Should You Be Training To Failure To Build Muscle, Or Do You Need To Avoid It?
Training to failure seems like a no-brainer. You're at the gym to train hard, so pushing yourself to the limit makes perfect sense. After all, if you don't train to failure, did you even workout?
Scan the gym floor and you'll see clear evidence to reinforce your belief.
The most ripped and jacked guys, screaming "ONE MORE REP" at each other, as iron and sweat clash together in a sea of testosterone. And it's not just the guys. The ladies are in on the action too, thrusting and squatting their way until booties are punished into submission.
Intimidating to say the least. But do you have to do the same? Is training to failure how you build muscle and get in shape? Or is there another way?
In this article, you'll find the clarity you need.
By the time you've finished reading, you'll know whether or not to trust the dude coated in so much fake tan, he looks and smells like rich mahogany.
Here's what you'll discover:
- The logic of training to failure and the research supporting it.
- The issues with training to failure and why it limits muscle growth.
- Why you might not even be training to failure, anyway.
- When should you train to failure?
The Logic Of Training To Failure
"Muscle Growth Occurs In The Last Reps Of A Set, Right?"
When it comes to training to failure, you'll hear arguments from both sides of the squat rack. There'll be those who swear by it, and consider it the ONLY way to train. And there'll be an equal number of people claiming it's completely unnecessary, and actually limiting your gains, rather than helping you build more muscle.
First, let's look at the concept of training to failure and what it actually means.
When you train to failure, you're taking a set of a particular exercise to the point where you experience 'momentary muscular failure', also referred to as 'technical failure'. This is the point at which you can do no more, the tank has emptied, and your muscles have given out.
Muscular failure in a squat would technically result in you collapsing on the floor in a heap of embarrassment and 20kg plates. For a bench press it would be the moment you realise the barbell is about to make breathing a slightly more challenging experience.
So why the fuck would you want to do it? Is building a little extra muscle really worth it?
The Theory Behind Training To Failure
Training to failure sounds logical on face value, but then again so does Keto...
Progressive Overload is often spoken about as the key driver of muscle growth. Continually challenging the muscle with more sets, reps, weight, and overall training load is the fastest way to increase muscle mass. That's a given, and the general consensus of opinion in the industry (thank fuck we can agree on something).
So, by definition, training to failure helps increase training volume.
Instead of leaving a few reps in the tank, you push harder, and squeeze out a few more important reps. After all, it's those last few reps where you really feel the 'Ron Burgundy' deep burn, right?
Those last few reps are where the growth is. They're the signal for the muscle to adapt and get stronger. Without those extra few reps, the muscle has no reason to change and grow.
And there's research to back up the theory too.
The theory of training to failure makes perfect sense. Pushing the muscle to its limit forces adaptation and muscle growth.
Research In Favour Of Training To Failure
Unlike the myths that darken the world of nutrition, there is some evidence to support the argument of training to failure.
One study took 26 men and separated them into 3 groups.
- Group 1 performed 3-5 sets x 10 reps at 10RM (1 minute rest between sets).
- Group 2 performed 3-5 sets x 10 reps at 10RM, but with 30 seconds rest mid-set.
- The 3rd Group was a control.
Over the course of 12 weeks the groups were measured for strength and muscle mass improvements relating to lat pulldown, shoulder press, and leg extension.
The group with the traditional straight sets approach saw greater increases in 1RM, maximal isometric strength, and muscular endurance, with the leg extension. This group also saw a marked increase in muscle cross-sectional area, whereas the other groups did not.
This isn't how people train in the real world. And it's not a direct comparison between training to failure and stopping a few reps short.
Any More Research In Support Of Training To Failure?
This study also specifically looked at the concept of training to failure. This time focusing on the bench press (so this is one for the dudes, I guess).
Over the course of the 6 week experiment, participants either performed 4 sets of 6 reps, or 8 sets of 3 reps (ie equal training volume). The conclusion of the study was that those who train to failure achieve greater increases in strength and power.
So with the evidence stacking up in favour of the guys in stringer vests, is this even a debate? Surely, you can just stop reading, hit the gym, and push until your eyes pop out of your head?
But hold on my friend. Before you and your training partner get the smelling salts out and start slapping each other around the face as part of your new 'training to failure' ritual, I've got something for you.
The Weaknesses Of Bodybuilding Research
It might surprise you, but researchers aren't overly concerned with putting time, effort, and money into seeing how jacked you can get. They've not been wooed by Instagram influencers, and aren't yet in search of perfect pecs and glorious glutes. So research is limited. However, this is slowly changing, with the likes of Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras producing more and more studies relating to the science of strength training and hypertrophy.
But, until the research catches up, we're left to piece together imperfect studies and combine the findings with real world experience.
So what do I mean by 'imperfect studies'? Let me explain using a couple of examples.
Number one, EXERCISE EXECUTION. The ability to perform an exercise correctly is crucial for building muscle.
Ensuring movements are performed with maximum intent and tension is a skill requiring repeated practise. So it's unclear just how skilled participants in studies are. The phrase 'trained', which is used to allude to the fact a participant knows what they're doing, could mean anything. They could be a bench press Jedi, or simply have been training like a brain-dead Wookie for the last 10 years.
Secondly, STUDY DESIGN. I'm no research scientist, so I don't wish to make huge criticisms. But some studies lack real world applicability.
For example, the first study mentioned in this article showed that training to failure built muscle. That's a fact. But it didn't compare it to a much more likely scenario of how you might train. I mean, I've never seen a training protocol where the approach was to stop mid-set. Have you?
The Issues With Training To Failure And Why It Limits Muscle Growth
"Fatigue + Excessive Muscle Damage - Energy = Less Muscle"
While Mr. Nipples might be the most jacked guy in the gym, his approach of every set being all out war, might not be the best move. You see, the idea you MUST train to failure all the time, could have a significant negative impact on training volume. And here's why.
Training to failure is taxing. It's fatiguing on the muscles and can significantly impact your ability to get the most from subsequent sets. Here's a quick example for you.
Mr. Nipples is training chest (as he does every workout). His 10RM for the bench press is 100kg.
Naturally, set 1 is an all-out smash-fest, with 100kg nailed for 10 reps as planned. But things go downhill from there. Nipples is now so fucked sets 2 and 3 are a disappointing 6 and 5 reps, respectively. Total training volume for Mr. Nipples = 2,100kg.
But you come along and do things the Iron Paradise Fitness way, ie with some thought and at least half a brain. Your first set consists of 100kg x 8 reps. So you just keep a little in the tank for later. And that pays dividends in the end. Sets 2 and 3 are equally consistent, and see you nailing 100kg for 8 reps, again and again. Total training volume for you, 2,400kg. Take THAT Nipples.
Look after your body
Training to failure might give you a great feeling. Like you trained hard and won your badge of honour for the day. But it comes at a price. That price being so fatigued that it impairs your workout, potentially increases joint stress, and deteriorates form, thereby risking injury.
Having an approach to training that allows you to consistently push hard, without being reckless, is better than simply seeing who's got the bigger bollocks (or ovaries).
Training to failure all the time puts an unnecessary strain on the body that may limit your ability to increase strength and size.
Are You Even Training To Failure?
"You may be surprised how far away from true failure you are."
The other question is, "Are you even training to failure?"
A lot of people think they do, when actually they're very far from it. Getting to the end of a set, you feel like you can do no more, but actually, there's quite a few more reps left in the tank. Feeling the pain associated with training is something you're not used to. So pushing through it for another 5 reps seems crazy.
Sometimes, it's not until you train with someone more experienced that you get the sense of true failure. Definitely worth pondering for a moment.
Consider a few training sessions with someone more experienced to get a sense of the feeling of how far you can push yourself.
When Should You Be Training To Failure?
"Training To Failure Isn't A Bad Idea. There's Just A Time And Place."
Taking sets to failure isn't always a bad idea. In fact, in some situations it's a perfectly sound and often necessary way to train. You simply need to strike the balance between training hard and training like a moron. And it's a fine balance. So here's a few tips of when you might want to consider training to failure.
Isolation Exercises At The End Of A Workout
Typically, your training programme will be structured with smaller muscles and isolation exercises towards the end. Training smaller muscles, like biceps, isn't particularly taxing on the body and Central Nervous System, compared to an exercise like the squat. So, the trade off with fatigue isn't so great here. Plus, at the end of your workout there's no real need to conserve energy and hold back.
Last Working Set
If you want to train to failure on a given exercise, the best point to do it is on the last working set. It's the point where you can afford to bust out a few more reps, without paying the price in later sets. But be careful, and choose your exercises wisely. Because if you choose to squat to failure, you might DIE!
Prior To A De-load Period
Your training should, ideally, be periodised. With logical progressions in volume and intensity over a given period of time. Therefore, at the end of a training block, you're likely to be building to peak intensity. After which, training volume will reduce with a planned de-load. If this is the case, then in those last few workouts, pushing to your limits is perfectly logical. After all, a rest is coming.
A Test Of Strength
You might be someone who enjoys a little willy waving in the gym. Not figuratively (that's how you get thrown out and arrested). The 1RM or 3RM, PB test might get you all excited. And if that's you, cool, go for it. Naturally, you'll be striving for that point of failure.
You won't always have time for a full workout. Sometimes it'll be a case of fitting it in wherever possible (that's what she said). If that's the case, you might have to opt for one 'balls and ovaries to the wall' set for 3-4 exercises. And as it's likely to be the rarity and not the norm, it shouldn't be a problem to include in your training as a one off.
Approach training to failure in a structured and well-thought manner. Use it appropriately, not as an ego boost for every set.
The Bottom Line On Training To Failure
Training to failure builds muscle. But overuse of the concept might limit the amount. The smart approach is to use it strategically, instead of your default protocol for every set.
Everyone wants to feel like they trained hard. There's something about lifting weights and pushing yourself to the limit that gets the endorphins flowing like nothing else. But chasing that rush can cloud your judgement when it comes to effective training.
An effective approach to training is not one that's sole person is to leave you battered and broken after each set. This old-school way of training might be your biggest limiting factor in building muscle. So if you feel like you're training hard, but not seeing any progress, take a step back. Think about what you're doing and question if your ego is the biggest aspect of your training that needs work.
Ultimately, training to failure is concept, like many others, that has a time and place. Make sure you know where the right time and place is.
What My Approach To Training To Failure Can Do For You
Lose weight and build muscle. I imagine that's your goal (or at least a variation on that theme). So I want to show you exactly what the approach you've just read about can do for your physique. Below are just a few of the everyday people I've coached, using my proven body transformation blueprint, The Lean Life Method.
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Real people. Real results. And if you're interested in finally making a breakthrough with your fitness goals, then go here to find out more about The Lean Life Method, and fill in an application to join my team.
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