Training to Failure Best for Muscle Building?

July 5th, 2008 by Paul Johnson

The most basic question everyone building muscle and strength has, is should I train to absolute muscle failure on each set or just get close to it. When I first trained, I assumed everyone went to muscular failure. Later I learned this topic has become quite controversial.

Two opposing viewpoints on Training to failure

Usually the low set volume advocates, say you should give every rep to failure and sometimes even pushing beyond that, with forced reps. They believe intensity is what ultimately stimulates muscle gains. Anyone who does sets right to failure vs. a couple reps short, will tell you there is adifference in intensity.

High volume routines usually don’t advocate to failure. It would be too grueling mentally and on the bodies recovery, to do a high volume set always to absolute failure. Some routines don’t really say much on the matter. These routines focus on the fact, that as long as your progressing by adding weights, that is what actually matters in the end. Some workout gurus are so adamant about their position on this, that the only way to change their minds is to use actual studies to find out which is the best way to train.

Research Studies on training to muscular failure

Only in the last few years has studies even been done on training to failure. The first one was published in J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May;19(2):382-8. They had 26 basketball players divided into a failure or non-failure resistance training routine. The failure group did 4 sets of 6 repetitions every 260 seconds. The non-failure group did 8 sets of 3 repetitions every 113 seconds, a shorter rest interval and more sets to make up for a change in the lower intensities of the set. The failure group was found to have a larger increase in strength compared to the non-failure group. This is not shocking since many arguing against failure, have thought that failure training benefit is for strength gains and not actual muscle building. One also has to consider the time under tension differences, one is doing only 3 reps and the other 6 reps and a different. I’m not sure that by adjusting set rest time, number of sets, and repetitions, you can accurately figure out whether training to failure is beneficial because your changing so many different factors.

The following year another study was published in J Appl Physiol. 2006 May;100(5):1647-56. Epub 2006 Jan 12. In this study one group did failure training for 11 weeks, the other did non-failure training for 11 weeks. Immediately after this, both groups did phase 2, where they all did the same workout to see the effect of the previous 11 weeks of training differently. Both groups were found to have the same one rep max. What was more interesting is that they found an increase in muscular endurance in the failure group and power in the nonfailure group. More importantly was they found that the non-failure group had lower cortisol levels, higher testosterone and IGF-1 levels. This means that the non-failure group were inducing a more anabolic environment hormonally, which means they should get better muscle gains. I was surprised to see that that the one rep maxes were the same and that power was better among the non-failure group. I believe the differences in resting hormone levels, gives us a much better confirmation that not training to failure is better for muscle building. I’ve read that the last rep to failure releases a lot of cortisol and that may be what explains the higher cortisol levels and lower testosterone levels.

JM Willardson, a renowned excersie research scientist who has done some many studies that I reference on this blog for many of my articles published a abstract on the issue of trainig to failure in J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):628-31. Willardson there is not yet enough studies to prove that training to failure is not ideal, but he did recommend it for busting through plateaus. He doesn’t recommend it for long term because he believes it leads to higher chance of injury. Whether or not you believe training to failure is better for muscle growth, there is a definite higher chance of injury.

Conclusion:

I don’t think the controversy will ever be ended because there is always those who don’t want to listen to research, but instead rather follow what some bodybuilder did years ago. Training to failure is very popular because it is hard not to train to failure. I know when I workout, I usually wind up training to failure because I can’t resist, even though I know it’s not needed for muscle building. It helps me judge my progress in strength because each workout I’m using the same reference point, by going as far as I can on a set.