The other day, I had a discussion with a client about the fact that they were taking sets a bit too far. This is a mistake that many people make when they're first starting out and logically it makes sense, but it's a bit short sighted. Essentially, I'm talking about attempting to improve by lifting to the maximum every time (I.e I want to get a bigger bench press, so I lift to failure in the hopes of improving).
To better explain this idea, let's take running for example, and you have the goal of running 1 mile under a certain amount of time. When you start, what do you do? Many people simply put their shoes on and run a mile. A difficult mile, but they run it. The next time they go to run the same mile and it's a little bit easier, but overall, just about the same performance.
While just running a mile outright, consistently will certainly lead to better performance in the 1 mile eventually, it's not the best route, especially for a beginner. I mean, constantly running to your maximum and never seeing meaningful progress is degrading.
The issue with this idea is that you're pushing too hard and accumulating fatigue too quickly, which reduces the amount of work you can do and overall inhibits your growth and performance.
For example, let's say you have a goal of running 1 mile. When you train, you can take each run to the maximum and run 1 mile. But let's say you broke up that 1 mile over the course of 3 workouts. Now you're running .33 miles each time. In this case, it's likely that .33 miles is quite easy. While that seems like a bad thing, it opens up the door for you to actually improve.
With that short of a distance, you can first acclimate yourself to running without blowing your wod. Second, you have the opportunity to improve on speed. Third, once you've improved on speed, you can increase the distance. Now consider that you're doing this 2-3 times per week.
By using this method, your cumulative effort is far far greater than just running 1 mile. Even if you just complete half miles, three times per week, you're still exposing your body to a longer distance compared to just the 1 mile run (1.5 miles). Plus, since you're not putting forth 100% each time, you'll have the energy to actually try and improve. Before you know it, you could be running multiple miles, each session.
To really understand this concept, increase your distance. If you had the goal of running a marathon, would you run 26.2 miles every time? Chances are, no. You try to progressively improve all variables associated with running well, while slowly increasing the distance you run. Just running a marathon outright would be crazy, so why do you think changing the distance matters? Your performance is relative to your own personal ability.
This example is really similar to the idea that you won't improve your bench press by lifting to failure each time. It's much more advantageous to do less work per workout, but more work overall. Being able to complete 15 sets over the course of 3 workouts will be more advantageous than failing at 10 sets in a single workout.
While training to the maximum feels like it should make sense, it's a better idea to split your work up over multiple workouts, allowing you to improve, which cumulatively speaking, could be extremely meaningful over the long run.