The Benefits and Drawbacks of Training To Failure
When it comes to strength training, there are a number of different training methodologies that can be applied – some which are undoubtedly beneficial and others that lack scientific backing.
Training to failure is a highly popular method, particularly for those who aspire to develop muscle size and strength.
In particular, traditional bodybuilding training utilizes a lot of sets to failure as they believe it to be a key component of muscle growth.
However, what does the science actually say about training to failure? Is this a training method that you should really be applying to your workouts?
What Is Muscular Failure?
As the name suggests, training to failure involves performing as many reps as possible until you can no longer complete any more.
When performing strength training exercises, the working muscles are subject to fatigue. This fatigue gradually builds over time and begins to impact performance.
Providing that the exercise is maintained, this fatigue will continue to build until the muscles are unable to generate enough force in order to overcome the resistance.
What Is The Purpose Of Training To Failure?
It is not uncommon to see bodybuilders use this training technique in an attempt to force the muscles to increase in size.
Research has determined that there are three mechanisms required to cause muscle hypertrophy (growth). They are mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
The reason that bodybuilders train to failure is primarily to increase the amount of metabolic stress. Metabolic stress refers to the build-up of metabolites such as lactate and hydrogen ions within the muscle.
Studies suggest that the build-up of fatigue can have an anabolic effect thus increasing the size of the muscles (1).
While hypertrophy tends to be the main reason to train to failure, it is often commonly used in an attempt to increase strength or move beyond a training plateau.
It is believed that working the muscles to failure can enhance muscle activation and motor unit recruitment which may also contribute towards improvements in strength and mass (2).
The Benefits Of Training To Failure
This section will review a number of scientific findings and discuss three proposed benefits associated with training to failure.
1) Increases Muscle Hypertrophy
As highlighted, there is a good reason why bodybuilders tend to utilize training to failure. The greater amount of metabolic stress can stimulate the muscles of the body to grow.
Research suggests that muscular hypertrophy can be attained by working to failure.
As well as increasing metabolic stress, it is theorized that working to failure promotes the activation of motor units consequently increasing muscular hypertrophy.
That said, much of the research is inconclusive and more is required to definitively confirm whether training to failure causes hypertrophy.
2) May Improve Strength
In addition to improving hypertrophy, training to failure may also help to drive an increase in muscular strength.
Therefore, it is not uncommon to find powerlifters and other strength athletes also training to failure.
Studies on the matter have found a link between training to failure and strength improvements.
One particular study divided participants into two groups. The first group performed sets to absolute muscular failure while the other group performed non-failure sets.
After six weeks of training, the results suggested that the lifters participants from the muscular failure group experienced a greater improvement in strength (3).
3) Moving Past A Plateau
For those who are highly trained, hitting a training plateau is not uncommon.
A training plateau is where the body has adapted to a certain point but now will not improve any further.
This occurs when the body becomes accustomed to the training stimulus that it is being exposed to. In order to start adapting again, this training stimulus must change.
If you are not currently training to failure regularly, adding max sets will change the training stimulus which may force the body to change and improve once again.
A recent study determined this method to be highly beneficial for experienced lifters who are struggling to make substantial improvements (4).
The Drawbacks Of Training To Failure
Let’s now consider three potential drawbacks associated with training to muscular failure.
1) Technique Break Down
While the build-up of fatigue is an important part of increasing metabolic stress, it can interfere with exercise technique.
When energy is depleting and the muscle’s ability to contract is affected, it can be more difficult to ensure that you are moving in the right way.
Allowing your form to significantly deviate can increase your risk of sustaining an injury.
Not only will this increase your risk of injury, it may not effectively work the muscles that you are intending to target which may lead to suboptimal improvements in strength and size.
2) Increased Risk Of Injury
As touched upon in the previous point, allowing your technique to break down can increase the chances of poor movement and consequently elevate your injury risk.
Whether you are using a heavy weight for low reps or light weight for high reps, the risk of sustaining an injury is similar. The muscles are still being pushed to their absolute limits regardless of the volume used.
Furthermore, considering the repetitive nature of this training method, there may be an increased risk of developing overuse or repetitive strain injuries.
3) Overtraining Risk
Although training to failure does have the potential to break through training plateaus, if applied incorrectly it may actually lead to overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining is where the body cannot adequately recover from the training stimulus and, instead of making progress, it will actually begin to regress.
Strength, mass, and performance will decline and a variety of symptoms may be experienced, such as chronic fatigue, constant soreness, reduced appetite, poor sleep, and reduced immunity.
By working to failure too often, it is possible to overtrain. Therefore, you should ensure that you apply this training method sparingly in order to avoid overtraining.
Training Volume Considerations
When applying this training technique, bodybuilders tend to use lighter loads and high reps while strength athletes are more likely to use heavier loads with low reps.
So, when applying this training method, how much volume should you use?
The training volume that you use is important and depends on your training goal, requirements, and limitations. However, that said, there are a few considerations that you must make.
Performing heavy lifts, such as the deadlift or squat, to absolute muscular failure is risky. It is likely that your form will begin to deviate well before you actually reach failure.
Pushing through with poor form is not recommended and is likely to interfere with your motor skills or, even worse, cause a serious injury.
Lifting extremely heavy weights can be risky enough even without working to failure, therefore, going lighter may be a more advantageous approach.
However, if you do decide to train to failure when using heavy loads, consider training to technical failure instead. You can read more about technical failure in the section below.
Training with a lighter load may be more beneficial from a technique standpoint as it may be easier to maintain good movement despite the fatigue build-up.
However, a potential issue with going too light is that the training volume may be too high for the body to deal with. Consequently, overtraining or overuse injuries may occur.
As mentioned, the best approach is to use training to absolute failure sparingly to begin with. As your body becomes more accustomed to this training method, you can gradually increase the frequency.
Training To Technical Failure
While there are some concerns regarding training to failure, there is a better option that can minimize these drawbacks known as technical failure.
This involves stopping once you feel or see that your technique is beginning to break down.
As mentioned, when working to failure, technique can easily become compromised which can increase the risk of experiencing an injury.
By working to technical failure, your technique will remain intact thus minimizing the risk of injury.
Furthermore, by working to technical failure it is likely you will do less volume, thus potentially reducing the chances of overtraining.
While there are a number of scientific studies that have found training to failure to be beneficial for developing strength and size, more research is required to confirm this.
Although it may cause the body to adapt in strength and size, there are concerns regarding exercise form, injury risk, and overtraining. Therefore, this methodology should be applied to your training with care and precision.
1 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489423/ de Freitas, Marcelo Conrado; Gerosa-Neto, Jose; Zanchi, Nelo Eidy; Lira, Fabio Santos; Rossi, Fabrício Eduardo (2017-06-26). “Role of metabolic stress for enhancing muscle adaptations: Practical applications”. World Journal of Methodology. 7 (2): 46–54. doi:10.5662/wjm.v7.i2.46. ISSN 2222-0682. PMC 5489423. PMID 28706859.
2 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4731492/#B8 Nóbrega, Sanmy R.; Libardi, Cleiton A. (2016-01-29). “Is Resistance Training to Muscular Failure Necessary?”. Frontiers in Physiology. 7. doi:10.3389/fphys.2016.00010. ISSN 1664-042X. PMC 4731492. PMID 26858654.
3 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15903379/ Drinkwater, Eric J.; Lawton, Trent W.; Lindsell, Rod P.; Pyne, David B.; Hunt, Patrick H.; McKenna, Michael J. (2005-05). “Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 19 (2): 382–388. doi:10.1519/R-15224.1. ISSN 1064-8011. PMID 15903379.
4 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17530977/ Willardson, Jeffrey M. (2007-05). “The application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance exercise programs”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 21 (2): 628–631. doi:10.1519/R-20426.1. ISSN 1064-8011. PMID 17530977.