Some people say that, when training with weights, you absolutely must train to failure if you want to get the best results in terms of increased muscle size and strength. Others, however, say you should avoid it like the plague.
So who’s right? Should you train to failure or not?
What is Training to Failure?
Well, first we need to define what training to failure actually is. Failure is reached when you are unable to complete another rep of the set you are doing, and so you fail mid-rep. Many fitness coaches will have you believe that this is what’s required to stimulate maximum muscle growth, and that without it your results will be less than ideal.
However, although some studies do show that training to failure can give better results, others have shown that stopping a rep or two short of failure is just as good. And the long term results are usually much better. The reason for this is that the body can only tolerate training to failure for so long before it becomes exhausted.
So, although it is true that training to failure can work well for a while, if you train this way all the time your progress will soon slow down and then stop. You may even find you start to lose strength and muscle size. This is because training to failure too often will overtax your central nervous system, raise your cortisol levels and deplete your testosterone and IGF1 levels. On top of this, your joints will take a real beating, and you’ll soon start to experience signs of overtraining, such as feeling dull and lethargic a lot of the time.
So, should you train to failure at all, and if not just how close to failure should you go? Well, that depends on what your objectives are.
Training for Strength
If gaining strength is your priority, you’ll be doing the bulk of your training at the lower rep range (2–6 reps). And, in this case, you’ll make much better progress by staying well away from failure.
For example, you might do six sets of three reps, using your six rep max weight. So you’ll be training well within your limits. However, although the weight is sub-maximal, you should still put maximum effort into each rep. You do this by pushing the bar with maximum force each time you lift it; that is you lift explosively.
If you combine this approach with relatively long rest periods between sets, you’ll stay fresh throughout your workout, and this will develop maximum strength over time. Alternatively, you could shorten your rest periods down to 90–120 seconds between sets, if you wish to gain additional muscle size, as well as increase your strength. In this case, each set will become progressively more difficult as your muscles fatigue. But you should never fail mid-rep, or require the assistance of a spotter to complete your last rep, if strength increase is your main aim.
Of course, there is a high degree of correlation between the size of a muscle and its strength. So, if you want to develop your strength to the highest level possible, you will need to work on increasing your muscle size as well, as a larger muscle has the potential to become a stronger muscle.
Training for Size
Although you can gain some muscle size with lower reps, you will probably find that you will be able to increase your size more effectively by training in the 6–12 rep range. And it’s here that you can benefit from training closer to failure – at least occasionally.
If you are doing 6–8 reps, mostly for myofibrillar hypertrophy, you should still not go to the point where you fail mid rep, but you can go close. So when you get to the point where you feel you’ll really struggle to complete the next rep, that’s a good time to stop.
But when doing 10–12 reps, you may find you can stimulate additional growth by going to failure, as long as you don’t do it too often.
Cycling Your Efforts
Whatever rep range you’re using, you should cycle the intensity of your workouts, if you want to get the best results over the medium to long term. What this means is that you’d start off with lighter weights, staying further away from failure, and, over the course of several weeks, you’d gradually increase the weights and push harder. So, by the end of the cycle, you’ll be going very close to failure – or even reaching failure on some of your higher rep sets.
Doing this will allow you to maximize your results over time, as you’ll be using the principle of progressive overload, which is much more important than training to failure for increasing muscle size and strength. You’ll also be able to benefit more from the periods where you do train to (or close to) failure, as these will only last a short time before you’ll back off to allow your body to recover. You can then gradually build back up again, and so on. By using this strategy, you’ll be able to continue to make regular progress, instead of becoming overtrained and plateauing.
Even during the most intense part of your cycle, however, you should only push to failure on the last set of any particular exercise. Doing set after set of the same exercise to failure will only overtax your system far too quickly, and prevent you from making the gains you could otherwise have achieved.
It’s also important to realize that everyone is different, so you need to know yourself and train within your own limits. Some people can tolerate training to muscular failure more often than others, so experiment to find out what works best for you. But don’t be afraid to back off if you stop making progress – you’ll do far better in the long run if you do.
Photo credit: The PIX-JOCKEY (visual fantasist), CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr (with permission)