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Expert Q&A

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Should I always lift to muscle failure when weight training?

Asked by Steve Kelley, Northwest Missouri

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Recently you had an expert on CNN recommending going to muscle failure during weight training. I do this for my bench presses but do you recommend going to muscle failure on the last rep of the last set for every exercise in one's weight routine?

And does it make a difference that I am 72 years old? (But a very fit 72 as I have been a triathlete for 25 years and still am.)

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Steve -- First of all let me congratulate you on your lifelong commitment to fitness. Your commitment to strength training in particular will considerably reduce the muscle loss associated with aging known as sarcopenia, and studies show that strength training as people get older can also help reduce the risk of falls. To answer your question, I turned to someone who helps people build muscle every day, Mark Lovat, the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League.

He does not recommend training to failure or maximum intensity every time you work out, as this will lead to overtraining, which could lead to injury and fatigue. He recommends training at varying intensities throughout a training cycle and notes that these recommendations apply to any movement or exercise that can be performed with proper technique.

To cycle your training regimen, start at a moderate intensity on each set (around 75 percent) and build over the course of 3-4 weeks to 100 percent or failure. At this point, cycle back down to a moderate intensity but change the repetition range and repeat the intensity cycle.

Example:

Week 1 -- 3 x 10 @ 75 percent
Week 2 -- 3 x 10 @ 85 percent
Week 3 -- 3 x 10 @ 95-100 percent
Week 4 -- 4 x 5 @ 75 percent
Week 5 -- 4 x 5 @ 85 percent
Week 6 -- 4 x 5 @ 95-100 percent

Cycling your training, he explains, allows for adaptation and recovery, which leads to optimal gains. Regarding your age, if you are healthy, your age should not matter. The intensity of training is relative to the "athlete." For those who are looking to start an exercise program, it is always best to consult with your doctor first.

It is also important to eat adequate amounts of high quality lean protein like chicken, fish, lean red meat, lowfat dairy or protein supplements like soy or whey, because your body's ability to absorb protein decreases somewhat with age. In addition, consuming lean protein before or after workouts (within 20-30 minutes) may improve both lean body mass gains and recovery.

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