When training your body with weights, increasing your cardiovascular capacity, or refining your MMA skill set, you are always pushing your body to new levels of performance so that you can grow stronger, faster, and more accurate in your moves with greater stamina. You don’t attain new ability by doing the same workout you’ve always used. Rather, you achieve new levels of capability by pushing yourself in training to new levels that you have not reached before. This is fairly understood by all people in the gym. Sure, you have a few people that always train the same, always look and perform the same, but they never rise very far. It is the group of people that always strive for 2 more repetitions, to shave 2 seconds off that mile time, or to drill that move for 2 extra sets, that see continued progress and improvement over time.
Many athletes will just assume that as long as they’re doing more than they did last time, they’re going to see adequate results. They’ll blindly find some spot between “what I did last time” and “my absolute maximum performance capability”, and fall into that range for their training. This works well when the training is new and well, frankly, just about anything works at that point. However, as the athlete improves and reaches higher echelons of performance, training (and recovery!) become more and more important than ever before. There’s a very thin line between “pushing a little more than last time” and “pushing it to absolute training failure”. Within this segment are many fixed points you can target when you are training. But for which point should you be aiming? Just a little better than last time? Or “to the point of failure and absolute collapse”?
Workload Intensity Management
There are times when you want to manage your workload. You know how hard you need to train, and while you vary the weight used and set/rep scheme, you do keep it fairly consistent. Your recovery will be predictable, which is often a key to managing multiple training methodologies (cardio, drilling, weight lifting, and more). Your immune system will not be challenged as much, which means you’ll become ill less frequently and able to train more each year. Your risk of injury during training will be less, as you aren’t pushing yourself to new territory.
There are drawbacks to this training as wall. Mainly, your gains to strength and aerobic capacity are going to come slower than as if you went “all out”. Others who absolutely “KILL IT!” in the gym will see their strength skyrocket faster, and their stamina will improve faster as well. At the higher levels, the ability to adapt and improve over a period of weeks instead of months may have a significantly positive impact upon your performance in competition. Most top guys (and gals!) do work to reach all-out training failure a great deal. Managed intensity is safe, and great once you reach that level. But you have to get there first, and faster is often considered better.
Training to Failure
On the other hand, there are other times when you will wish to train to your absolute point of failure. Often called “burnout” training, these are the training sessions where you push yourself to the point where you cannot train any more – and then you do it anyway! Your strength WILL increase with this training method, as your slow-twitch muscle fibers which are usually allowed to lie dormant will be activated as the sets go on to new levels. Your lungs will be forced to fire at new levels also, ensuring new capacity for future performance.
There are drawbacks to training to failure. Recovery time is much higher. You cannot train any muscle group or movement to failure, then try it again the next day. You might be down for several days with acute soreness of DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness. Your risk of injury will be higher, as muscle fibers and your lungs are going to reach points of failure during your final sets, so many core movements or heavy compound lifts may require a spotter to ensure you are not injured. Training in this manner also requires more time, as workouts don’t follow a clock – they go until you stop! Finally, you need a level of strict mental focus and commitment in order to push yourself to maximum potential in training. You cannot be distracted and give 100% in the gym.
A healthy mix of these two training loads will help you to manage your progress. This kind of training is known as periodization – varying your training volume, workload and intensity of movements over time to maximize your gains in the shortest amount of time possible. You’ll recover just fast enough to keep training, but you’ll also push yourself at the highest levels so that you can make gains as quickly and optimally as possible. Map out your workouts and well as the intensity you plan to use for these workouts. Try it both ways each week for six weeks, recording your performance and the gains you saw as a result. Find that magic ratio which works best for you. Then you will be in a strong position to deliver a longer-term training strategy which draws from both intensity styles. Good luck!