Optimize Hypertrophy with Near Failure Training Summary
- A resistance training study compared muscle hypertrophy in well-trained lifters using low-repetitions-in-reserve (RIR; near failure training) and high-RIR (not training near failure).
- The low-RIR group performed exercises like squats, bench presses, and deadlifts twice weekly to near failure. The high-RIR group had identical training but maintained 4–6 RIR after each set.
- Both groups showed similar improvements in strength and muscle mass over 5 weeks.
Introduction to Resistance Training
The debate on whether one needs to train to fail to achieve optimal muscle hypertrophy has been ongoing in the realm of resistance training. The traditional belief has been that pushing oneself to the limit in every set is the key to maximizing muscle growth. (Nóbrega & Libardi, 2016) Recent research suggests that this might not be the case.
Understanding Repetitions-in-Reserve (RIR)
Before delving into the study’s findings, it’s essential to understand the concept of Repetitions-in-Reserve (RIR). RIR is a subjective measure to gauge how many reps an individual believes they could perform before reaching muscular failure. For instance, if someone completes a set and feels they could have done three more reps before failing, their RIR is 3.
Some studies have suggested that as long as the level of effort is high, training volume may be the most important variable for muscle hypertrophy, regardless of RIR (Baz-Valle et al., 2022). However, other studies have found that training to failure with low loads (i.e., light weight) may be more important for muscle hypertrophy. In contrast, muscle failure does not provide additional benefits for high-load training (i.e., heavy weight). (Lasevicius et al., 2019)
Bodybuilding and Training Near Failure: Studies that Find Beneficial Effects
Several studies have investigated the effects of training near failure on muscle hypertrophy. One meta-analysis found that low-intensity blood flow restriction training, which often involves training near failure, can lead to muscle hypertrophy even at intensities as low as 20% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) (Loenneke et al., 2011). Another systematic review with meta-analysis examined the influence of proximity-to-failure resistance training on muscle hypertrophy and found that training near failure can significantly increase muscle size (Refalo et al., 2022).
Another systematic review with meta-analysis examined the influence of proximity-to-failure resistance training on muscle hypertrophy and found that training near failure can significantly increase muscle size (Refalo et al., 2022).
The study found a linear relationship between resistance training proximity-to-failure and both acute neuromuscular fatigue and negative perceptual responses. This suggests that as individuals train closer to failure, they experience increased fatigue and discomfort. However, this does not necessarily translate to greater muscle hypertrophy. (Refalo et al., 2023)
Study Finding You Can Train Further Away from Failure
A controversial study suggests that trained lifters can achieve impressive muscle growth by training with an intensity further away from failure. The study involved two groups of subjects who trained with 80% of their one-repetition maximum (1RM). The total training volume was equal for both groups. Still, one group trained with an estimated 5-7 repetitions in reserve (RIR), meaning they stopped short of failure, while the other group trained to complete muscular failure.
At the end of the study, the group that trained further away from failure showed the same amount of muscle growth as the group training near failure. This finding suggests that advanced lifters can train further away from failure and still experience muscle gains. (Blanco et al., 2020) Another study on older adults found that low-load resistance training performed to muscle failure or near muscle failure did not promote additional gains in muscle strength and hypertrophy compared to training without reaching failure.(Bergamasco et al., 2020)
Other studies have replicated these results by demonstrating that training with a heavier weight and further away from failure (4+ RIR) can lead to similar muscle growth compared to groups training closer to failure (0-3 RIR). It is important to note that training with a light weight (e.g., 30% of 1RM) and avoiding failure have resulted in inferior muscle growth. These studies provide valuable insights for individuals seeking to manage workout fatigue. Advanced lifters can train further away from failure, allowing for increased recovery and muscle growth. (Blanco et al., 2020)
Key Findings of the Training a Few Reps Away from Failure Study.
The study by Bradley A. Ruple and colleagues aimed to explore how resistance training to failure impacts strength, hypertrophy, and motor unit adaptations in individuals with prior training experience. The participants, comprising resistance-trained adults, were divided into two groups:
- Low-RIR group (training near failure): This group was instructed to end each training set with an RIR of 0-1. This means they stopped their sets when they had 0-1 repetitions left in the tank.
- High-RIR group (not training near failure): Participants in this group were advised to maintain an RIR of 4-6 after each set. This means they stopped their sets when they had 4-6 repetitions left in the tank.
The intriguing aspect was that even though the RIR was notably lower in the low-RIR group, the total training volume didn’t significantly differ between the two groups. The authors explained the similar volume load between the training near failure and not training near failure groups by suggesting that sets taken close to failure in the training near failure group induced more fatigue and necessitated a decrease in repetitions to maintain load. Alternatively stated, it is likely that the progression from moderate to higher loads reduced the ability to maintain volume-load differences between groups.
There was also no difference in gain in muscle mass between the two groups either. (Ruple et al., 2023)
There were no significant differences in muscle strength adaptations between the low-RIR and high-RIR training groups. Both groups showed similar improvements in squat 1RM, bench press 1RM, and deadlift 1RM. There was also no difference in gain in muscle mass between the two groups either. (Ruple et al., 2023) There was a large degree of inter-individual variability in these outcomes, with some participants showing lower or higher hypertrophic responses.
Implications for Muscle Hypertrophy
The combined findings of these studies suggest that training near failure (low RIR) leads to similar outcomes in terms of strength and muscle hypertrophy. This is a game-changer for individuals looking to gain muscle. It means that pushing oneself to the absolute limit in every set might not be necessary. Instead, using the RIR method can be an effective way to gauge the intensity of one’s workouts and still achieve desired muscle growth.
The debate on the necessity of training near failure for optimal muscle hypertrophy has taken a new turn with the findings of these studies. Using the Repetitions-in-Reserve method can be a valuable tool for individuals aiming for muscle growth without pushing to the brink of failure in every set. As the fitness industry continues to evolve, staying updated with the latest research is crucial to make informed decisions about one’s training regimen.
Baz-Valle, E., Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Alix-Fages, C., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2022). A Systematic Review of The Effects of Different Resistance Training Volumes on Muscle Hypertrophy. J Hum Kinet, 81, 199-210. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2022-0017
Bergamasco, J. G. A., Silva, D. G. d., Bittencourt, D. F., Oliveira, R. d., Júnior, J. C. d. M. V., Caruso, F., Godoi, D., Borghi-Silva, A., & Libardi, C. A. (2020). Low-Load Resistance Training Performed to Muscle Failure or Near Muscle Failure Does Not Promote Additional Gains on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Functional Performance of Older Adults. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003632
Blanco, F., Alcazar, J., Cornejo Daza, P., Sánchez-Valdepeñas, J., Rodriguez-Lopez, C., Hidalgo de Mora, J., Sanchez Moreno, M., Bachero-Mena, B., Alegre, L., & Ortega-Becerra, M. (2020). Effects of velocity loss in the bench press exercise on strength gains, neuromuscular adaptations and muscle hypertrophy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 30. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13775
Lasevicius, T., Schoenfeld, B. J., Silva-Batista, C., Barros, T. d. S., Aihara, A. Y., Brendon, H., Longo, A. R., Tricoli, V., Peres, B. d. A., & Teixeira, E. L. (2019). Muscle Failure Promotes Greater Muscle Hypertrophy in Low-Load but Not in High-Load Resistance Training. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003454
Loenneke, J. P., Wilson, J. M., Marín, P. J., Zourdos, M. C., & Bemben, M. G. (2011). Low Intensity Blood Flow Restriction Training: A Meta-Analysis. European Journal of Applied Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-011-2167-x
Nóbrega, S. R., & Libardi, C. A. (2016). Is Resistance Training to Muscular Failure Necessary? [Opinion]. Frontiers in Physiology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2016.00010
Refalo, M. C., Helms, E. R., Trexler, E. T., Hamilton, D. L., & Fyfe, J. J. (2023). Influence of Resistance Training Proximity-to-Failure on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 53(3), 649-665. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01784-y
Ruple, B. A., Plotkin, D. L., Smith, M. A., Godwin, J. S., Sexton, C. L., McIntosh, M. C., Kontos, N. J., Beausejour, J. P., Pagan, J. I., Rodriguez, J. P., Sheldon, D., Knowles, K. S., Libardi, C. A., Young, K. C., Stock, M. S., & Roberts, M. D. (2023). The effects of resistance training to near failure on strength, hypertrophy, and motor unit adaptations in previously trained adults. Physiol Rep, 11(9), e15679. https://doi.org/10.14814/phy2.15679
What are the risks associated with training to failure?
Training near failure poses risks such as overtraining, increased risk of injury, and potential muscle imbalances. It is important to listen to your body, ensure proper form and technique, and allow for adequate rest and recovery to minimize these risks and optimize hypertrophy.
A Beginner’s Strength Training Guide : A Brief Overview
Strength training, often involving barbell exercises, is essential for building muscle and increasing muscular strength. However, overtraining can lead to muscle damage, affecting muscle fibers and reducing the sectional area. The last rep where a muscle contraction can’t be completed, is a debated topic in weight training. While some believe pushing to the point of technical failure maximizes muscle growth, others argue it increases the risk of injury, especially without a spotter.
EMG and Training Adaptations
Electromyography (EMG) studies, available on PubMed and PMC, show that muscle contraction intensity and action potential vary with the number of repetitions. Previous research in health science suggests that untrained individuals, or beginners, benefit from fewer reps with perfect form to avoid injury. In contrast, bodybuilding and powerlifting enthusiasts might push closer to repetition failure, adjusting tempo and rest periods between sets.