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Trainer Q&A: Should I Always Lift Weights to Failure?

Our expert tells you why you shouldn’t always push to the max.
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Constantly find yourself crawling out to your car after a lifting session practically unable to lift your arms? You aren’t alone. High-intensity workouts are becoming the norm in gyms across the country. Lifters are bombarded with the notion that harder is better leading them to push to the max every time they touch a weight. This 'harder-is-better' mentality will likely leave you sore and unmotivated to maintain a regular lifting routine. Even worse, it will have you sliding backwards in your results and ultimately lead to overtraining.

Training hard all of the time is a bit like flooring your car to drive everywhere. You’re disobeying speed limits and likely wrecking at every corner. Similarly, pushing your body over the limit each session will lead to breakdowns and potential injuries. To prevent a decline in performance, trainers use a concept called periodization that involves separating your training into chunks. Each chunk corresponds to a specific training goal and intensity. For instance, a lifter may start with four weeks of foundational work learning exercises and bodyweight movements before transitioning to barbell work and more advanced lifts. This way, the body is exposed to a variety of stimuli and not overloaded with one particular rep range or training style.

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To stay fresh, trainers also program weeks that are meant to give the body a break - called deload weeks. These scheduled periods of decreased activity allow muscles to recover and come back stronger. Jason Ferruggia, head coach of the Renegade Nation, advises his clients to deload every six to twelves weeks depending on their training age and chronological age. Advanced lifters can go slightly longer before taking time off than novices. Don’t mistake deload weeks for time spent watching TV on the couch. These sessions are packed with flexibility work, light exercise, and foam rolling.

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Rather than working hard all of the time in the weight room, schedule certain weeks of workouts that you’ll push it to the max going until you’re exhausted. For most trainees, this means one week a month going full tilt. For the rest of the time, stop just short of failure and leave some gas left in the tank. Every six to twelve weeks, plan out a deload week of decreased activity to keep your mind and your muscles fresh. This will prevent overtraining and leave you motivated to come back for more.

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