Training to failure is a technique seasoned bodybuilders use to enhance muscle growth. Pushing reps to muscle failure is a good strategy for shocking your muscles and doing so can help you break through a stubborn strength-training plateau. However, failure training is controversial as it places significant stress on your muscles and unless you do it judiciously, can lead to overtraining and even be counterproductive.
First, what does it mean to work your muscles to failure? It refers to working your muscles with repeated reps to the point that you’re unable to complete another one due to muscle fatigue. To complete another rep, you would need assistance and your form would break down.
So, why would you want to subject your muscles to failure? To enhance strength and muscle growth, of course. When you work a muscle to the point that it’s physically unable to do another repetition, it creates greater metabolic stress. This metabolic stress triggers the release of more growth hormone and testosterone, based on some research and these hormones are anabolic. Plus, you recruit more muscle fibers and more fast-twitch muscle fibers, the kind most strongly associated with strength development. Some studies show that training to failure leads to greater muscle growth as well.
Training to failure places stress not only on your muscles but your nervous system as well. Just as your muscles can become overly fatigued using this strategy, so can your nervous system and you want to avoid that. So, if you’re going to do some sets to failure, be judicious. Here are five tips for getting the most out of training to failure and when you should and shouldn’t do it.
Don’t train to failure every time you work out
Training a muscle to failure too often can turn on your body’s stress response and boost the level of catabolic hormones, like cortisol. If adrenal glands start pumping out more cortisol, it can interfere with strength and hypertrophy gains. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that opposes the anabolic activity of growth hormone and triggers muscle breakdown. A study carried out by Spanish researchers found that training to failure stresses muscles to the point that they’re depleted of energy, as measured by an increase in AMP, a cellular energy signal that cells are depleted of energy. When the energy status of a cell is low, it’s not going to devote its limited resources to muscle protein synthesis So, training to failure every workout works against you if you’re trying to gain muscle size. Taking sets to failure provides a stimulus for your muscles to grow – but don’t do it every time you train.
Don’t train to failure every set
Just as you don’t want to do sets to failure every training session, don’t do it every set either. A reasonable approach is to go to failure on the final set of an exercise on a few exercises. There’s no point in going to failure when you still have two sets of an exercise to do. You’ll only exhaust the muscle and limit the total volume you can do. Save failure for the final set when it doesn’t matter if the muscle is spent.
Don’t train to failure if you’re a beginner
Taking sets to failure is counterproductive when you first start weight training. For the first six months of training, focus on learning good technique using a predetermined number of reps and sets that will fatigue the muscles you’re working. You don’t need the additional stress on your muscles as a beginner that training to failure subjects them too. You should make gains quite nicely using a standard approach to training your muscles to fatigue but not failure.
Not every exercise is ideal for training to failure
The last thing you want is to use sloppy form to eke out an additional rep. With certain exercises, like squats and deadlifts, going to failure can lead to a major breakdown in form and a higher risk of injury. Choose the exercises you take to failure wisely. Doing overhead presses to failure could lead to a painful shoulder dislocation or another injury. So, choose your exercises carefully.
You don’t have to train to failure to achieve growth
Research shows that you can gain strength and muscle size without training to failure. It’s not a prerequisite for improving your physique. You’ll make gains, especially in the beginning, if you stop one to two reps before failure. Where training to failure is most useful is when you reach a plateau and need a new stimulus to get your muscles to grow. There are other ways, besides training to failure, to break through a plateau. You can adjust other parameters such as weight, reps, sets, and tempo.
But, also keep in mind that studies show that training to failure can boost your strength gains. In one study participants who bench pressed to muscle, failure gained 5% more strength relative to those who didn’t train to failure. So, done judiciously, training to momentary muscle failure can help you make greater gains.
The Bottom Line
Should you work your muscles to failure or not? If you’re looking for greater growth, include some sets to failure. How often and how many depends on how experienced you are as a weightlifter. If you’ve only been training for six months, take your sets to muscle fatigue but not to failure. Wait until you’ve been training a while and have mastered the form on the exercises you’re doing. Even if you’ve been training a while, don’t do it on every set. A good rule of thumb is to take the last set of an exercise to failure.
As mentioned, it’s not a good idea to take exercises that are already challenging to perform to failure. Good examples are military presses, squats, and deadlifts. Also, lighten up on the weight a bit if you’re taking a set to failure as the weight will be harder to control on the last rep.
Now, you know why you should train to failure if you’re experienced and when you should or shouldn’t do it. Use it as a tool to encourage further muscle group – but use it cautiously.
Bodybuilding.com. “Ask The Muscle Prof: Is Training To Failure Helping Or Hurting Me?”
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Sports Med. 2013 Mar;43(3):179-94.
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