Training to Failure

As a novice, I remember reading all the classic muscle magazines and came to the conclusion that training to failure was the best way to progress. You had to ‘tear the muscle fibers down in order to rebuild it bigger & stronger’. I never stopped to question this piece of advice, I mainly figured that if the big guys are doing it, then it must be true.

As a more experienced lifter, I now realize that this isn’t true. If I had to draw a hard line in the sand, I would suggest very rarely, if ever, training to failure. However, much like everything in life, reality is more nuanced than that.

Just so that there is not confusion with my thoughts, I define failure as the inability to complete a repetition (duh), which can be broken down into either technical or mechanical failure.

  • Technical Failure would be where the form breaks down to a significant degree, that the movement pattern no longer looks like the regular movement pattern. E.g., hitching on the deadlift, excessive caving in (adduction) of the knees during the squat, using momentum to complete a pull-up, not squatting deep enough, not achieving full hip extension at the top of the deadlift.
  • Mechanical Failure is when the movement can’t actually be completed. E.g., you have to drop a deadlift, you can’t stand back up at all in a squat, your chin doesn’t reach the height of the bar in a pull-up etc.

This discussion will ignore lifts when performed in any competition, since the goal is to compete and win, not build and train the body. This is an article about training, not testing. It’s also not the best idea to watch high level competitors on the day of their meet for cues on how to perform any movement. There are so many other things you can observe and learn from them on meet days. I would prefer you to watch their training videos, as this shows a more realistic picture (well as far as social media publicity is concerned) of how the elite level athlete will train and perform a movement – most of the time their form during training will be what you want to take lessons from.

When developing strength, the main goal isn’t to test the body’s capabilities, it is to build those capabilities. Whenever we train to failure, my intuition tells me that we have shifted from building up, to testing how far we can push these limits. Strength isn’t created in one session, it is built over repeated bouts of exposure and subsequent adaptation. Logic would tell me that if I were to keep adding weight to the squat in one session, to the point where I failed, this wouldn’t be teaching my body anything other than, I can’t squat 495lbs. It is not the most effective strategy to help achieve my goal of squatting 495lbs, no matter how many times I performed this activity.

You can’t get stronger all the time and this is a simple truth that we must recognize. Training allows us to approach the physiologic limits of our current neuromuscular (mind-muscle) development, muscle size, and our body weight’s genetic ceiling for absolute strength gain.

Dr Jordan Feigenbaum

There are a couple of concepts that must be understood to discuss increasing strength. The Stress Recovery Adaptation cycle, is a theoretical concept that means that we must stress the body to a certain amount, allow it to recover, which will drive an adaptation above the base line.

The next concept involves hypertrophy, which is the process of increasing muscle cell size. Generally, the more muscle mass you have, the more cells you will have available to exert force on an external load (strength). Once you have increased the size of your muscle cells, you must train them to produce the type of force you want, neural adaptation and specificity.

If you want to get increase your one rep max on a low bar back squat, by it’s nature, you must practice low bar back squatting for singles. Doing sets of 10 will not be an effective pathway to drive up single rep strength, no matter how heavy the weight is for a set of 10. Our bodies really like to get better at things we repeatedly do. You can’t get better at running by walking, you can’t get better at sprinting by running a mile. So it comes down to coordination and practice. By performing the specific movements we want to improve at, we improve our ability to perform those movements – it sounds cyclical. Because it is.

When we combine our increased muscle size and our proficiency in the movement, the result is an increase in displayed strength – we are able to squat more weight for a single rep. Obviously, there is a lot more to developing strength than these concepts.

No Magic Bullets

Many bros and magazines will tell you that in order to quickly pack on muscle mass or quickly gain strength, you HAVE to train to failure, and if you don’t you’re not tough enough. This is far from the truth, training to failure can have its place in a training program, but more often than not, it doesn’t need to be part of anybody’s training program.

The truth is that strength gains come about with repeated bouts of training over the long run. There is no magic bullet to increasing muscle mass or increasing strength output. All that a person can do is work hard for a very long time.

Injury

Strength based activities in some form or another are one of the safest physical activities a person can do. I mention this because strength development over the long term is what I care most about, I don’t care how much you increase your squat in one year, I care about how you progress over one decade and beyond. Lifting to failure regularly has the potential to increase your chances of injury during a given training session. Because one single session of weight training is inconsequential over a 10 year period, however one injury can have significant impacts in the medium term. The risk-reward payoff just isn’t there.

Now, as we move into more intense and technical types of weightlifting, like CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, the injury rate rose, but not nearly as much as you might think. These activities produced just 2 to 4 injuries per 1,000 hours of training.
For comparison, sports like ice hockey, football, soccer, and rugby have injury rates ranging from 6 to 260 per 1,000 hours, and long-distance runners can expect about 10 injuries per 1,000 hours of pavement pounding.

Legion Athletics

I don’t think there are any studies out there that can show a link between training to failure with an increase chance of injury. However, I would propose the logical argument that if you push past your limits on a regular basis in an unsafe manner, then there is a potential for higher chance of injury exposure.

Hypertrophy

One could argue that, training to failure isn’t required for simply gianing strength, but is a requirement for putting on slabs of muscle. Again, this is not necessarily true. Hypertrophy requires weights that range from 50%-80% of one rep max. The more volume you can do, the more effective the training is for hypertrophy. This shouldn’t just be thought of within a workout session, but over the course of a week. It would be far less stressful on the body to lift 315lbs for four sets of four reps twice per week, than eight sets of four reps in one day.

The repeated exposure to medium level weights for a lot of volume is what’s going to help drive muscle growth. Not burning out and being unable to move the next day. In fact, there is no scientific link between DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and hypertrophy outcomes. I.e., how sore you are the next day isn’t an indicator of how good your workout was. In fact, some newer studies suggest that DOMS is sign of bad programming and should be minimized.

Balance

Training to failure is very taxing on the mind, body and nervous system. The biggest problem of frequently training to failure is the huge demands it places on the body, it requires a lot of rest for the body. It is very draining, meaning less ‘lighter’ work can be achieved. E.g., if squatting 405lbs meant you failed at 5 reps, but if you had picked 385lbs and were able to not only get 6 reps, but also take on another set of 6, you were able to get more tonnage within a squat session, without having to go to failure.

When lifting weights 80% of 1RM, all motor units are recruited. It is unnecessary to go to failure in order to activate the entire muscle belly. So again, science shows that sub-maximal weights lifted repeatedly is effective at hypertrophy outcomes.

There are also studies that show that training to failure could also impede muscle growth. If this is even slightly possible, why take the risk of training to failure, when I can train at sub-failure intensities and both get the same results, without the possibility of impaired muscle growth?

This is not all to say that training to failure isn’t effective. There are a few studies that show that training to failure does have beneficial effects for both strength and hypertrophy. But what the studies also show, is that the same results can be achieved without training to failure. This is where I would take some liberty and put forward my opinion, it’s not a matter of training hard or smart, it’s a concept of plan smart and train hard. If I can get the exact same results without adding undue stress on the body, then why would I not do that?

Training to failure also won’t be the reason your growth stagnates and you become an injury laden person. Training to failure regularly just might not be the most effective way to build either strength or hypertrophy. It can potentially increase the chance of injury, since you’re training past your body’s physical limits.

I would keep the training to failure as just another tool in the toolkit, that I would rarely use. I would also strongly advise against training to failure for beginners, or anyone with less than a years worth of training experience. This is because the body is still learning motor patterns and the risk is not worth the reward in my opinion.

This isn’t an article telling you to not train hard. Training hard with heavy loads is completely necessary. You want to aim to be anywhere in the 60-99% of your one rep max or training in the 6-9.5 RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) range or have 3-1 reps in reserve. These are huge ranges, because the ranges are all within the range of what constitutes successful weights to lift when looking at strength & hypertrophy.

In conclusion, considering the evidence regarding untrained subjects, it seems plausible to suggest that HI-RT to failure is not necessary for maximal increases in strength and hypertrophy. On the other hand, repetitions to failure seem essential for increases in muscle strength and mass of similar magnitude to HI-RT when performing LI-RT

Sanmy R. Nóbrega and Cleiton A. Libardi

TL;DR

  • Training to failure isn’t a magic bullet that will neither expedite the process of strength/hypertrophy improvements nor will is it more effective than sub-failure training
  • Research shows subjects that trained to failure and those that didn’t were able to achieve similar results
  • There is a balance that must be struck between pushing the limits and continuing training
  • Plan smart and work hard. Don’t think that I’m suggesting your workouts not be taxing and demanding. But take a smarter approach to training.
  • Training to failure appears to be more effective for more advanced trainees.
  • Listen to your body!

References:

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