To build lean body mass, you need to subject your muscles to greater stress than they’re accustomed to through structured resistance training. By overloading your muscles in a progressive manner, they grow and become stronger. The ultimate form of overload is training to temporary muscle failure. This is a common approach strength athletes use to gain strength. Some bodybuilders also use this technique to build muscle, although not necessarily with every time they work out. Is this the ideal approach? How important is it to lift to failure for muscle growth?
What Do We Mean By “Lift To Failure”?
Lifting to failure means doing as many reps as you can while using good form. Even when your muscles are “zonked,” you continue to lift until it’s a struggle to move the weight. At this point, doing another rep with decent form should feel almost impossible. When you lift to failure, you work the muscle to the point that it’s depleted of ATP and no further contractions at that resistance are doable. If you stop and rest for a minute or two, the muscles you worked have a chance to make more ATP to fuel more muscle contractions so you can complete another set. During the rest between sets, waste products like acids and lactate are cleared from the muscle as well.
Lifting to failure doesn’t mean you can’t complete another repetition using a LIGHTER weight. If you reduce the amount of resistance once you’ve worked a muscle to failure, you may be able to do more reps but only if you reduce the load. It’s easy to see how exposing a muscle to this degree of stress would cause it to grow and become stronger. Training to failure recruits the maximal number of muscle fibers. Plus, it elicits a hormonal effect that boosts muscle growth. Progressive overload without training to failure also boosts muscle growth when you do sufficient volume.
What Does Research Show about Muscle Hypertrophy and Training to Failure?
Unfortunately, many of the studies looking at training to failure and not training to failure didn’t use a similar volume of training between the two comparison groups. One 2012 study looked at muscle activity with participants hooked up to EMG as they did lateral raises to failure with a load of 15RM. The measurements showed muscle activity actually peaked and plateaued between the 10th and 12th rep, suggesting it may not be necessary to lift to failure to maximize muscle fiber recruitment.
When you look at studies comparing training to failure versus not training to failure using equal volume, the results are mixed. Some studies show lifting to failure may enhance muscle growth more than not training to failure, although there isn’t enough good research to draw firm conclusions.
Intensity versus Volume
One problem with training to failure is it reduces the amount of total volume you can do due to the greater intensity of taking sets to failure. Volume is clearly a stimulus, and an important one, for muscle growth. When you train to muscle failure, you’re trading volume for intensity. Another problem with training to failure is its difficulty. It’s hard to push yourself to keep going when your muscles are screaming at you to stop! It takes a lot of focus and motivation to push through to failure. Plus, training to failure every time you work out can lead to overuse injuries.
Research points to another potential drawback to training to failure too often. Three studies show regularly training to muscle failure decreases growth hormone, a stimulus for muscle growth. Plus, lifting to failure leads to “central fatigue”, meaning the message from your brain to your muscles weakens. As a result, your performance may be reduced for subsequent sets. One way to overcome this is to lift to failure on your last few sets only.
What Does This Mean?
It’s not clear whether training to failure leads to greater muscle growth than non-failure training. It appears you can maximize muscle fiber recruitment without reaching failure. On the other hand, lifting to muscle failure during some resistance training sessions is a good way to challenge your muscles and another way to boost muscle growth, especially if you’ve reached a plateau. This is what we do in my new Ripped With HiiT workout series.
How can you take advantage of this? During some sessions, focus on intensity and lift to failure on some sets. During other sessions, focus more on volume and reduce the intensity. There are a number of ways to periodize your workouts so you’re getting the benefits of intensity and volume. Periodization will also reduce your risk for overtraining and overuse injuries.
What you want to avoid is training to failure every session all the time. Doing this will put you at greater risk for overuse injury and overtraining. Just as importantly, don’t sacrifice form, especially when you’re lifting to failure.
The Bottom Line?
You can build lean body mass without reaching muscular failure. Whether you can get greater gains through failure training is unclear. During such intense lifts, you build up significant amounts of lactic acid and this triggers the release of muscle growth factors. It also maximizes muscle fiber recruitment. The downside is you have to reduce the total volume of your training and volume is an important stimulus for muscle growth. Plus, failure training takes a lot of motivation and willingness to push through to complete fatigue.
The solution may be to periodize your workouts to emphasize intensity (training to failure) some sessions and volume other times in a cyclical pattern. Even for those times, you are lifting to failure, don’t do it for every set. Give your muscles enough recovery time to avoid overtraining.
Strength and Conditioning Research website. “Does Training to Muscular Failure Lead to Greater Hypertrophy?”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 21(2), 628-631.
“Training to Failure” Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 26(9): 1160-11-64.
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