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Do We Need To Be Training To Failure To Maximize Gains?

Training to failure is a forever lasting debate whether it is something that is needed to be done in order to cause the muscles to hypertrophy.

The old bodybuilders tale of saying that the bench press set you just did did’t cause any adaptation unless those last couple reps were a struggle. But is that something that is required in order for the muscles to grow?

Diving into the research, I found that stopping shy to failure or going to failure yielded similar results in terms of strength gains (1).

In terms of hypertrophy, there are several pretty recent articles that have been published about using lighter loads to increase muscle size (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). A study found that performing lighter loads versus traditional higher intensities (approx. 70-85% of 1 RM) will be able to get you similar hypertrophic results as long as you are reaching momentary concentric failure.

Momentary concentric failure means that you are going to the point where the neuromuscular system can no long perform another rep. But, again, can we achieve hypertrophy with lower loads while not getting to failure?

There is a study that looked at subjects who performed single leg extension exercises over a 12 week period with the subjects being divided into four different groups. Two groups trained at a high intensity with one going to failure and the other stopping shy of failure, and they did the same with the two other groups at a low intensity.

At the beginning of the study they tested everyone’s 1RM and then tested it again at the end of the study.

The study found that all four groups had increases in strength and muscle size that were not significantly different between groups.

What does this mean for you?

What this study sheds light on is that you don’t have to train extremely heavy in order to gain strength or increase muscle size.

Training to failure has its risks, and for the average joe, I don’t think that is something that is needed in ones program. Training to failure is going to increase your risk of injury by taking the muscle close to its breaking point.

If you like training the failure, then be my guest. But I think that the only time going to failure is required is for specific instances like a powerlifter getting ready for a competition or an athlete testing at their combine.

However, sticking at the same weight all the time and performing the same number of sets and reps isn’t going to make you stronger or increase muscle size. There has to be some change in volume or intensity from time to time. The body is such a smart machine that will not change when exposed to the same stimulus time and time again.

Be sure to be changing sets and reps and increasing weight based on how the volume changes in order to achieve success in your workout program.

If you need help with your training and need help, let me know. Either through email at nick@mortonfit.com or by becoming on Morton Fitness Online Coaching client.

References

  1. Davies T, Orr R, Halaki M, Hackett D. Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Apr;46(4):487-502. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0451-3. Also make sure to read the erratum
  2. Jenkins ND, Housh TJ, Buckner SL, Bergstrom HC, Cochrane KC, Hill EC, Smith CM, Schmidt RJ, Johnson GO, Cramer JT. Neuromuscular Adaptations After 2 and 4 Weeks of 80% Versus 30% 1 Repetition Maximum Resistance Training to Failure. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Aug;30(8):2174-85. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001308.
  3. Ogasawara R, Loenneke J, Thiebaud R, Abe T. Low-Load Bench Press Training to Fatigue Results in Muscle Hypertrophy Similar to High-Load Bench Press Training. International Journal of Clinical Medicine, 2013, 4, 114-121 http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ijcm.2013.42022
  4. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2954-63. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958.
  5. Van Roie E, Delecluse C, Coudyzer W, Boonen S, Bautmans I. Strength training at high versus low external resistance in older adults: effects on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force-velocity characteristics. Exp Gerontol. 2013 Nov;48(11):1351-61. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2013.08.010.
  6. Mitchell C, Churchward-Venne T, West D, Burd N, Breen L, Baker S, Phillips S. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2012 Jul 1; 113(1): 71–77. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00307.2012
  7. Morton RW, Oikawa SY, Wavell CG, Mazara N, McGlory C, Quadrilatero J, Baechler BL, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2016 Jul 1;121(1):129-38. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00154.2016.
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