If you peruse muscle building forums, you will find a hotly debated topic: whether training to the point of muscle failure is an effective way to build muscle.
Some people argue that it is the best way and other people argue the exact opposite! We have delved into the science behind this issue to discover the truth about pushing yourself to the extremes and whether this should be a regular part of your training regime.
The science of muscle building
What actually happens inside our bodies when we strength train? Weights and the effort required to move them represents a form of stress on the muscles. This strains the muscles fibres, causing them to become damaged and injured – the technical term for this is muscle hypertrophy.
While it might sound like a bad thing, our muscles need to go through this so that the healing process can be triggered. Our bodies will repair the damaged fibres by fusing them together and this results in larger stronger muscles. It is like nature’s way of saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
So, how far do we need to go to produce this result? Spoiler alert: There is no one answer!
What is training to muscle failure?
Different styles of training produce different stresses on the muscles fibres, resulting in different types of growth. At the most extreme end, we have muscle failure which is performing a move over and over until you literally cannot do it anymore; this is known as a momentary muscular failure. For a short period, your body will be unable to produce the force needed to do perform another rep.
When your muscle literally can’t do even part of the next rep, that’s muscle failure (also known as absolute, or technical failure).
Is training to failure necessary for muscle growth?
training close to muscle failure can have the same effect as going for complete muscle failure
Some people claim that training to the point of failure maximises the benefits that you can get from that session, not only because it produces the most stress on the muscle but because it stimulates the body’s natural repair system to work at a more efficient pace, leading to a greater gain.
There is very little scientific research to support this ‘floodgate’ effect. There are also studies that show no discernible benefit from muscle failure as compared to regular training.
In fact, the research shows that training close to muscle failure can have the same effect as going for complete muscle failure.
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Is muscle failure bad for you?
What are the dangers associated with this kind of training?
There are several problems associated with repetitive muscle failure. Let’s take a look at them:
#1 – You could get an injury
The first and most obvious is the risk of injury. Our muscles are not designed to be pushed to the point of literal exhaustion every few days. Some people do not have an adequate supply of the ‘tools’ of muscle repair (various hormones, proteins) and so cannot quickly repair extensive damage.
Over time, repetitive stress can lead to a build-up of stress hormones which inhibit muscle growth too. So even if working out to the point of muscle failure works for you at the beginning, it might not produce results a few weeks or months down the line.
#2 – Your form might suffer
Second, muscle failure can lead to poor form over time. Our bodies are incredibly adaptive and if the underlying muscle is still damaged from the last session when we next train, it will try to compensate by using alternative parts of the muscle. This worsens form over time.
#3 – Over-training might actually slow down your training
Third, the risk of overtraining is heightened with muscle failure. If you have ever had to slow down your programme because of overtraining, you will know what a frustrating pain this can be.
The best way to train for muscle growth
There are two main ways to train for muscle growth, depending on whether you want to build strength or to increase muscle size. For strength, the heavier the weights the stronger your muscles will become. To cycle up through the weight classes, focus on lifting heavier weights with fewer reps per set.
For bulk, you need to develop your existing muscle mass by focussing on increasing the number of reps per set and number of sets.
Any good training programme should be mindful of both. After all, most of us do not train for one purpose. We want to increase our physical ability, add bulk to the right places, have a balanced physique, and retain a full range of movement.
This inevitably means doing a mixture of higher weights and longer sets, working on the arms, shoulders, chest, and legs, and even thinking about balance exercises and throwing in a few cardio sessions for our most important muscle (our heart!).
Our verdict: Should you train to failure?
The bottom line is that there is a lack of reliable evidence that muscle failure delivers any benefits over and above regular training. The potential for injury, however, is a substantial risk to progress. And finally, we should not forget to say, it is a really unpleasant feeling!
References & Further Reading
- NCBI – Is Resistance Training to Muscular Failure Necessary?
- Medium.com, Chris Beardsley – How does proximity to failure affect hypertrophy
- Menno Henselmans – New research on training to failure
- Sci-fit, Adam Tzur and Jack Quint – Should You Train to Failure for Muscle and Strength? (Research Review)
- Journal of Strength & Conditioning – Low-Load Resistance Training to Volitional Failure Induces Muscle Hypertrophy Similar to Volume-Matched