Training to failure is a popular approach used by many hardcore bodybuilders. By using this approach, they hope to make greater gains in muscle size and strength. When you push a muscle to failure, you take it to the point that it is incapable of generating enough force to complete another rep. Studies show that training to failure is effective for building strength and muscle size – but is it necessary to maximize gains and could it actually be counterproductive in some ways?
Is Training to Failure Necessary?
Studies call into question whether you need to use failure training at all. A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2018 compared training at different intensities – 80% of one-rep max and 30% of one-rep max. One group of participants was instructed to lift to failure while the other lifted until volitional interruption, the point at which they felt like they could only do a few more reps and stopped voluntarily. Interestingly, both groups experienced similar gains in muscle strength and size. Gains were comparable regardless of the intensity at which they lifted as well.
What’s interesting is even when the subjects lifted at a lower intensity (30% of one-rep max), they still showed similar gains in strength and muscle size, despite not lifting to failure. This calls into question previous studies that show if you lift lighter, you have to lift to the point of failure to see significant gains in muscle strength and size.
What’s more, a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2012, found there’s a certain plateau called the “activation plateau.” Once you hit the activation plateau, you’ve maximized your gains and there’s no additional benefit to completing more reps. In the study, they found that the activation plateau was reached 3-5 reps BEFORE muscle failure. These studies suggest that you don’t need to force your muscles to work to failure to maximize your gains. You only need to work hard enough to reach the activation plateau, about 3-5 reps BEFORE failure.
As Chris Beardsley points out in an article on Medium.com, when you lift heavy you maximize the recruitment of motor units from the first rep due to the high resistance you’re using. So, taking a set to fatigue or failure provides no additional motor unit recruitment. Therefore, taking heavy sets to failure may offer no additional benefits in terms of muscle gains as you’ve already maximized motor unit recruitment. As he points out, where training to failure would be more beneficial is when you’re using a lighter weight, less than 85% of one-rep max, because you need to fatigue the muscle to maximize muscle fiber recruitment.
Why Would You NOT Want to Train to Failure?
The disadvantage of training to failure is you subject your joints to more stress – and your nervous system is also forced to work harder when you push to failure. Do it often and you could end up injured or over-trained. Training to failure is self-defeating if it causes an injury that keeps you from training. Preventing injuries should always be a priority! With studies showing there are no additional benefits once you reach the activation plateau, there’s no need to go to failure. You can still get maximal benefits without increasing your risk of injury.
Also, when you over-train, it activates the stress response and your adrenal glands pump out more cortisol, a stress hormone that’s catabolic. Too much cortisol makes it harder to build muscle and it can actually trigger muscle breakdown. Not to mention, cortisol suppresses your immune system and has other undesirable effects, like increasing bone loss, triggering inflammation, and disrupting blood sugar regulation. So, you want to keep cortisol in check and one way to do that is not to over-train, deprive yourself of sleep, restrict calories too much, or subject yourself to long periods of stress.
If you’re a beginner, you should definitely avoid training to failure. Stick to the standard approach to training. To maximize muscle hypertrophy, choose a weight that’s 60 to 80% of your one-rep max and do 8 to 10 reps. This should allow you to meet the activation plateau without overstressing your muscles. Also, choose your exercises carefully. Some exercises are safer to take to failure than others.
Should You Ever Train to Failure?
Based on recent research, it doesn’t look like you HAVE to train to muscle failure to maximize strength and hypertrophy gains, but are there times you should? If you’re struggling to break through a strength or hypertrophy plateau, taking some sets to failure may help your muscles grow by “shocking” them. When you train to failure you know you have achieved maximum muscle activation.
Failure training also creates metabolic stress. In other words, when you force a muscle to work to complete exhaustion or failure, you stimulate the release of anabolic hormones, like testosterone and growth hormone. So, when you go to failure you maximize muscle activation and the release of anabolic hormones. If you’ve reached a plateau, this extra “push” may be what you need to jumpstart your growth. So, there is a place for failure training, although it’s not something you HAVE to do to make substantial gains.
The Bottom Line
You can still build muscle size and strength without training your muscles to failure. On the other hand, if you’ve reached a plateau and need to shake up your training a bit, taking some sets to failure may provide an additional stimulus for growth and strength gains. If you perform sets to failure, do them when using lighter weights rather than heavy ones that are greater than 85% of your one-rep max. Most importantly, don’t overdo it. A few sets to failure on some days is enough to get benefits.
OnFitness. July/August 2018. “Is Training to Failure Required for Success?”
Medium.com. “What does training to failure actually achieve?” Chris Beardsley
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