Should I Lift Fast or Slow? Training to Failure, Single Sets versus Multiple Sets, Non Sequitors and False Dilemmas

Posted on 19 Apr 2011 22:07

Apparently there is a debate about whether training to failure is better than doing one single set of exercise. Well, okay, no there is not really a debate about this but sometimes those who do a lot of "research" about resistance training while simultaneously not having a clue about resistance training think that these kinds of debates exist. The actual debate is about multiple versus single sets to failure. That is a bit different than training to failure versus training with single sets, is it not?

Those who advocate for single set training say that training to failure over one set maximally recruits the muscle motor units and thus should be all that is needed to realize continual gains in muscular strength. Others say that just recruiting enough motor units is not going to do it, we need enough stimulus and a certain amount of exhaustion to get strong. Well, I think that is what they say; the truth is I don't listen very closely. I'm too busy getting busy with strength training to worry about academic debates like that one. And the reason I say it's academic is because there is nothing which is not useful at some point and time, given the proper circumstances!

I read this interesting article that misses this point completely. It is about training to "task failure" over multiple sets versus using single set training. Or at least I think that is what the article is about. It's hard to be sure. When you see a heading named "Optimum Strength Training Protocol" you CAN be sure, however, that you've entered the Twilight Zone of strength training..

Here is how it goes. When we do multiple reps of an exercise to the point where we can no longer perform another rep immediately we are working to "task failure". If we end up doing 10 reps then we performed a "10RM - 10 rep maximum". We have worked to momentary muscular exhaustion which means that as the set goes on we have recruited more and more motor units in order to maintain the same force output. Thus we have "maximally recruited" the muscle units. This has been considered an important component in progressive training for muscular strength. But let's back up a bit before I get to the point of this post.

Training to Failure is not Just ONE Thing

I explained about rep maximums and training to failure in the article "Training to Fail Part 3: The Failure of Intensity Cycling" under the heading Failure Modes.

Training to task failure as this article in question discusses means that we are training to the point where another rep cannot be completed with good form. We can also train to momentary muscular failure which is when we cannot complete the final rep we attempt. Or, we can training to post failure which means we "force" another rep in some way, either after a brief pause or with assistance or a cheating movement. DC training is an example of post failure training (really post post failure training). All of this is training to failure but it is clearly not all the same thing.

Although all of these modes of failure should not be treated as equal, especially post failure training, they can all be useful some of the time. Especially in the area of muscular endurance.

Explosive Strength Training?

Interestingly the article is entitled "Explosive Strength Training" and yet is about the development of maximum strength. How odd. It ignores the fact that training for "explosiveness" or rate of force development requires sub-maximal loads and that training for maximal strength requires near maximal loads. The language here is a symptom of a bigger problem that I have mentioned in many of my previous posts. Much of the terms and jargon we take for granted has no real consistent meaning. The term "explosive" is thrown about with abandonment in scientific studies and lay articles, many of which are about completely different subjects.

Training for 'explosiveness' to many, is training for high rate of force development. And specifically, exerting the greatest force possible at the very beginning of a movement, say up to the first 200 to 400 ms at the most.

Training for rate of force development and for maximal strength are two different things. They intersect and interact in many training programs but they are not the same goal. What has happened here is one of the false dilemmas I hinted about in the title. The term "explosive" itself is a bit of jargon that is not very useful for actual scientific inquiry because it does not have a specific definition. Yet this term is used often in studies. This should not be surprising, since the word "power" is used inconsistently as well even though it has a very precise biomechanical definition.

The article discusses some research regarding "slow" versus "fast" resistance training. One group performed 4 sets of exercise using a 6RM. The other group performed 4 sets of 4 reps presumably also using a 6RM..so in other words not to failure like the first group. Now get this, its the important part: The first group used a "controlled" cadence and was asked to make sure that the concentric lasted two seconds. The second group was asked to complete the reps as quickly as possible: "explosively". They found similar strength gains. Leading them to get very excited about the idea that the second group did less work but got the same results.

It's all very exciting and everything. Albeit hardly front page news. The "false dilemma" is that there are only two choices "slow" and "fast". Depending on the movement 2 seconds can be a very long time to complete a rep (concentric). Not even considering the "controlled eccentric". And since they were told to purposely slow the movement down we can assume that 2 seconds was slow. Let me clear this up. Nobody does this in STRENGTH TRAINING. At least nobody with a clue. Why slow or fast? Why were the sets to failure done slow? What does going slow, using a RM versus lifting with as much explosiveness as possible have to do with anything? What if both groups lifted explosively but one went to failure and one did not? Would the explosive effort combined with MORE WORK have meant better gains in the first group?

We also lift with the intention of moving the weight as explosively as possible. Now, if this actually results in the weight moving very fast we are not using maximal load. The word "fast" used by the researchers is unfortunate, therefore. How fast were the movements? Only fast compared to the first group? OR actually very fast. Because if they were actually very fast they could have gotten BETTER results with heavier relative loads lifted with the intention of moving the weight as quickly as possible. Ignoring the force velocity relationship of skeletal muscles is like building a bridge out of plastic because it's cheaper than steel. That is, you cannot ignore the intrinsic mechanical properties of the "material" you are working with, regardless of what you would wish to have happen.

Let me put this in perspective. When someone goes to test a new pharmaceutical that is supposed to have X affect in the body, such as relieving pain, ideally, they already have a plausible physiological mechanism to explain why and how this drug exerts this affect. No one likes to randomly test chemicals for pain relief without at least a hint that it has the potential to do what you are testing it for. Biochemical studies performed outside the body BEFORE clinical testing are much more efficient. If you cannot find a biochemical affect, you aren't going to bother doing a clinical trial. Yet, with studies involving human strength development it is often like the researchers are just throwing darts at a board. Let's just see what happens when the subjects do this or that and let's ignore what we already have surmised about muscle physiology in general.

When they are not just throwing darts at a board they are wasting a lot of precious time investigating fads or trends in strength training, such as SuperSlow training.

What does SuperSlow Training have to do with Training to Failure versus One Set

So, I was discussing the article. It starts out with the idea that there is conflicting evidence concerning the use of multiple (2 or 3) sets to failure versus using only single sets of exercise. Remember I hinted above that the difference between the two is the idea that we do or do not need a certain amount of exhaustion. Even if you performed your single set to failure you would be more "exhausted" if you did multiple sets to failure.

Yet the article in question, after bringing this up, completely abandons it and goes on to talk about research involving multiple sets of exercise and comparing relative levels of exhaustion. This is the "non sequitor" I referred to in the title and it is the kind of thing that is prevalent in the strength training world. It seems like a "train of thought" is hard to maintain when it comes to resistance training. This is where the author gets into seriously muddy waters:

"Repetitions can be performed quickly or slowly and both methods have been used across research in the area."

Repetitions can of course be performed with the "intention" of moving slowly or quickly but they cannot use the same relative loads if they actually move quickly versus moving slowly. The more people talk about such "research" the harder it is for me to explain the basic tenants of force production. Beginning trainees are asking whether they should bench press slow or fast yet have never been told that you CANNOT move a maximal weight QUICKLY. Let me repeat this. If the weight moves very quickly it ain't maximal. Moving the weight intentionally very slowly means much the same thing. It takes more muscular tension and the relative load must be reduced.

Are you getting what I am saying here? If the wrong questions are being asked which are questions which ignore the basic properties of the musculoskeletal system, then any research done to answer the questions is meaningless. The question is moot! Therefore the research is moot!

As mentioned above, if we were to investigate a medication, normally, we would already have an idea about how this medicine would physiologically exert it's effect. We wouldn't just shoot in the dark. Well, we have knowledge of the physiological adaptations the body makes and we have knowledge of the mechanical properties of muscle - both intrinsic and neuro-mechanical. We have knowledge of the biomechanics of movement. Etc. and so on. Much of the research regarding strength training routinely ignores this foundational knowledge. It has been said many times before that the those who engage in strength training research may do well to speak to those who spend their lives applying the strength training.

This is why you hear "iron veterans" say things like "just lift the damn weights". Sure they are being unhelpful and over-simplistic but they are expressing a sort of intuitive insight which tells them that many of the questions that are being asked are the wrong questions and have very little to do, in the big picture, with getting strong. "Should I lift fast or slow?" is certainly one of those.

Why are these questions asked and articles like the one I am talking about here written? You know why. The word is "optimal". The idea that there is a better or best way to train for everybody is what drives the engine of "strength training" today. This is not like searching for a needle in a haystack. It is like searching a haystack for no good reason at all! There is not, and never will be a best or most optimal way to train at all times for all people. I would sincerely like to be able to say that there was. And that I'd found it and that you can get it here, come one come all. But to do that I'd have to be a sleazy and dishonest strength training marketer1 rather than a simple and honest strength training writer. And I'd rather sleep at night than do that.


This page created 19 Apr 2011 22:07
Last updated 21 Oct 2015 17:07

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