Training to Failure Every Set Key Points

  • Training to failure every set did not affect muscle strength; however, training closer to failure was beneficial for muscle growth.
  • The weight used during training might influence the non-linear relationship between proximity to failure and muscle hypertrophy. Specifically, when using heavier weights, you don’t need to stop sets as close to failure to achieve optimal muscle growth.
  • Specifically, all weights taken to failure with less than 75% of 1RM exhibited negative slopes, indicating that as the weight decreased, the benefit of training closer to failure for muscle hypertrophy increased. On the other hand, for weights greater than 77.5% of 1RM, the slopes were positive, indicating that training closer to failure had less of an impact on muscle hypertrophy when training with heavier loads

Should You Be Training to Failure Every Set?

“To fail or not to fail?” The field of resistance training has been the subject of intensive study, particularly in relation to training to failure and its impact on muscle hypertrophy and strength gain. Contradictory findings abound, creating confusion among athletes and trainers alike. Training to failure has been the standard way bodybuilders trained for decades. A research review of the literature has suggested that training for failure is unnecessary for increases in muscle size. (Grgic et al., 2022; A. F. Vieira et al., 2021)

A new study suggests that training for failure, or training until the last rep, could be the key to maximizing muscle gains. But what exactly does “training to failure” mean? This could be the reason for all the controversy with the studies. This article will dive into the complexities of defining “failure,” the risks and drawbacks of training to failure, and the implications of individual differences. We’ll also discuss strategies for safe failure training, including recovery and mix-up approaches. So, if you’re a beginner or experienced lifter wanting to increase your muscle mass, read on!

Is Training to Failure Every Set Necessary? Benefits and Drawbacks

Whether training to complete muscular failure is better for muscle hypertrophy has been extensively studied. Training to the point of failure can lead to several negative effects, including causing increased muscular damage, degrading proper form, triggering stress hormonal responses like cortisol, producing increased lactic acid, preventing recovery between weight training sessions, inducing nervous system fatigue, and resulting in overtraining. Beneficial effects of training to failure include an increased number of reps performed, increased growth hormone, increased training intensity, and higher training volume.

The findings from various scientific literature reviews yield conflicting results. Some strength training studies suggest that training to absolute failure can significantly increase muscle hypertrophy. (González-Badillo et al., 2022; Schoenfeld et al., 2015) Some suggest that training to muscular failure results in more repetitions (i.e., more volume), more muscular tension, and the recruitment of high threshold type II fibers.(Carpinelli, 2008; Morton et al., 2019)

training to failuretraining to failure every set training to failure benefits
A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found no significant difference between training to failure and non-failure when volume load was equalized. The proximity to failure in resistance training did not significantly impact muscle hypertrophy, and training further away from failure may be effective for improving strength and power. (A. Vieira et al., 2021)

Training to Failure Every Set

On the other hand, other studies indicate that training to failure may not be superior to non-failure training for muscle hypertrophy. For example, Refalo et al., 2023 concluded that no evidence supports resistance training performed to momentary muscular failure is superior to non-failure training for muscle hypertrophy. Lacio et al., 2021 found that when resistance training was performed to muscle failure, the load used had less influence on muscle hypertrophy.

Training to Failure Every Set Study

A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found no significant difference between training to failure and non-failure when volume load was equalized. The proximity to failure in resistance training did not significantly impact muscle hypertrophy, and training further away from failure may be effective for improving strength and power. (A. Vieira et al., 2021)  Another study revealed similar findings, indicating both failure and non-failure training led to increased muscle strength, with non-failure training showing slightly greater gains, albeit not significantly different. (Vieira et al., 2019)

What is “Training to Failure”?

One of the biggest complexities of training to failure is how you define failure. One of the major limitations of previous research is that there need to be guidelines defining the meaning of training to failure. For example, some people will stop a set when fatigued but still can do several more repetitions. This can be defined as training to muscular failure in some studies, but this is not true muscular failure. True muscle failure can be defined as when an individual cannot complete the concentric portion of the repetition thru a full range of motion. A simple analogy would be if someone were holding a gun to your head, you would not be able to complete another rep.

To complicate the matter further, some studies indicated that training to failure might have different effects on multi-joint exercises (i.e., squats, bench press) than single-joint exercises (i.e., triceps extension, biceps curl). This research found that multi-joint exercise to failure led to greater neuromuscular fatigue, muscle damage, and perceptual responses compared to non-failure conditions. However, single-joint exercise to failure was similar in these parameters.

training to failuretraining to failure every set training to failure benefits
True muscle failure can be defined as when an individual cannot complete the concentric portion of the repetition thru a full range of motion. A simple analogy would be if someone were holding a gun to your head, you would not be able to complete another rep.

The New Meta-Regression Study on Training to Failure

Another review on training to failure for muscle growth was recently published, re-examining the literature on training to failure. The study aimed to investigate the effect of resistance training proximity to failure on muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength gain by combining all relevant research areas and exploring potential dose-response relationships. 55 studies were included in the review. The definition of “training to failure” was ambiguous in the studies analyzed in the study. The definition of “training to failure” was ambiguous in the studies analyzed in the document. Some studies provided a clear definition (e.g., momentary failure, concentric failure, etc.) and did not indicate participants terminated sets of their own volition (i.e., voluntary failure). In contrast, others did not provide a clear definition.

Study

The groups categorized in the studies analyzed were divided into one of the following five subgroups:

  1. Groups training to Failure: By definition, we estimated that groups training to failure trained to 0 RIR.
  2. Groups reporting Velocity: In the analyzed studies, researchers used equations to predict the maximum possible number of repetitions at a given load based on the repetitions they performed and the intra-set velocity. They matched these equations as closely as possible by exercise, loading range, training status, sex, and concentric intended velocity.
  3. Groups reporting RIR: When a study reported RIR but belonged to one of the two previous categories (either training to failure or providing velocity data), researchers used the other method to predict RIR because of its objectivity.
  4. Groups Reporting Load and Repetitions Performed: Researchers used prediction equations to determine the maximum possible number of repetitions at a given load. They then subtracted the repetitions performed per set to estimate RIR. They matched these equations as closely as possible by exercise, loading range, training status, sex, and concentric intended velocity. If studies reported load as a percentage of a repetition maximum (RM) other than a 1RM, they first had to predict the load relative to a 1RM (i.e., % of 1RM).
  5. Groups Training with Alternative Set Structures: The criteria for Groups Training with Alternative Set Structures involves treating each group of repetitions performed with any intra-set or inter-set rest between them as an individual set. Each set was performed to failure for rest-pause groups, making the RIR estimation simple (i.e., 0 RIR). For cluster and rest redistribution groups, this RIR estimation method was chosen because of these set structures’ ability to maintain repetition performance, and thus RIR, compared to traditional set structures.

Results of Training to Failure Every Set

The results showed that the relationship between training to failure and strength gains was negligible; however, the researchers found a relationship between training to failure and muscle hypertrophy. In contrast to the previous research suggesting that training to failure is unnecessary, according to the study, training to failure appears beneficial for muscle hypertrophy, as the findings suggest a non-linear relationship between estimated proximity to failure and muscle hypertrophy. (Zac Robinson & 2023)

training to failuretraining to failure every set training to failure benefits
The results showed that the relationship between training to failure and strength gains was negligible; however, the researchers found a relationship between training to failure and muscle hypertrophy. In contrast to the previous research suggesting that training to failure is unnecessary, according to the study, training to failure appears beneficial for muscle hypertrophy, as the findings suggest a non-linear relationship between estimated proximity to failure and muscle hypertrophy. (Zac Robinson & 2023)

Recommendations

The authors suggest that by training to failure, you can contribute to muscle growth by recruiting more muscle fibers. Specifically, according to Henneman’s size principle, as force requirements increase, the recruitment of motor units and the muscle fibers they activate is based on their size. (Grgic et al., 2022) As higher threshold motor units tend to activate more type II fibers, which may have a greater potential for hypertrophy, the goal becomes to create the necessary and sufficient conditions to recruit these motor units allowing the muscle fibers they innervate to experience mechanical tension.

When you train to failure, you deliver a stimulus to these muscle fibers regardless of the load.
Heavier loads allow you to recruit more motor units farther from failure. The chosen load mediates the non-linear relationship observed in the findings, with marginal slopes rising as the load increases. You don’t need to terminate sets with heavier loads as close to failure to achieve the best muscle hypertrophy. Researchers and practitioners need to interpret the findings of the current analysis cautiously because they estimated proximity to failure, and we cannot confirm its accuracy.

Conclusion

Training to failure is valuable for those looking to maximize muscle gains. However, it comes with risks and drawbacks, such as increased potential for injury and burnout. It’s important to approach it safely by prioritizing recovery and mixing up your training approaches. The new meta-regression study highlights the individual differences in response to this training method, so it’s essential to listen to your body and adjust accordingly. If you are an athlete or trainer looking to optimize your muscle gains, consider incorporating safe failure training into your routine.

References

Carpinelli, R. (2008). The size principle and a critical analysis of the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 6.

González-Badillo, J. J., Sánchez-Medina, L., Ribas-Serna, J., & Rodríguez-Rosell, D. (2022). Toward a New Paradigm in Resistance Training by Means of Velocity Monitoring: A Critical and Challenging Narrative. Sports Medicine – Open, 8(1), 118. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00513-z

Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., & Sabol, F. (2022). Effects of resistance training performed to repetition failure or non-failure on muscular strength and hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sport Health Sci, 11(2), 202-211. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2021.01.007

Lacio, M., Vieira, J. G., Trybulski, R., Campos, Y., Santana, D., Filho, J. E., Novaes, J., Vianna, J., & Wilk, M. (2021). Effects of Resistance Training Performed with Different Loads in Untrained and Trained Male Adult Individuals on Maximal Strength and Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(21), 11237. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/21/11237

References

Morton, R. W., Sonne, M. W., Farias Zuniga, A., Mohammad, I. Y. Z., Jones, A., McGlory, C., Keir, P. J., Potvin, J. R., & Phillips, S. M. (2019). Muscle fibre activation is unaffected by load and repetition duration when resistance exercise is performed to task failure. J Physiol, 597(17), 4601-4613. https://doi.org/10.1113/jp278056

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

Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954-2963. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000958

Vieira, A., Umpierre, D., Teodoro, J., Lisboa, S., Baroni, B., Izquierdo, M., & Cadore, E. (2021). Effects of Resistance Training Performed to Failure or Not to Failure on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Power Output: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1, 1. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003936

Vieira, A. F., Umpierre, D., Teodoro, J. L., Lisboa, S. C., Baroni, B. M., Izquierdo, M., & Cadore, E. L. (2021). Effects of Resistance Training Performed to Failure or Not to Failure on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Power Output: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. J Strength Cond Res, 35(4), 1165-1175. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003936

Vieira, J., Dias, M. R., Lacio, M., Schimitz, G., Nascimento, G., Panza, P., Ribeiro, M., Ribeiro, A., Leitão, L., Novaes, J., & Vianna, J. (2019). Resistance Training with Repetition to Failure or Not on Muscle Strength and Perceptual Responses. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 22, 165-175.

References

Zac Robinson, M. C. Z., Joshua C. Pelland, Jacob F. Remmert,Martin C. Refalo,Ivan Jukic, James Steele, & (2023). Exploring the Dose-Response Relationship Between Estimated Resistance Training Proximity to Failure, Strength Gain, and Muscle Hypertrophy: A Series of Meta-Regressions. SportRXiv, Pre Print. https://doi.org/ https://doi.org/10.51224/SRXIV.295

Does it matter if I do this exercise with one or two repetitions?

Yes, it matters. Training to failure means performing an exercise until you can no longer complete another repetition with proper form. Whether you do one or two repetitions depends on your fitness level and the weight you’re using, but the goal is always to push yourself to your limit.

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