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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
March 08, 2022
Training to failure is the single most effective method for hypertrophy training...or is it? Let's dig into some science and find out if we really need to train until our arms are about to explode or if that's just something that has been brewed up in the bro lab.
In this article, we will answer the following questions (with studies as proof):
One of the main issues with training to failure is actually distinguishing what "failure" is. Training to failure could mean different things such as performing reps until there’s a break in form. However, in the context of this paper, training to failure will imply repetition failure. In other words, it's training with a specific load to the point that you can't perform any more reps. One little nuance to keep in mind here is that you're really not at muscular "failure" here as you could likely drop the weight and perform more reps; also known as performing drop sets. While that can really start making things complicated, the majority of studies examining training to failure use repetition failure.
One of the best ways to examine any possible benefits is to analyze studies that have compared training to failure and not training to failure to see what tangible benefits really exist.
A study examined multiple alterations that occurred between training to failure and not training to failure, including increases in strength and power. They reported that while both groups improved in strength and power production, they were basically the same. However, there was also evidence that training to failure decreased in subsequent max efforts, likely due to greater recovery being required. The only beneficial benefit to the training to failure group was an increase in local muscle endurance. As it's safe to say the majority of lifters use training to failure for hypertrophy, this study shows that doesn't seem to happen.
This finding seems to be the case for the vast majority of studies examining this training method. In fact, a large meta-analysis was just conducted in 2021 that looked at all available studies comparing training to failure to not training to failure. In total, 15 studies were examined and compared. They found that training to failure produced no distinguishable benefits for strength or hypertrophy. One caveat would be that this conclusion applies to studies where volume was equated for. When the volume wasn't equated for, training to failure did produce some benefits for muscle hypertrophy. However, as this did not occur when the volume was equated for, these benefits likely came merely from the extra volume performed. This makes sense as when someone is training to failure, they're probably pushing a little harder resulting in more work. So even still, it seems as though volume is the main driver for muscle hypertrophy. Perhaps the main lesson here is to keep pushing even when you experience discomfort. However, in the same study, strength gains favored (albeit small) not training to failure when the volume wasn't equated.
If you still choose to use training to failure in your training, you need to consider the fact that it is tough and highly demanding on your body. However, this increased demand isn't necessarily good and can have a very real detrimental effect on the entire body.
Studies examining the effect of training to failure on the body have demonstrated that it can actually delay recovery from 24-48 hours! That's 1-2 days where you cannot train at your true potential. One thing that serious lifters need to be aware of is that training to failure consistently can also significantly alter our endocrine system in the opposite manner we want. Studies have shown that if used too frequently, training to failure can significantly increase the catabolic stress hormone cortisol while decreasing the anabolic hormone IGF-1.
This is a factor to consider when looking at your training schedule. If you have to train back on Monday and then again on Wednesday, training to failure will likely cause overlap in your recovery. However, if you only train your back once per week, training to failure may be a more viable method of training. That being said, check out this article to see why you should be training two times a week!
One area that does need to be addressed in terms of training to failure is that the load you're using could increase or decrease, any benefits you may see. To clarify, studies have shown that training to failure may be of more importance when using lighter loads as opposed to heavy loads. When we think about strength training with loads of >85%1RM, performing one more rep is exponentially more difficult. Think about using 90%1RM and jumping from 3 reps to 5 reps. That's basically impossible, yet we're only talking about 2 reps. In other words, there's not much difference between training to failure and not training to failure.
Now think about using a light load of 65%1RM. Due to the light load, you're able to dig deep and perform more reps when performing to failure. Now we can confidently say there will be a distinct difference meaning that training to failure is more important. Keep in mind that this likely has more to do with volume than directly deriving from training to failure, but keep in mind when training.
Further, a study from 2012 noticed that participants who were trained to failure had significantly higher nucleotide adenosine monophosphate or AMP for short. This is important as this only occurs during the time of fatigue and when a cell is totally drained. When this happens, protein synthesis also decreases, which is not ideal for muscle growth.
So, this leaves the inevitable question; when should you train to failure? For starters, it's a stretch to even say that you "should" train to failure as we have seen multiple large studies which have shown that it is not required for growth. Perhaps the better word to use would be "could".
So let's say that you still want to train to failure as a method for building muscle; what's the best way to go about that? There are a few basic guidelines you should follow:
To be clear, you can still push it on the other exercises; in fact, you should. However, you don't need to work every set of every exercise until total exhaustion.
When it comes to optimizing your strength and hypertrophy training, properly managing volume and adequate recovery are still your best two tools. While training to failure might be able to offer some benefits, the best method for optimizing your training is to use progressive overload within a structured program.
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