Training to Failure Key Points:
- The practical applications of the study are that training to failure may not be necessary for optimizing training adaptations in previously trained individuals. This means that individuals can choose the training style that suits their preferences and goals while still achieving positive outcomes.
- A recent aimed to compare the effects of low Reps in Reserve (RIR) training (0-1 reps left in the tank) and high RIR training (4-6 reps left in the tank) on strength, hypertrophy, and motor unit characteristics in trained individuals.
- Both the low-RIR and high-RIR training groups showed increased strength and hypertrophy outcomes. There were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of strength gains or changes in muscle size.
The world of bodybuilding and fitness is rife with debates, and one such contentious topic is training to failure. Recent research has shown that you don’t need to train every set to exhaustion to gain muscle. However, many of the studies used untrained lifters. What about advanced lifters? Is training to failure necessary for muscle growth, especially for advanced lifters and strength athletes?
In this blog, we will delve into a new research study titled “The effects of resistance training to near failure on strength, hypertrophy, and motor unit adaptations in previously trained adults” that has been conducted on RIR, and muscle growth. We will also discuss the pros and cons of training to failure for advanced lifters and present an exciting new study on RIR and training to failure.
Beginners vs. Advanced Repetitions to Failure
Training to failure is a widely-discussed concept in the realm of fitness and muscle growth. It involves pushing oneself to the limit during a workout, striving to complete additional repetitions until the inability to maintain proper form. By working the muscles to the point of failure, individuals believe they stimulate greater muscle activation, subsequently leading to increased muscle growth and hypertrophy. (Drinkwater et al., 2005; Nóbrega & Libardi, 2016)
Advanced lifters training for several years can tolerate high training stresses, and it has been suggested that resistance training to muscle failure might provide an extra stimulus to increase muscle mass and strength (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006).
Understanding Training to Failure, Tempo, and Reps in Reserve (RIR)
Training to exhaustion and reps in reserve are two concepts that have been widely discussed in the field of strength and conditioning. Training to failure refers to the point during a set of exercises where an individual cannot complete another repetition due to muscular fatigue.
Reps in Reserve (RIR) is a measure used in resistance training to indicate how many repetitions a person has left in them before reaching failure or fatigue. For example, a RIR of 0 means that the person is performing the exercise to failure, while a RIR of 3 means that the person has 1-3 reps left before reaching failure.
By monitoring their RIR, individuals can gauge their intensity level and adjust their training accordingly. Incorporating reps in reserve into a training program can provide an effective strategy for promoting muscle growth.
The Science Behind Training to Failure and RIR
Scientists have suggested that by training to failure, recruiting more muscle fibers, and inducing metabolic stress, can stimulate hypertrophy and lead to muscle growth. However, research suggests that training to failure may not be necessary for maximizing muscle growth.
A 2016 study found that training to failure did not result in greater muscle hypertrophy compared to non-failure training. They suggested that the key factor for muscle growth is the total volume of work done rather than the intensity of effort. (Sampson & Groeller, 2016)
Various factors must be considered to determine the optimal number of reps away from failure for muscle growth. Your training goals, exercise selection, and individual recovery capacity play significant roles in finding the ideal number of reps.
Additionally, it’s essential to periodize your training and vary your proximity to failure throughout different phases of your program. This approach helps prevent the negative effects of excessive muscle damage and ensures optimal gains while minimizing the risk of injury.
Incorporating reps in reserve into your workout routine can effectively balance intensity and recovery for muscle growth and strength gains. A study found that using reps in a reserve-based approach to determine training loads can be an effective strategy for improving strength and hypertrophy. They found that individuals who used reps in a reserve-based approach made similar gains to those who trained to failure but with less risk of overtraining. (Zourdos et al., 2016)
There is evidence that trained lifters can train with an intensity further away from failure and still make impressive gains in muscle growth. This is a highly controversial study, but researchers trained subjects with 80% of 1RM. The total volume was equal; one group trained with an estimated 5-7 RIR (far from failure), and the other group trained to complete muscular failure.
At the end of the study, the group that trained further away from failure had the same muscle growth as the group training to failure. Again, this is one study, but it suggests that advanced lifters can train further away from failure and still gain muscle! Other studies have replicated these findings by finding that training with a heavier weight and further away from failure (4+ RIR) can see similar growth to groups training closer to failure (0-3 RIR).(Blanco et al., 2020)
Pros and Cons of Training to Failure for Advanced Lifters
While some individuals advocate for training to failure as an effective strategy for maximizing muscle hypertrophy and strength gains, others argue that it may increase the risk of overtraining and injury. This section will discuss the pros and cons of training to failure for advanced lifters, including the potential injury risk.
1. Increased Muscle Hypertrophy: Training to failure has been suggested to be effective for promoting muscle hypertrophy, especially if using light weight/high repetition training. (Lasevicius et al., 2019) By pushing the muscles to their limits, training to failure may provide a greater stimulus for muscle growth and adaptation.
2. Enhanced Motor Unit Recruitment: Training to failure may lead to greater activation of high-threshold motor units, which are associated with greater force production. This can result in increased strength gains and improved muscle fiber recruitment.
3. Breaking Through Plateaus: Advanced lifters often face plateaus in their training progress, where they struggle to make further strength or hypertrophy gains. Training to failure can be useful for breaking through these plateaus and stimulating further adaptations. (Willardson, 2007)
4. Increased Metabolic Stress: Training to failure can cause significant metabolic stress, which is one of the key mechanisms behind muscle growth. This is due to the accumulation of metabolites such as lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphate in the muscle. (Schoenfeld, 2010)
1. Increased Risk of Overtraining: Training to failure places significant stress on the muscles and the central nervous system. This can increase the risk of overtraining, which can lead to decreased performance, increased risk of injury, and prolonged recovery periods.(Iversen et al., 2021)
2. Higher Perceived Exertion: Training to failure is often associated with higher levels of perceived exertion and fatigue. (Cavarretta et al., 2019) This can make it more challenging to maintain proper form and technique, increasing the risk of injury.
3. Time and Recovery Considerations: Training to failure can be time-consuming, as it often requires longer rest periods between sets to allow for adequate recovery. This may not be feasible for individuals with limited time for training or those who prefer shorter, more intense workouts (Iversen et al., 2021).
4. Decreased Training Volume: Training to failure can decrease the total volume (sets x reps x weight) that a lifter can perform in a workout. Since volume is a key driver of muscle growth, this could potentially limit gains. (Schoenfeld et al., 2017)
New Study on RIR and Hypertrophy in Trained Lifters
A groundbreaking research study recently examined the correlation between reps in reserve (RIR) and the impact of training to failure on muscle growth. RIR, which refers to the number of reps left in the tank before reaching failure, plays a vital role in determining the effectiveness of training. The study aimed to compare the effects of low-repetition, high-load training to failure versus high-repetition, low-load training not to failure on muscle size, strength, and endurance in well-trained individuals.
It investigated whether training to failure is necessary for optimizing training adaptations in previously trained individuals. The study also explored the potential benefits and drawbacks of training to failure for advanced lifters.
The study investigated whether 5 weeks of resistance training near failure (i.e., 0–1 repetitions in reserve per set or “low-RIR training”) versus ceasing sets 4–6 repetitions short of failure (i.e., “high-RIR training”) differentially affected strength, hypertrophy, and motor unit characteristics in previously trained males and females.
The low-RIR group performed squat, bench press, and deadlift exercises twice weekly and were instructed to end each training set with 0-1 RIR (i.e., training near failure). The high-RIR group performed the same exercises but were instructed to end each set with 4-5 RIR (i.e., not training near failure). Both groups implemented progressive overload during the 5-week training period.
The study’s main results were that the low-RIR and high-RIR training groups showed increased strength and hypertrophy outcomes. There were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of strength gains or changes in muscle cross-sectional area. Overall, the study suggests that low-RIR and high-RIR training can improve strength, but low-RIR training may have additional benefits in terms of motor unit adaptations. These findings suggest that training to failure may not be necessary for optimizing training adaptations in previously trained individuals.
By stopping short of absolute failure, lifters can reduce the risk of excessive muscle damage and potential injuries. Finding the right balance between intensity and recovery time is crucial for achieving better gains and avoiding overtraining. Incorporating RIR into resistance training routines allows lifters to strategically push their limits while still prioritizing proper form and minimizing the risk of injury.
Alternatives to Training to Failure
When it comes to training to failure, some alternatives can still help you achieve muscle growth without the risks associated with reaching failure. One option is to stop a few reps short of failure. Doing this allows you to work your muscles effectively without pushing them to their limits. It reduces the risk of excessive muscle damage and injury while still promoting growth.
Incorporating techniques like drop sets or supersets into your workouts can also increase the intensity without requiring you to reach failure. These methods can be effective for building muscle strength and size. Additionally, focusing on progressive overload, gradually increasing the weight or intensity of your exercises, can stimulate muscle growth without the need to reach failure. Consulting with a fitness professional or coach can provide personalized guidance if you’re unsure about the best approach for your goals and abilities.
Muscle growth varies for each individual based on the number of reps away from failure. It’s not just about training to failure, but also about finding the right balance between intensity and recovery. Progressive overload and proper form are important in building muscle size and strength. Additionally, listening to your body, avoiding overtraining and injury, and consulting with a fitness professional can help optimize your training. You can maximize your gains in muscle hypertrophy and overall fitness by incorporating proper form, progressive overload, and the optimal number of reps away from failure.
In conclusion, training to failure can be an effective tool for muscle growth, but it may not be suitable for everyone. It is important to understand the science behind training to failure and reps in reserve (RIR) and consider the research on muscle growth.
For advanced lifters, training to failure may have its pros and cons. Ultimately, the key is listening to your body and finding the best approach for you.
Blanco, F., Alcazar, J., Cornejo Daza, P., Sánchez-Valdepeñas, J., Rodríguez-López, 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
Cavarretta, D. J., Hall, E. E., & Bixby, W. R. (2019). The Effects of Increasing Training Load on Affect and Perceived Exertion. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003393
Drinkwater, E. J., Lawton, T. W., Lindsell, R. P., Pyne, D. B., Hunt, P. H., & McKenna, M. J. (2005). Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes. J Strength Cond Res, 19(2), 382-388. https://doi.org/10.1519/r-15224.1
Iversen, V., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1
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
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
Sampson, J. A., & Groeller, H. (2016). Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength? Scand J Med Sci Sports, 26(4), 375-383. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12445
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, 24(10), 2857-2872. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci, 35(11), 1073-1082. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197
Willardson, J. M. (2007). The Application of Training to Failure in Periodized Multiple-Set Resistance Exercise Programs. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/r-20426.1
Zourdos, M. C., Klemp, A., Dolan, C., Quiles, J. M., Schau, K. A., Jo, E., Helms, E., Esgro, B., Duncan, S., Garcia Merino, S., & Blanco, R. (2016). Novel Resistance Training-Specific Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve. J Strength Cond Res, 30(1), 267-275. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001049
What is the purpose of training to failure?
The purpose of training to muscle exhaustion is to push your muscles to their absolute limit in order to stimulate muscle growth and adaptation. By performing exercises until you can no longer complete another repetition with proper form, you create a greater stimulus for muscle growth and development.