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When it comes to using weight training, specifically for the purpose of building new muscle tissue, it has been a generalised norm for trainers to lift until failure. The benefits, we are told, include greater strength gain, greater muscle growth potential, and a seriously enhanced pump. However, do we really need to train until failure?
Training until failure is a method that has been ingrained into the ‘lifter’s motto’ for decades. If you didn’t train until failure, then you didn’t work the muscle hard enough. If you could still lift your arms after curls, or bend down after a leg session, you practically wasted your time. Maybe not to that extreme, but the biggest, usually advanced, guy in your gym will probably answer with a resounding ‘yes’.
The idea behind training until failure makes logical sense, to an extent. Empirically, exhausting the muscle would lead to greater gains in strength, size, and pump, but that doesn’t make it an effective method. Think of it as a short-term victory; you have reached the muscles limits but now you need to wait twice as long until it is recovered before you can use it again. To use a cliché: “You may have won the battle but you have lost the war”.
A study in the Scandinavian Journal Of Medicine & Science In Sports (Sampson and Groeller, 2016, p. 375-383) tasked a group of college-aged men to perform 4 sets of arm curls, where they could go until failure or stop when they felt their performance was sufficient, with 85% of their one-rep max (1RM). The study was conducted over 12 weeks, after which, bicep measurements were taken. The failure group averaged on 6 reps per set, and the non-failure averaged on 4 reps per set. The results showed that the growth in biceps between the two groups was similar. It should be noted that the participants were newcomers to lifting, which could account for the fluctuations.
Perhaps we can’t draw any solid conclusions from non-experienced lifters, so what about the experienced guys who have long since outgrown the initial stages of training?
According to the Strength & Conditioning Journal (Williardson, Norton, and Wilson, 2010, p. 21-29), in their study, Training to failure and beyond in mainstream resistance exercise programs, we can only speculate on the validity of claims that state experienced trainers need to train until failure, as this is the only way to achieve maximal muscle usage. At the current time, there is no definitive evidence to state that experienced lifters absolutely have to train until failure, in order to reap the supposed benefits.
Well, to be blunt, yes. The constant, and consistent, training-until-failure method could simply be injuring muscle tissue unnecessarily. The recovery time for that muscle tissue increases exponentially, and so too do the recovery requirements, i.e. nutrients, rest, and so on.
Furthermore, and possibly more consequentially, you cannot perform the equal total volume as you were previously able to. As volume has been deemed to be one of the biggest driving forces behind lean muscle growth, the reduction in volume could also mean the reduction in total muscle protein synthesis stimulation.
Finally, the incessant battering your body takes while training until failure will, eventually, result in some manner of overtraining, whether physically or mentally. As we all know, lifting is not just a physical battle, but a mental one as well. Oh, and despite what Arnold The Great might have said about overtraining, it is not a myth.
A study performed from the Journal of Applied Physiology (Izguierdo, Ibanez, Gonzáles-Badillo, Hakkinen, Ratamess, Kramer, and Gotostiaga, 2006, p.1647-1656) found that, while the short-effects of overtraining are not apparent (4-6 weeks), there are significant detriments in the long-term (several months). Essentially, over an extended period of time, the body suffers from lowered levels of anabolic hormone production, negatively impacting muscle growth potential.
Due to the inconclusive data we have readily available at this point, we only determine that pushing to failure will only impact the body negatively, over a period of several months. However, this does not mean that operating until failure is necessarily better for you, or will yield any greater results over non-failure training. Simply, training until failure is a subjective choice, at this point.
It should be noted, however, that if muscular hypertrophy is what you are after, most professional bodybuilders in today’s industry do not train until absolute failure. The philosophy has shifted towards the idea that, while the body can be pushed each session, there is no benefit to over-exerting yourself each and every session. The demands of such a routine would leave you feeling drained, and burned out.
Currently, there is a shift towards consistently using 80-85% of your 1RM, or even slightly lower, for a controlled number of reps. This provides sufficient time for recovery while pushing yourself with every rep. Furthermore, it considerably lowers the risk of injury and lowers the demand for recovery agents. Dorian Yates’ methodology is also a great way to slot in maximum training, whereby you use 80-85% of your 1RM, leaving two reps in the tank on each set, except for the final set of that exercise, where you train until absolute muscle failure.
In short, use training until failure as a short-term method, as it will wear you down in the long run. If you would like to keep failure training in your regimen more often, consider the structure used by Dorian Yates. As always, you need to experiment and see which way works best for you. So, what are you waiting for?