Exercising to Failure and the Senior Exerciser

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Donovan Baldwin, and, at age 68, I am a senior exerciser who sometimes exercises to failure.

Sounds like the start of an AA meeting, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s not a guilty secret. In fact, exercising to failure is a valuable technique for improving fitness and strength and for weight management.

However, it can be a dangerous technique if not done properly or if exercised, pun intended, by someone who does not know what they are doing.

Now, I am discussing this topic because, the other day, my wife forwarded me an email with a link to a pretty good article on exercise and weight loss. I agreed with the author, and the experts she quoted pretty much down the line. However, one fitness trainer she quoted endorsed the idea of exercising to failure, as do I. But, as I read what she had to say, I realized that anyone with little knowledge of exercise might begin an exercise program thinking that’s what they were supposed to do, right off the bat.

That troubled me, especially since the article was broadcast to the public at large, and I am, and write for, senior exercisers.

Anyone, but a senior exerciser in particular, immediately faces two major problems if they launch into an exercise program and try to incorporate the “exercise to failure” technique right from the start. Even someone who has NOT been using the method may face some potential problems if they suddenly change their workout to include this particular twist.

For one thing, there is the potential for real pain, and real injury, especially for the senior exerciser.

In fact, let me stop here to remind you that these comments are for general guidance, and you should seek your medical provider’s guidance before choosing and implementing any exercise program. Getting help from a trainer who specializes in the area of senior exercise and fitness is a good idea as well.

Anyway, let’s look at one person’s experience… mine!

I did curls and triceps extensions to failure in my workout yesterday, and both my biceps and triceps, while not really sore, are giving me little notices that they would really appreciate it if I give them a break today.

If you consider the very real potential for pain and injury, especially for a senior exerciser, someone who is new to exercise, someone who has never used the method, or someone who fits in two, or even all three categories, it’s easy to realize that this could be a deal-breaker, as far as exercise is concerned, for many.

So, what IS exercising to failure?

Well, let’s say I am doing curls, like I did last night. Exercising to failure simply means doing curls until I cannot do them any more. Maybe you know the feeling, arms so tired you can’t even scratch your nose. Now, some people who are particularly interested in achieving a high goal rapidly, say someone who wants to compete in a bodybuilding contest, may do three sets of a particular exercise and go to failure in each set.

Another, less motivated, exerciser who is simply trying to get healthy and fit may do the same three sets of an exercise, but may set the weight at a point so that it is only in the third set that failure occurs. In fact, if you really know your body and where you are at in the exercise process, you may be able to hit failure on the last rep of the last set with pretty good accuracy.

When you ain’t failing and feel like doing more, it’s time to up the weights.

Exercising to failure, when done properly, and especially when used within a broad program, results in fast muscle growth, good fat burning, and rapid improvements in fitness. When done wrong, it lands you on the couch, or in the doctor’s office, swearing you’ll never do THAT again. By extension, THAT often includes all forms of exercise.

The term is most often used, and I am using it here, to refer to strength training. It is a fairly widely accepted technique for, as one Confederate General is reported to have said, “Gettin’ there fustest with the mostest!”

However, like so many good exercise techniques, exercising to failure is something an exerciser of any age might want to build up to. I can almost guarantee that grabbing a set of weights at the beginning of your exercise journey and trying to immediately incorporate this technique will almost certainly result in that pain, and possibly injury, mentioned earlier!

For a younger person, this may be an inconvenience or a temporary setback, but, for the senior exerciser, this can be more than just painful, it can be disastrous!

If your body is not trained up to the point where you can implement this technique, I see a bevy of medical personnel hovering around you.

Okay, maybe you’ll just be on the couch cringing in pain, but, remember this, the body is a unit. What you do to one part will have results somewhere else. If you are not at a level where you can effectively implement training to failure, your joints are not ready, your heart may not be ready, your lungs may not be ready, and, most important, your spouse may not be ready!

In fact, if you hear the rustle of paper, that may be your spouse checking the life insurance policy for a “death by exercise” clause.

Rather than simply implementing this technique because you read about it in an article and it sounded good, gradually strengthen muscles and joints with regular, progressive exercise. After you have been doing resistance exercise for some time, and, hopefully, gradually progressing, you will begin to recognize the point that is going to be the “failure” point in any particular exercise.

Then, if you are not having any problems with the program you are doing, you can begin to push into that area where “failure” occurs for you. This will be a moving target as some workouts will go better than others. If you are shooting for three sets of twenty reps, my preferred sequence, you might hit failure at number 19 or 21.

That’s okay, but, when you constantly hit failure well above that mark, it’s time to increase the resistance and start the process again. If you constantly fail to hit your mark, drop the weight, or resistance, and try exercising to failure at that level for a couple of weeks and move up again when you are ready.