To fail or not to fail? A new study

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Do you have to train every set to the point of muscle failure for optimal muscle growth? A new meta-study provides clarity.


Just to remind you, training to muscle failure means training to the point where you can’t do a decent (!) repetition anymore. It means using the maximum intensity of a set.

Many strength athletes train to muscle failure just about every set, because they believe that this results in maximum muscle growth: no pain, no gain.

However, many reputable coaches think it’s better to keep a few reps ‘in the tank’: training with Reps In Reserve (RIR). For example, 2 RIR means you stop the set two reps before muscle failure.


Those coaches are right when it comes to a meta-study by Vieira ea. The analysis shows that training to muscle failure has a poor stimulus-to-fatigue ratio (SFR). This means that the training stimulus is counterbalanced by a relatively high level of fatigue. Training to muscle failure significantly increases muscle damage and thus recovery time, neuromuscular fatigue and metabolic disruption. This compared to training with RIR, but with the same repetitions volume.


The conclusion is that with muscle failure you create much more fatigue compared to a little bit of extra muscle stimulation. Therefore, it is better to stay one to three reps of muscle failure (1-3 RIR) and do more sets rather than less sets until complete muscle failure. So you train close to muscle failure (a set is certainly heavy), but not completely. That way you create the most stimulus against the least fatigue.

Should you never train to muscle failure at all? Not now either. By occasionally training until muscle failure you learn to better estimate the number of RIR. In addition, failure training is a valid strategy for people who have little time to train, while recovery is not a problem.


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