“Training to failure” refers to completing as many repetitions as possible until you can’t lift the weight anymore.
Thus, an 8 rep max means the resistance is set so that it takes eight reps to reach failure:
A ninth rep is not possible.
Proponents of this approach insist that because it recruits as many muscle fibers as possible, that optimal hypertrophy will be triggered.
Another camp says that failure workouts will deflect maximal hypertrophy because they fatigue the muscle so much that subsequent sets are impaired. Furthermore, recovery takes longer, so that come next workout, the fibers aren’t completely recovered, and hence, the workout suffers somewhat.
The truth is, a failure-based workout is best only some of the time—depending on your goals. When should you employ this approach? When should you avoid it?
If you’re going after mass, mass and more mass, then your approach should probably be failure-based for the best results, though it’s no secret that some of the hugest guys do not go to failure 100 percent of the time.
You’ll build mass without any failure at all, but you’ll build more mass with at least some failure or rep maxes.
However, if gaining strength is also important, you should not do every set to failure. Though any kind of weight lifting will make you stronger, which is particularly apparent in beginners, going to failure too much will interfere with strength and power gains.
Hypertrophy And Strength
The reason that failure is favored for building as much muscle as possible is because the amount of fatigue, that’s generated when one pushes to the limits of lifting for reps, is significant enough to pump up the volume of the muscle tissue.
The tissue, during exhausting sets, gets severely depleted of oxygen, and this forces cells to adapt by building up the metabolic machinery in the gel-like fluid that surrounds the muscle cell. This fluid, called sarcoplasm, contains fixtures that supply the cell with energy.
Fatigue-based training will increase the density of this machinery and thus expand the sarcoplasmic volume, resulting in a bigger muscle belly.
Training to failure initially hits the smaller muscle fibers, and as those conk out, bigger fibers take over, and then those conk out, until complete exhaustion sets in.
In addition to the “guts of the cell” increasing in volume, the contractile proteins increase. The trainee experiences more cross-sectional area of muscle tissue.
The typical protocol for failure-based sets is the 8-12 rep max: At least eight reps are possible, but 13 are impossible. If the trainee can do only nine reps, he doesn’t stop at eight; he goes to nine.
Hypertrophy can also be achieved with a lower rep, heavier weight approach. But the mass gains are slower and there is less cross-sectional area produced. Max hypertrophy does not result, only some hypertrophy does.
This is because more of the gains are in the quantity of contractile proteins, to accommodate the extra heavy loads.
Because the loads are so heavy (e.g., a 5 rep max for a bench press; imagine the amount of weight needed to generate a 5 RM, versus the weight amount for an 8-12 RM), the trainee is not able to lift long enough to spark a significant increase in the density of the innards of the cell (e.g., mitochondria, glycosomes).
Five reps take a shorter amount of time than do eight, let alone 12, reps. It takes 7-10 seconds for fatigue, or that “burn,” to start getting reeled in. The lower rep, higher weight approach will result in more strength gains than will the failure approach.
A beginner will experience faster gains than will an experienced trainee. This is why beginners are often told to just stick with a three sets to 10 failure approach.
Strength gains will come quickly, and so will hypertrophy, in just 90 days when combined with supportive nutrition, consistency and the right exercises.
Eventually, this approach will start sputtering as it loses effectiveness. At this point, the big question looms: Shall one continue working to failure, or try a new approach?
Well, it depends. It depends on their goals. If the trainee performs other physical activities such as sports specific drills, then failure training will interfere since it requires a longer recovery time.
If strength and power are more important to the trainee, then failure training loses importance and instead, a person should stop the set one or two reps short of failure—using the heaviest weight possible for lower rep schemes.
As for the 8-12 rep scheme, one can still achieve hypertrophy without going to failure, but it may not be as much of a mass increase as would happen with absolute failure.
However, remember, as mentioned earlier in this article, one school of thought says that failure inhibits maximal hypertrophy due to the battering of the muscle tissue. Thus, it may all come down to what seems to work best for the individual.
There’s a third scheme to be considered: forced repetitions. This takes failure training to a higher level, in that the trainee receives assistance with either the lifting phase (concentric or “positive”), or the release/lowering, or “negative.
A report in a 2003 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research details a study comparing the hormonal response between two lifting schemes: failure training without assistance, and failure training with assistance on the positive or concentric portion of the lifts. In the forced rep group of men, human growth hormone levels were higher.
This is very significant because HGH promotes not only fat burning, but connective tissue growth—which leads to more hypertrophy because it allows for more loads to be lifted.
It’s important to note that forced reps also produce greater cortisol levels. This anti-anabolic hormone can be managed with eating at the most opportune times to prevent catabolism or muscle breakdown.
Training To Failure: Good Or Bad?
Overall, it appears that forced reps win for hypertrophy as long as adequate recovery time is taken, along with the right nutrition and timing of meals. This is where the caveat is, as many trainees find it difficult to work sufficient recovery time into their program, and struggle with nutrition know-how.
Recovery from forced reps for the larger muscle groups can take 4-5 days, sometimes even a full week. Someone on a three or four day split will have a challenging time working around this.
On the other hand, subfailure workouts lead to shorter recovery times and thus, more frequent and higher quality sets. Many pros swear by the variable of frequency when it comes to packing on lots of muscle, in that frequent, just-shy-of-failure sets are more effective than less frequent but killer forced rep sets or unassisted failure sets.
Before this starts getting confusing and sounding contradictory, consider that the real question should be, “When do I train to failure, and when should I do subfailure sets?”
If you train to failure 100 percent of the time, you’ll sabotage goals, what with the required extension of recovery times resulting in infrequent training of specific muscle groups, or, to keep up with frequency, you’ll have to train before muscles are completely recovered, thereby causing a compromised effort.
You’ll feel ongoing soreness and experience stunted hypertrophy and strength plateaus.
Doing not-to-failure sets 100 percent of the time is the other extreme. You’ll never achieve all the hypertrophy you want, even if you train the same muscle group three times a week. Somewhere in there should be failure sets, ideally the exercises in which you can tolerate the searing burn.
For some, training to failure will never be possible with, say, deep leg presses, due to the pain, or with bench pressing if there is no spotter available.
You’ll need to experiment to find out which ratio works best for your goals and other variables such as spotter availability, tolerance to lactate buildup and how specific muscles in your body tend to recover.
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