Training to failure is a topic that many people are divided on. To be clear on what training to failure is, it is simply when the muscles can’t produce enough force on the lifting phase of the exercise to continue moving the weight upward.
Most of the people who argue for and against this type of training treat it very personal as if it defines you as an athlete. You have one group telling you “Training to failure is training to fail” and then you have plenty of well known champion bodybuilders who say pushing last your limits is where the muscle growth happens.
Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said, “The last 3 or 4 reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack: having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain, no matter what happens.”
No matter what side of fence you are on there are pros and con’s to training this way.
The Pros and Cons of Training to Failure:
A Spanish researcher found that when every set was taken to failure an increase in Cortisol happened. Cortisol is catabolic hormone that promotes fat storage and muscle wasting, not what a bodybuilder wants.
Another Spanish study found that taking sets to failure showed an increase in nucleotide adenosine monophosphate (AMP) levels compared to those not reaching failure. An increase in AMP levels indicates that a muscle cell has been drained of energy and protein synthesis will then decrease. This can be detrimental to our performance and recovery.
Training to failure can be anabolic in the right context. Training to failure increase levels of lactic acid within the muscle which is critical for muscle growth as it triggers intracellular growth factors. An increase in lactic acid has been shown more in those training to failure versus those who do not.
Another benefit to training to failure is that it exhausts the smaller muscle fibers and the central nervous system must then recruit surrounding muscle fibers to complete the movement. This results in total exhaustion of the muscle group. The only problem with taking sets to failure like this is what’s called “central fatigue”. Once your nervous system is fatigued, all following sets will be performed at a much lower capacity. For example, if on one set you can get 12 reps at complete failure, you may only get 9 the second set. However, if you stopped at 10 reps on the first set, you likely would have been able to get 9 or 10 on the second set. This is because you have less central fatigue.
Although there are arguments for both sides, the most practical solution would be to take the last set of each exercise to failure with a strategically designed program. This is supported by research that suggests taking the last set to failure results in greater size and strength gains.
Dorian Yates is famous for having a warm up set before taking only one set per exercise to failure. “One set at extreme intensity does the muscle-building job. It must be stressed that the one final, all-out set I do takes me to the very limit of my capabilities. If you feel you can attempt a second set, then you couldn’t have been pulling out all the stops during the first set. It’s not pretty, but it works.” –Dorian Yates, Mr. Olympia, 1993-97
Failure can occur with a training partner or without. If you do not have a training partner then rest pause sets and drop-sets can take you past failure. If you have a training partner then you can often train a bit further past failure with forced reps and negative repetitions. The benefits of forced reps and drop sets are similar to failure training: greater metabolic stress, more lactic acid, and more muscle fiber recruitment. However, both techniques cause far greater central fatigue than normal failure training.
To conclude this debate, follow these simple steps:
- Training to failure can be catabolic so do it sparingly.
- Failure training should often be used only on the final set of each exercise.
- Training to failure should be used more on hypertrophy days versus strength days.
- When training beyond failure using the above techniques, ensure you have proper rest. Your body may feel fine but your central nervous system will fatigue and you will be put at risk of over training.