I’ve been recommending people train to failure for years.
It’s the only way to get 100% out of every set.
Nevertheless, I sometimes get asked…is it really necessary to go to failure in every set? Every single set?
Short answer – yes. If you want to produce real structural changes in muscle mass, yes you should train to failure in every single set (except for warming up).
A set not taken to failure is a warm-up set, as far as I am concerned. It might look good, but you’re getting nothing done. You’re stimulating nothing. It’s too easy and will not warrant an adaptive response by the body.
THE SCIENCE OF TRAINING TO FAILURE
I have laid out the science behind this in may previous articles. To summarize…
Training to failure:
- Maximizes muscle fiber recruitment (especially those type 2b ones we need for size gains)
- Maximizes metabolic stress
- Maximizes muscles fiber damage
…and all of the above factors correlate positively with protein synthesis (or growth rates in simple language).Training to failure causes an increase in all the growth factors responsible for protein synthesis rates Click To Tweet
It’s a no-brainer. You want your workout to be maximally effective in terms of stimulating growth? Then take each set to the last possible rep.
In addition to the above biological factors, I present studies in the free THT training manual showing the efficacy of training to failure – even if performing just one set!
In addition to the studies in THT training, here are 2 more we can look at to put a nail in the coffin of the “not-to-failure” argument.
This study  saw subjects bench press 3 times a week, one group going to failure and the other not-to-failure (the total reps/total volume being the same). The failure group experienced better increases in strength despite the total volume being equal.
“Bench press training that leads to repetition failure induces greater strength gains than nonfailure training in the bench press exercise for elite junior team sport athletes.”
Another study , again totalling the same number of reps and sets, saw the failure group gain more muscle.
The group doing straight reps to failure with no rest (the “no rest regimen”) experienced greater increases in 1 Rep Max, maximal isometric strength, and muscular endurance.
The failure group also showed a marked increase in muscle cross-sectional area, whereas the WR and CON groups did not. Bottom line: the failure group got bigger and stronger over 12 weeks. The other groups did not.Click here for 2 studies showing training to failure produces more #muscle growth Click To Tweet
FAILURE VS TOTAL VOLUME
I’m not going to repeat myself too much here because I wrote an in-depth article on the absurdity of the Total Volume argument here – please do read it and end any confusion you may have on the issue.
From that article…
This is NOT mathematics. It’s biology. Total Volume does not take precedence over Intensity.
There are biological factors occurring inside the muscle that just don’t happen if you don’t train to failure – fact.
THE LAST REP…
- That last rep is what is responsible for maximizing “metabolic stress”. And metabolic stress rates correlate positively with muscle hypertrophy/growth.
- That last rep will also maximize the recruitment of type 2b muscle fibers, the ones that are predominantly responsible for size gains.
- That last rep will help maximize muscle damage. This leads to inflammation, which leads to the release of growth factors that stimulate protein synthesis. Damage the muscle and stimulate the thickening of individual muscle fibers.
- The sheer stress and fatigue caused by those last reps is a form of “cellular disruption” that causes an increase in all the growth factors i.e those responsible for protein synthesis rates.
These are the biological markers of stimulating gains. The “total volume number” you write on a piece of paper at the end of your workout is not a marker of anything – though it may inflate your ego.
The only people saying that training to failure can result in overtraining are those people who don’t understand what overtraining is.
It has nothing to do with training to failure.
Overtraining = Under-recovering. That’s all.
If there is not enough rest between workouts to allow the body to produce the gains you stimulated in the gym, you’re overtraining.
So by doing too much too soon, you short-circuit your gains. Growth takes rest and time.
I call it the Peak Overcompensation Point (POP). Train before your body has had a chance to produce the gains stimulated in the gym and you’ll get nowhere.
Overtraining is absolutely not a result of taking your sets to failure. Please read my post here for more in this issue.
It depends on your goal. If you are training for hypertrophy/growth, you should always take a set to failure. There is never a good reason not to. Then get enough rest.
I’ve seen some terrible advice on the web. For example, perhaps the answer is not to have “lighter weeks” or “not-to-failure” sessions.
Why? Such sessions pointless. Your body simply needs rest. Not ‘not-to-failure’ workouts.
The real answer is to hit it hard. Then rest. Full, complete rest.
If you have any questions about training or diet, ask me below. If you need personalized 1-on-1 help from me, consider booking a consultation with me.
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Train With Intensity i.e. To Failure!
 Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May;19(2):382-8.
 The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jun;37(6):955-63.