You know the guys:
DO YOU EVEN LIFT stringers…Waffen-SS haircuts…Oompa Loompa tans…hell, lip gloss (yeah, I’ve seen it)…barking “ONE MORE REP!!!” and lifting bars off each other when they finally run out of juice (get it?)…
We might think they look ridiculous, but maybe the joke’s on us? Maybe training to failure is the secret to gains? (Or is it the lip gloss or horrible taste in clothing?)
Well, like optimal rep ranges and training frequency, the subject of whether to train to failure (the point at which you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set) or not is a contentious one.
Experts disagree left and right, legit-sounding scientific arguments can be made for a variety of positions, and many people report success with many different approaches.
Looking around the gym won’t help you either.
You’ll find some bodybuilders and powerlifters training to failure regularly while others seem to rarely push themselves to that limit.
Well, in this article, I’m going to discuss some scientific research that lends insight on the matter as well as what I’ve learned through my experiences in my own training and with the thousands of people I’ve worked with.
The logic of training to failure usually goes like this:
As progressive overload is the primary drive of muscle growth, if you don’t take each set to failure, you’re not telling your muscles to grow. You’re telling them they’re strong enough to handle the load. If you want to tell them to grow, you need to push them to do what they can’t…i.e. to the point of failure.
This line of thinking seems sound, but plenty of elite powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and bodybuilders rarely train to failure and they’re huge and strong. What gives?
I hate to sound cynical, but you have to remember how much drug use occurs in those sports, and steroids change everything. You can build large amounts of muscle following training programs that would be quite ineffective for natural weightlifters.
Some people will point to “pre-steroid” bodybuilders like Reg Park, Steve Reeves, and John Grimek, who didn’t train to failure regularly, but I don’t think we can be so sure they were drug-free. Testosterone was first synthesized in 1935 and was being using in Olympic weightlifting circles in the 50s, and those early bodybuilding legends were carrying quite a bit more lean mass than a natural weightlifter should be able to build.
So, if we can’t draw any meaningful conclusions on training to failure from what we see among the best weightlifters, maybe scientific research can help?
You can find plenty of studies that claim to involve training to failure, but in many cases researchers didn’t determine if failure was truly achieved, and there’s a dearth of research involved volume-matched training protocols. That is, it’s hard to find studies that have two groups do the same exercises and number of sets, with one group training to true failure in those sets and the other not.
That said, there are three studies I know of that meet this criterion.
The first study was conducted by researchers at the University of Tsukuba (Japan), and it investigated the effects of training to failure on a few exercises performed in the 10RM range: the Lat Pulldown, Shoulder Press, and Knee Extension.
One group of subjects followed a straightforward protocol of doing a set, reaching the point of muscular failure, resting 60 seconds, and doing another. The other group did half of a set, not reaching the point of muscular failure, rested 30 seconds, and then finished the second half, again not reaching the point of muscular failure.
Both groups did the same number of sets and reps, but the group that achieved muscular failure each set built more muscle than the group that didn’t. Scientists weren’t sure why, but their research indicated that muscular failure is an important factor in hypertrophy.
The second study was conducted by researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport. Elite basketball and soccer players did Bench Press training three times per week for six weeks, performing a total of 24 repetitions, with one group performing 4 sets of 6 reps to failure (100 to 105% of 6RM) and the other 8 sets of 3 reps not to failure (with no less than 60% of 6RM).
The result? The group that trained to failure gained about 5% more strength and power than the group that didn’t.
The final study to review was conducted by researchers at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School (UK), and it had subjects performing isometric leg contractions with one group following a protocol of shorter contractions (less fatigue) and the other longer (more fatigue).
The result was the group performing longer contractions built more muscle than the short-contraction group. While I feel this study is worth mentioning for the purpose of discussing training to failure, this type of research is often used to sell people on “super-slow training,” which is not more effective than traditional rep tempos.
The evidence is limited, but it does indicate that training to failure is superior for building strength and size.
That said, I actually don’t recommend that you train to failure every set, every workout…
Training to failure seems to have benefits in terms of building muscle and strength, but that doesn’t mean we should always train to failure every set of every workout.
The biggest risk is the fact that training to failure often leads to a breakdown in form, especially in higher rep ranges, which increases the risk of injury.
One of the reasons this occurs is because as our muscles become fatigued, we lose the ability to accurately feel what we’re doing with our bodies. We think we’re keeping our form in, but we’re not.
This is especially true in the case of certain exercises like the Deadlift, Squat, and Military Press, which are very hard to do properly when pushed to the point of absolute failure. Your last couple of reps often get sloppy, and it doesn’t take much to tweak a muscle or joint.
The other notable risk is the fact that the more you train to failure, the more likely you are to overtrain.
Research shows that training to failure causes marked amounts of muscle damage and neuromuscular stress that can, over time, reduce the effectiveness of training or even cause muscle shrinkage. This can be managed with proper deloading, however, which involves reducing training intensity for periods of time.
The science is clear: we should be training to failure, but not so much that we risk injury and overtrain. Exactly how much that amounts to will vary from person to person, however.
Personally, I never train to failure for more than 2 to 3 sets per workout, and never on the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, or Military Press as this can be dangerous. Furthermore, I don’t recommend you train to failure when you’re using very heavy loads (1 to 4 rep range).
If you’re following my Bigger Leaner Stronger program, which focuses on the 4 to 6 rep range, you can include some training to failure (but I still don’t recommend more than 2 to 3 sets to failure per workout).
The majority of your sets should be taken to the rep preceding failure (the last rep you can perform without assistance). If you’re new to weightlifting, finding this point will be tricky, but as you get used to your body and your lifts, you’ll get a feel for it.
Many guys mistakenly think that lighter, higher-rep training is equally effective to heavier, lower-rep training if sets are taken to failure.
This simply isn’t true.
Training to failure doesn’t override what researchers call the “strength-endurance-continuum”, which explains why natural weightlifters must emphasize heavy, compound weightlifting to achieve optimal strength and muscle gains.
If you want to read more about this, check out my article on the science of muscle hypertrophy.