Should You Train to Failure for Muscle Growth?

Should You Train to Failure for Muscle Growth?

high intensity interval training

This is the first study to comprehensively examine the recovery time course of training to failure versus not, with matched volume.

Muscle damage

Metabolic markers of fatigue, an indirect marker of muscle damage, and high-, medium-, and low-load strength performance all required 24-48 hours longer to return to baseline in a 3×10 to failure group compared to a 6×5 group training with the same load. Three sets of 10 to failure on squats and bench press had lasting effects for two  days. An entire session taken to failure would likely have longer lasting effects. When working with loads of ~70% 1RM or higher, stopping at a 5-9 RPE will likely  result in similar strength and hypertrophy adaptations compared to taking sets to failure (10 RPE) with a matched volume and load.

Relationship between muscle damage and growth

The idea that you build muscle by “breaking it down” and then “building it up” during recovery may be a flawed one. Studies measuring muscle damage (Z-lines, strength after a workout, muscle soreness) show no relation to muscle gains. Adjusted markers of muscle growth (MPS) are the same regardless of muscle damage.

What IS noted is that muscle damage and muscle soreness is highest when you start a new workout routine, but decreases a lot after around 3 weeks of training. It is during these 3 weeks that you risk training “sub-optimally”. At the same time switching things up (periodization) has been shown to improve gains.

So do switch things up every 12 weeks or so, but start easy to give your body time to adapt.

Why You Shouldn’t Train to Failure Too Often

Training to failure, even when volume is matched and relative load is matched, will produce more fatigue than stopping well short of it (5 RPE) when using moderately heavy loads. This fatigue will likely negatively impact performance intra-session, and potentially in the subsequent session or two within the week.

Are There Times When You Should Train to Failure?

Failure has a place in training, but should be planned for. Good rules of thumb are to use it on the last set of isolation exercises when they are the last exercise for a given muscle group, for max repetition testing when you have a spotter, and not in sessions within a few days of heavy compound lifting in which you are chasing new personal bests.

Beginners: Avoid Training to Failure

Training to failure doesn’t seem to benefit beginners when it comes to strength and hypertrophy. This is probably due to nervous system​ fatigue which compromises later sets if failure occurs too early.

For experienced lifters there seems to be some benefit on the last set, but as long as you train with enough volume (sets and reps), you will grow!

If you’re an experienced lifter, train for hypertrophy to become stronger

More muscle = more strength. Even though this may be true, it is often over-stated. Generally, strength gains seen as a beginner don’t depend on muscle size. As you may recognize, a beginner lifter will generally gain much more strength compared to muscle mass (1). You may double your bench press strength without doubling the size of your pecs in the first months of training. Muscle size and cross-sectional area have only been shown to explain about 2% of the strength variability in unexperienced lifters. (2, 3)

Muscle size is generally more important for strength gains in experienced lifters, so if you have been lifting for a while and want to get stronger, consider shifting to more hypertrophy-oriented training to progress in strength!

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Source from MASS:

Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure. doi: 10.1007/s00421-017-3725-7.

Other sources: Drinkwater EJ, Lawton TW, Lindsell RP, Pyne DB, Hunt PH, McKenna MJ. Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May; 19(2): 382-8.

Narici MV et al. Acta Physiol Scand. 1996 Jun;157(2):175-86.

Ahtiainen, J.P. et al. AGE (2016) 38: 10.

Erskine, R.M. et al. Eur J Appl Physiol (2010) 110: 1117.

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