Should you train to failure?

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Yes, to grow muscle you have to train hard. But does that also mean that you have to train every set to the limit – that is, to failure? A revised article following a new meta-study by hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld.

Key points:

1.   Training to muscle failure means that you train a set until you think you can no longer do a decent repetition (volitional failure) or until you cannot complete a repetition and thus literally fail (momentary failure).

2.   The extent to which you train to muscle failure is usually expressed in reps in reserve (RIR). For example, 1 RIR means that you stop the set when you could do one more repetition.

3.   There is still a lot of uncertainty and discussion about the effect and usefulness of training until muscle failure. Most reputable coaches are of the opinion that you should apply failure training in a dosed manner to prevent overtraining. Achieving muscle failure causes a perhaps disproportionately amount of fatigue in the muscle. This can be at the expense of the effort in your next sets, so that on balance you produce fewer stimulating repetitions.

4.   As a beginner, you can safely stay away from muscle failure (4-5 RIR): consistent training and correct execution of exercises are your most important training pillars. As a rule, if you are more advanced, you train close to muscle failure, but not completely: you use 1-3 RIR. As an advanced athlete you also train some sets until muscle failure, albeit only with isolation exercises and only in the last sets.

5.   If you train in high rep ranges (20+ reps), training to (near) muscle failure is probably a requirement to achieve sufficient stimulus.

6.   Both beginners and experts often have trouble estimating the correct number of RIR. To that end, it helps to train to muscle failure every now and then, so that you experience firsthand what it is.

WHAT (REAL) MUSCLE FAILURE IS

If you try to do as many reps as possible in a set, sooner or later there will come a point where you can’t go any further: with the best will in the world you won’t be able to squeeze out another full rep. In short, you have reached the point of muscle failure. That’s the point at which the muscle is so fatigued that it can no longer provide the strength to complete a rep (decently!).

Please note: this concerns muscle fatigue, also known as local or peripheral fatigue. Sometimes you have to end a set because you are fatigued in a different way, namely central and/or cardiovascular, something that occurs especially with very long sets. However, that is different from achieving muscle failure.

By ‘training to muscle failure’ we mean that you train until you are sure that you can no longer do a repetition (volitional failure), or until you literally fail during the concentric phase of a repetition, for example while raising the barbell at a biceps curl (momentary failure).

The video below shows you what real muscle failure is. That point may be a few reps further than you think, no matter how uncomfortable the set may feel.

The degree to which you train until muscle failure, also called relative intensity, is usually expressed in Reps In Reserve (RIR). For example, 1 RIR means that you stop the set when you could do one more repetition.

STIMULATING REPS

To grow a muscle group, you have to load it with enough ‘stimulating repetitions‘ for a certain period of time (usually we assume a week). Those are the reps in your sets closest to the point of muscle failure. ‘Stimulating’ means that these reps deliver significant growth stimuli. You recognize these repetitions by the fact that they are more difficult and therefore slower than the repetitions at the beginning of your set.

Normally, a set should contain at least five of those stimulating reps. This is best achieved by training your sets in the range of 6 to 15 repetitions (for practical reasons the best rep range for muscle growth), always close to muscle failure.

So suppose you’re using a weight that allows you to complete 12 reps, there’s little point in doing just 6: it’s not until about the seventh rep that the reps start generating serious growth incentives. Only with heavy compound exercises, such as the barbell squat, are the ‘early’ reps in your sets already quite stimulating.

Assuming about five stimulating reps per set, an average bodybuilder would need to do 10-20 sets per muscle group per week to grow, with a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per workout.

FATIGUE AND RECOVERY

More is better isn’t always the case for muscle growth. For every stimulus there is also fatigue. We have already seen that there are different types of fatigue: central fatigue (in the central nervous system), cardiovascular fatigue (in the heart) and peripheral, or local fatigue (in the muscle).

The more stimulus, the greater the fatigue, the more is required of your recovery capacity. And with natural bodybuilders, the recovery capacity is quite limited.

Therefore, always aim for the most favorable Stimulus Fatigue Ratio (SFR) in your training: as much growth stimulus as possible against as little fatigue as possible.

TRAINING TO MUSCLE FAILURE

Do you have to train your sets, for optimal muscle growth, to the point of muscle failure? Or is it better to stay a bit away from that, by leaving a few reps ‘in the tank’ (ie by training with Reps In Reserve)? The answer to these questions is not so simple and certainly not black and white: training to muscle failure is perhaps the most controversial topic in natural bodybuilding.

PRO

Proponents of failure training say that you will only grow to the maximum if you also max out your sets, meaning you train them to muscle failure.

CONTRA

Opponents believe that training everything until muscle failure creates a disproportionate fatigue, which is at the expense of your recovery capacity and thus of the quality of the rest of your training(s). Their alternative: if you train with RIR, you create slightly fewer stimulating repetitions per set, but because there is less fatigue, you can do more (productive) sets, and thus — on balance — create more stimulating repetitions. And so you will grow more, is the thought. In other words: (often) training to muscle failure leads to an unfavorable SFR.

Another argument against training to muscle failure is that poor technique leads to injuries.

Most reputable coaches seem to be in the counter camp: train hard, but don’t train everything to muscle failure (some sets is okay). In practice, that means leaving roughly one to three reps in the tank in most sets (1-3 RIR), depending on the exercise you’re doing (compound versus isolation exercise – see below). Novice bodybuilders can train a little further from muscle failure (4-5 RIR).

WHO’S RIGHT?

In a meta-study, hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld tries to find an answer by analyzing 15 scientific studies, all conducted among young adults.

The outcome? In general, training until muscle failure is not a condition for maximum muscle growth and/or strength gain. Only (advanced) advanced lifters could benefit from regular training for a few sets until muscle failure.

On the other hand, training to muscle failure does not appear to be detrimental to muscle growth, at least not in the short term. It should also be noted that long-term studies in the bodybuilding field are scarce and it cannot therefore be ruled out that failure training leads to overtraining in the long term. There is some evidence for that.

NUANCES

According to Schoenfeld, this issue is mainly about the nuances:

There are a number of limitations to the current body of literature that impair the ability to draw strong conclusions on the matter, and various factors must be considered from a programming standpoint.

In a blog post he explains the findings of the meta-study in more detail and draws the following conclusions:

  • For muscle growth, you need to create a stimulus that challenges your body against its current ability;
  • Relatively little is needed for novice strength athletes: they already grow even if they train quite far from muscle failure, for example with 4-5 RIR;
  • As you get more advanced, you will need to train closer to muscle failure. You should definitely train some sets with roughly 1 RIR (so one repetition of muscle failure away);
  • As an advanced lifter, you may have to train a few sets until muscle failure. Older strength athletes, however, have to be sparing with this, because of their more limited recovery capacity;
  • Training all your sets to muscle failure is strongly discouraged – this may lead to overtraining in the long run;
  • If you use a high training frequency (ie if you train your muscle groups three times a week or more) it is better not to train too much to muscle failure because of the longer recovery that is required;
  • If you train in high rep ranges (i.e. with low weights), you may need to train closer to muscle failure than when you train in low rep ranges (i.e. with high weights), although the question is whether you should train to complete muscle failure;
  • Although research hasn’t clearly established it, failure training is probably best done with isolation exercises (for example, side raises) and not with compound exercises (like deadlifts). The latter is due to the great central fatigue that failure training causes with such exercises, as well as the risk of injury.

WHAT PRACTICE TEACHES US

Of course, science isn’t everything. The practical experience of renowned bodybuilding coaches such as Mike Israetel, Eric Helms, Steve Hall and Sean Nalewanyj may weigh just as much. And these coaches all believe that failure training should be done in moderation to avoid disproportionate fatigue — the adverse SFR we talked about.

The figure below clarifies this and suggests that as a rule you should train with 1-3 RIR and that you only apply failure training in moderation. The 0 RIR stands for volitional failure, -1 RIR for momentary failure.

 

The best Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio (SFR) is about two reps away from muscle failure. (Source: Mike Israetel/Renaissance Periodization)

ADVICE

Should you train to muscle failure or not? Fortunately, you don’t have to choose. After all, real life is not a scientific study in which one half only trains until muscle failure and the other half never. What matters is that you apply failure training with some policy. Brad Schoenfeld makes the following suggestions for this.

1.   As a beginner you can safely stay away from muscle failure (4-5 RIR): consistent training and correct execution of exercises are your most important training pillars. As a rule, if you are more advanced (intermediate), you train close to muscle failure, but not completely: 1-3 RIR. As an advanced lifter, you also train some sets until muscle failure.

2.   If you do failure training, do so with some restraint. This is to prevent disproportionate fatigue. A good starting point is to train only the last set of an exercise to muscle failure, while training the other sets with 1-3 RIR. Be even more cautious with failure training if you use a high training frequency. Or train only to muscle failure just before a deload, or for short periods.

3.   Only apply failure training to single-joint exercises (isolation exercises) and not to multi-joint exercises (compounds), with the exception of some machine compound exercises.

4.   If you train in high rep ranges (20+ reps), training to (near) muscle failure may be a requirement to create sufficient stimulus.

5.   Both beginners and advanced often have trouble estimating the correct number of reps in reserve. To that end, it helps to train to muscle failure every now and then, so that you experience firsthand what it is.

6.   Every individual reacts differently to certain training stimuli, so it’s ultimately a matter of experimenting to find what works best for you .

FINALLY

Natural bodybuilding is all about training smart and that is not necessarily the same as training as hard as possible. Training to muscle failure must be done carefully, and therefore in a dosed manner. Referring to the figure below: you train at least ‘Hard’, sometimes ‘Hard AF’ and occasionally to ‘Failure’:

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