This question has been asked for over 50 years. Now, we may finally have an answer.
The training world can make you feel old, and not just because of the aches and pains as you go from young weightlifter to seasoned steel warrior. One of the hottest training debates right now reminds me of my age: Should you train to failure?
Bro, this was probably the bone of contention when I discovered weight training sites when the internet was in its infancy. We’re talking about 1995, almost 30 years ago!
You know what’s worse? Its history goes back much further, back to the 70’s with Arthur Jones and T Nation’s own Ellington Darden, who were against Wadeites Writers preach volume rather than near failure.
The losing fight you thought was a novelty is over 50 years old! Many champions and smart coaches have been on both sides of the argument. Is it arrogant to think that I can answer this age-old question and resolve a 50-year-old debate? Maybe, but I’ll give it a try anyway.
The scientific and qualitative evidence has accumulated enormously over these 50 years, so this is helpful. While you’ll always find research that supports your own cherished views, we now have solid meta-analyses (studies that compile and analyze the results of large numbers of direct studies) to get a better picture. One of the meta-analyses is a preprint (not yet published) here.
Those who don’t like this result because it might go against their deep-seated beliefs will be quick to point out that it hasn’t been published and it hasn’t been peer-reviewed, but it would be a weak argument given the following factors:
- Participating researchers are legitimate.
- The studies they used for statistical analysis were published in peer-reviewed journals.
- It will be released soon.
This meta-analysis looked at 55 different studies looking at the effect of training on failure versus failure, or situations where backup reps can be estimated. The results are very interesting, although the statistical methods used may be confusing to those unfamiliar with them.
Failure does not affect all training types equally
The most important finding was that approaching failure did not have the same effect on all forms of resistance training or on all goals. For example, taking your sets closer to failure will not have the same effect on strength development and hypertrophy stimulation. It also doesn’t have the same effect for light and heavy weights.
Lifting weights close to failure doesn’t give you more strength gains. In fact, for heavy weights, staying away from failure leads to negligibly better strength gains (though the correlation is very weak). Basically, when you use a heavy load (75% or more), you don’t gain more strength near failure if you train with equal volume (total reps).
With light weights, the strength gain is slightly better when approaching failure. But how many people do strength training with light weights?
in conclusion? When it comes to strength gains, the load/weight used is a better predictor of progress than close to failure. So why isn’t training to failure good for building strength? Some possibilities:
- Lifting weights close to failure can lead to more nerve fatigue and longer recovery times after lifting. This can negatively affect performance in subsequent workouts.
- Lifting weights close to (or close to) failure before retesting (when you’re evaluating strength gains) can lead to more residual fatigue, which limits your ability to perform on strength tests. Staying away from failure will give you more energy for the exam.
- Training to failure with large free weights can negatively affect strength by causing technical decline.
But, as we’ll see later, lifting weights closer to failure does provide a stronger stimulus for muscle growth, and larger muscles increase strength potential.
This may be why training further to or near failure has the same effect on strength development: there are positive and negative aspects to both, which counteract each other. You can lift weights close to failure (or even failure) when strength training, but if you do, you’ll need more days of rest. You should set aside more reps the week before a race or test.
With regard to stimulating muscle growth, the meta-analysis found a positive relationship between near failure and hypertrophy. By training near failure (or close to failure) rather than leaving a few reps in the tank, you stimulate more growth.
This effect is more pronounced when using lighter weights than when using heavier loads, but using larger weights still has the positive effect of being closer to failure.
reason? When you use heavy weights, you can more easily recruit the fast-twitch fibers that tend to grow. With light loads, you’ll only engage those fibers near the end of the set, forcing the body to use the big guns (Henneman’s size principle), only when fatigue makes the required effort level higher.
While you don’t have to train to failure for muscle growth, the closer you get to your goal, the more effective your training will be.
This also supports the use of exercise equipment and pulley stations, which are safer, less prone to failure, and less likely to decline technique.
The best way to design your workouts is to combine heavy free weight lifting with moderate weight machine/pulley/single joint exercises.
In big free weights, focus on progressive overload (getting stronger) and set aside more reps as backup (2, maybe 3). This doesn’t have to be pure strength training in the 1-3 rep range. If your goal is to build muscle, use a load in the 4-6 range where you can lift 6-8 reps. For these, a multi-set approach (3-5 sets) is best so that you can get as much neurological improvement as possible and enough reps to be effective without failing.
On machines, cables/pulleys, and single-joint work, use moderate loads for 8-12 repetitions, then train to failure or very close to failure (hold up to 1 rep). Do one all-out set of 8-12 reps, followed by 1-3 warm-up sets, depending on the exercise, and don’t fail. This is the same as “The Optimal Strength Program for Natural Weightlifters. “
Athletes participating in speed and strength sports (football, hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, rugby, track and field, gymnastics, etc.) should not train to failure.
- They don’t need to do this for strength development.
- An athlete doesn’t just lift weights; he has to practice his movement, sprints and conditioning. Failure is likely to impair performance in other workouts due to incomplete recovery.
- The closer you get to failure, the slower you move. This can negatively impact the rate of strength development, which is important for athletes.
I think the only athlete who can fail is…
- There are benefits to being bigger for a person playing a sport/position.
- There is a long offseason (in this case, it will be done early, then dropped to refocus on maximizing velocity).
- Already have good speed.
This would be adding small amounts of secondary work to the primary work (strength and strength).
Some added benefits of training to or near failure
- It tells you what your best efforts are. Most people who think they’re keeping 2 reps are actually closer to keeping 4 reps (which is ineffective for growth). If you don’t know what it feels like to fail, and what the 2 reps before failure feel like, it’s nearly impossible to properly estimate your effort level. You are likely to make your training worthless.
- It allows lifters to achieve the same feel and movement patterns as submaximal 1RM lifts. The last move (or two) before failure will be very slow, similar to what happens during a maximal effort.
- It allows you to get more results with less work. Two sets of muscle failure provide 10 effective repetitions. Each set to failure gives you 5 effective reps (reps that have a major impact on growth). If you stop for 3 failures, you get 2 effective reps, so you need 5 sets to get the same stimulus as 2 failures.
Depending on your goals and sport choices, training to failure may not be necessary. But when it comes to muscle growth, there is strong evidence that lifting weights close to failure is more effective than stopping weights far from failure.
But failure does have downsides. It causes more muscle damage and nerve fatigue (thus prolonging recovery time), and it reduces the amount of training you can do during your workout.
Therefore, the effectiveness of training to failure depends on the goal and is also influenced by your state of mind. If you’re a stimulation addict who values the “feel” you get while lifting more than the results, then training to failure may not be for you as you’ll try to do more than you need to when lifting to failure quantity.