You’ve probably gotten your fair share of muscle-building advice if you spend a significant portion of your day in the gym. And one of the most common pieces of advice? Probably that you need to train to failure — where you only ever end a set when it becomes physically impossible to move the weight any further.
In training lingo, “hitting failure” entails you attempting a rep, but failing to complete it. It is believed that you’re subjecting your muscles to maximum training stimulus when performing “failure training.” On the contrary, some skeptics say that training to failure can negatively affect the rest of a workout, or remaining workouts that week by creating a disproportionate amount of fatigue. This would affect total weekly volume, and muscle hypertrophy suffers as a result.
So — which side is correct: does training to failure lead to higher rates of muscle growth, or is it just a “bro” tool that would eventually hinder your gains?
It seems that the answers can be found within this study done in 2018.
Ten men with 2–4 years of lifting experience were rounded up by the investigators.
The researchers aimed to examine how fatigue and recovery changes with time when training protocols with different combinations of these variables were used:
- Failure training
- Non-failure training
- Training sessions with high repetitions
- Training sessions with low repetitions
All protocols consisted of three sets, with some involving training to failure and others, stopping short of failure at different stages.
Fatigue was assessed through subjects’ vertical jump height, average velocity against a load, and a range of biochemical parameters.
In general, the results of the study were quite clear. The protocols to failure, and particularly those where high repetitions were performed (6–12 reps per set), caused greater and longer-lasting measured fatigue than non-failure protocols.
Additionally, they were found to have elicited the most significant acute response in biochemical markers. Specifically, creatine kinase — an enzyme which is commonly used to assess muscle damage — was found to be significantly elevated at 48 hours (still!) in all failure training protocols.
Wait — what did that mean?
The study has demonstrated that training to failure on the major compound exercises at a reasonable volume diminishes performance for at least 48 hours (or maybe longer). This lingering fatigue could potentially impact training sessions later in the week, and lead to failure in meeting overarching training guidelines.
Just to put it into perspective, let’s say your individualized volume is 12 sets on squat over a frequency of three times per week.
If you train to failure:
Monday — 70% of 1RM (One Rep Max)
- Set 1: 15 reps
- Set 2: 10 reps
- Set 3: 7 reps
- Set 4: 6 reps
- Set 5: 5 reps
Friday — You’ve probably only recovered from Monday’s training here
- Bad news: you still have 7 more sets to go for the week.
As you can see, training to failure may allow you to achieve more volume within a session, but it introduces the risk of lowering your overall volume for the week. And as you know, overall volume is more critical than volume in a single session.
The findings of this study appears to gel with current scientific literature.
A team of Brazilian scientists found that there were no observable differences in muscle gains between a group of participants who lifted to failure, and another which stopped with a few reps short of failure. Another study conducted in 2016 demonstrated similar muscle adaptations in men who trained their biceps to failure, versus those who did not.
When should failure training be used?
You don’t have to kick failure training to the curb just because it doesn’t help with greater muscle hypertrophy. It can still be a useful tool in the right context.
- Assistance movements — It is much easier to train to failure on assistance movements. You can take your leg extensions, bicep curls, and dumbbell lateral raises to failure — that’s okay. The consequences of failure on your Central Nervous System (CNS) are lower for single-joint assistance movements.
- Exercises where you’re not able to use much weight — Even if they’re training as intensely as they can, less experienced gym-goers just cannot tax themselves as much as their seasoned counterparts. It might be beneficial to train to failure on those exercises where you can only push lighter loads so you can still maximize your weekly volume for those muscle groups.
- Last working set — Remember: training to failure does not have to be an all-or-none principle. You could simply perform your very last set of bench press to failure on a Friday session and add in selective accessory work. This can give you some of the perks of training to failure without its drawbacks.
- A week before a deload — If you’ve got a deload, or a light week coming up, there is no reason why you shouldn’t perform failure training.
It should be pretty clear to you by now that failure training does not lead to more significant hypertrophy. Nevertheless, there may be specific contexts and situations where training to failure can be used. Think of it as a way to keep things fun for yourself — it does not have to be the focus of your workout.
Still not sure when you should train to failure, and when you shouldn’t? No worries — GymStreak’s AI-powered gym workout trainer calculates the individualized optimal weights you should lift based on your feedback. This ensures that all workouts are challenging, and stimulates your muscles in just the right amounts.
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Nóbrega, S. R., Ugrinowitsch, C., Pintanel, L., Barcelos, C., & Libardi, C. A. (2018). Effect of Resistance Training to Muscle Failure vs. Volitional Interruption at High- and Low-Intensities on Muscle Mass and Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(1), 162–169. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001787
Pareja-Blanco, F., Rodríguez-Rosell, D., Aagaard, P., Sánchez-Medina, L., Ribas-Serna, J., Mora-Custodio, R., … González-Badillo, J. J. (2018). Time Course of Recovery From Resistance Exercise With Different Set Configurations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002756
Sampson, J. A., & Groeller, H. (2016). Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength? Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 26(4), 375–383. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12445