creature you are at your happiest.

    It won’t be long before being a physical creature is not an option, you will be a creature whose life is “sustained” through medications and surgeries and stents and valves.

  2. @rob – I want to be stronger and faster too. I have found that HIT has been the best tool for me to achieve that goal. Decreasing the number of workouts and the time I spent in the gym and ramping the intensity works best for me. I still enjoy the higher volume approach, but the high intensity is more effective for me.

    Higher levels of intensity requires greater periods of recovery. During those periods of recovery, I am still an active person, just at a lower level.

  3. rob’s comment reminds me of a boyfriend I had who also loved to spend hours lifting at the gym. but god forbid you ask him to lift anything heavy outside of the gym… he would be sooo put out. LOL

  4. Good post, Michael. I haven’t read “Solving the Paleo Equation” so I don’t know what case the authors present for nose breathing (maybe you could elaborate on that), but I wrote on the topic a few months back:

    I might be totally off, but I’ve been experimenting with the technique and have definitely made strides with my aerobic conditioning (even though I don’t do any cardio training). For instance, running up a flight of stairs used to cause me to breathe through my mouth to catch my breath, but I no longer need to do so. I feel like my body consumes oxygen more efficiently now.

    During training, I feel like I can still hit a high enough intensity to produce results (maybe not the highest intensity possible, but adequate). I catch my breath pretty quickly between sets though my heart rate will remain noticeably elevated for a while; I wait a few moments before continuing for what I am assuming is my heart burning off some of the freshly produced lactate. (Lactate can be used by the heart for energy, from what I understand.)

    I wouldn’t dismiss the notion of nasal breathing before giving it a fair go.

  5. @Adam – Great article. I added a direct link in the post for others. I’m willing to experiment. However, my one concern, which you address is temperature. I am very heat sensitive during HIT, so I’ll need to ease into this at lower intensity levels.

  6. Stuart Gilbert

    Mar 13, 2014 — 4:44 am

    I first came across the idea of nasal breathing on Chris Highcock’s site “Conditioning research”. It was postulated that nasal breathing was less stressful to the system as a whole, where as breathing through the mouth ( which was an automatic response at higher running speeds, due to the increased intensity and higher breathing rate ) somehow provoked a stress response. At the time I was flirting with keeping my heart rate at a certain level on longer efforts ( walks and other low level cardio, biking, jogs etc ) a la Phil Maffetone. I found trying to keep my heart rate between certain numbers pretty restricting and frustrating at times. Nasal breathing is, however a fairly good natural limiter. Heart rate can climb higher than say Maffetone would recommend, but if you are getting into the chronic cardio zone for too long then the natural inclination is to start breathing through your mouth. I find that when it becomes difficult to breathe through the nose on longer efforts, it is time to slow down. Obviously, not a technique to be used with intervals, sprints or high intensity weight training ( as MAS has realized ), and it does take a little getting used to at first. As a former asthmatic it has the advantage of also warming up the inhaled air, something that breathing through the mouth never did in the colder months and would always leave me with a feeling that my lungs had been sandpapered after a run. I wouldn’t go back to breathing through my mouth on longer efforts now.

  7. @Adam & @Stuart – This morning I went to the gym to attempt nasal breathing and SuperSlow HIT. I couldn’t even get halfway through a set before I could feel an exertion headache coming on, so I ceased the test. A big part of the problem is my gym is 70F, which despite numerous complaints from me will never change.

    So I learned that unless the temperature is low, I will stick with the breathing style I learned from Seattle HIT gym Ideal Exercise that Dr. McGuff demonstrated on the video linked to in the post.

  8. Anyone who has been in the combat arts, judo, kickboxing & jiu-jitsu can appreciate the need for efficient breathing w/o your mouth hanging open. As a matter of fact, as soon as you see your opponent mouth breathing, that’s a good sign to turn up the heat!

    Steve Maxwell has a series of exercises called breathing ladders.
    They can help you train your nasal breathing mechanics.

  9. Nice post – thanks.

    I prefer the term “training to exhaustion.”
    Definition: “the state of being extremely tired”
    When I lift weights so much that I can’t lift them anymore at all, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to failure. Quite the contrary – it feels like a successful workout.
    I know it’s only a word, but I think words effect our future motivation to train hard and perhaps even how quickly and fully we recover from intense exercise.

  10. Stuart Gilbert

    Mar 13, 2014 — 1:51 pm

    As I mentioned in my previous comment, I do not use nasal breathing when I am doing weights and / or intervals and nor would I consider doing so. There is something about mouth breathing that is best reserved for those stress filled “fight or flight” scenarios. Nasal breathing is best reserved for relaxed activities such as walking, easy biking, jogging. I know that it is time to slow down in these activities if it becomes difficult to breath nasally, and the temptation is to switch to using my mouth. During my weights sessions I have too many other things to concentrate on ( form, effort etc ) so I tend to let my breathing sort itself out and happen naturally, which tends to be via my mouth.

  11. @Stuart – Well said.


    You might want to speed it up and lift at more benefitial speed of 4/4, as now documented by the best HIT trainer in the world, bro:))
    Also, I’d say reducing frequency below twice a week negatively affects hypertrophy. Skyler Tanner says so and I bet Drew Baye would agree as well, as his recommended frequency is twice a week. Beyond certain point the intensity just cannot make up for the lowered frequency…is once a week effective dose? Yes. Optimal for mass gain? No. Twice a week HIT with proper rest and diet cannot – for 99% – lead to overtraining.

  13. @Ondrej – I have tremendous respect for Skyler and Drew, but I don’t believe there is one optimal tempo or volume program that applies to everyone at every stage of their training. There are too many variables. The best tempo is the one that captures your attention to generate the most intensity. For most lifters that will change as we become bored with one flavor of HIT and seek the novelty of something different.

    @All – The point of this post was not a discussion of HIT, but to address the claim by Dr. Garrett Smith that training to failure should always be avoided. I disagree provided the caveats outlined above. Training to Failure is a tool that can be used safely and with effect. It isn’t perfect for every situation, but blanket statements that it should be avoided all the time are incorrect.

  14. Most good trainers know training to failure is better for lower frequency, however their protocols of 3-4x week training don’t allow for it all the time.
    Regarding 10/10 tempo, I’ve read before it’s suboptimal from Brad Schoenfeld and he used similar arguments as Drew Baye. I personally have more success when I don’t count cadence, but it’s probably 4/4 and I focus on smooth turnarounds. I think it might be problematic for someone like Doug McGuff to change protocol in the face of evidence when he is personally invested so much in SuperSlow. While Skyler and Drew are generally more open to new ideas in my view. Btw Skyler’s routine from September:
    Day 1
    Low rep warm ups dead
    Low Rep warm ups bench
    -Work set dead: train hard, until form deteriorates (1-2 reps above rep goal, add 5lbs) 3-4 min rest, second set dead
    -Work set bench: train hard, until form deteriorates (1-2 reps above rep goal add 5lbs) 3-4 min rest, second set bench
    -Shrugs, dynamic long pause, 2 sets
    (Since I deadlift sumo, I added glutiator work here)
    Day 2
    Superslow chin
    Superslow dip
    Superslow leg press
    Superslow row/pullover (alternating weekly)
    chest press/TSC Overhead Press (Alternating Weekly)

  15. Hi Team, I understand this is an older post however I would like to recommend another free resource on nasal and reduced breathing.

    The site covers many topics including nasal breathing 24/7, effects of hyper-ventilation and effects of reduced breathing (tidal volume/minute) on general wellness. The site is quite messy at times, pages often repeat information and it does make some wild claims however I had nothing to lose and have been using his techniques for 2 years now. Now, I very rarely have asthma and there has been a significant difference in my training and recovery times.
    p.s. great blog by the way – I found you by searching about the validity of mycotoxins in Coffee after reading the bulletproof diet!

  16. @Travis – Thanks for sharing. I have used the slow reduced breathing to help with sleep since this post was put up.

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