Should You Train to Failure Every Set?

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training to failure, Infinite_labs
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Should You Train to Failure Every Set?
By: Robbie Durand
“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.“-Arnold Schwarzenegger

If you go into any gym, the one thing all trainers will tell you is that in order for muscle to grow, you need to train to complete muscular failure.  Training to failure is what Arnold said is what separates champions from the losers.  One of the all-time favorite growth techniques used for decades by all bodybuilders has been pushing past the point of complete muscular failure. We all remember scenes from Pumping Iron where Arnold Schwarzenegger is training to failure and beyond despite the immense pain.  Arnold said that muscle did not grow unless they were taken past the point of muscular failure.  There were other historic bodybuilders such as Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates that also believed that every set needed to be taken to complete muscular failure.  While failure can be a valuable tool in a bodybuilder’s training routine, there is some evidence to indicate that it comes with a significant cost. Previous research has found that training to failure every set significantly increased resting levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol and suppressed anabolic growth factors such as IGF-1. This study demonstrated that taking every set to failure could lead to overtraining and a catabolic response. This study may indicate that bodybuilders who take every set to absolute failure may put themselves at risk of impeding long-term growth. Researchers recently just published a study which may cause controversy among bodybuilders and researchers.   Twenty-eight males completed a 4-week familiarization period and were three groups:

  • non-failure rapid shortening (RS; rapid concentric, 2 s eccentric).  They lifted up the weight explosively and lowered the weight in 2 seconds, emphasizing the eccentric portion.
  • non-failure stretch-shortening (SSC; rapid concentric, rapid eccentric).  They lifted up the weight explosively and lowered the weight the weight explosively.
  • failure control (C, 2 s concentric, 2 s eccentric).  Exercise taken to complete muscle failure.
training to failure, Infinite_labs
In sum, the researchers found no difference in the routines that were taken to failure and those that were not.

After 12 weeks of the study, the average number of repetitions per set was significantly lower in non-failure rapid shortening and non-failure stretch-shortening group compared with failure control. A significant increase in 1RM, maximal voluntary contraction, muscle size was observed for all groups ; however, no between-group differences were detected. Similar adaptations across the three resistance training regimen suggest repetition failure is not critical to elicit significant neural and structural changes to skeletal muscle. In sum, the researchers found no difference in the routines that were taken to failure and those that were not.  This study only lasted 12 weeks, so long term effects of taking every set to absolute muscular failure is not known.  There are some negative outcomes of taking every set to complete failure that can lead to long term overtraining but the study is interesting none the less.

Sampson, J.A, and H. Groeller. “Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength?” Scand J Med Sci Sports (2015): Ahead of print.

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