The latest issue of Muscle & Fiction and all the High-Intensity zealots would have you believe that if you don’t take a set to absolute muscular failure, you are wasting your time. That just isn’t true. On an effective strength training program for the natural lifter, most sets should stop 1 or 2 repetitions short of failure. We should avoid going to failure on all but the last set of each exercise. A simple, yet effective way to evaluate your rating of perceived exertion (RPE), is using this table developed by respected strength coach and competitive powerlifter Mike Tuchscherer.
Going to failure too soon in your workout will hurt your performance and undercut your total workout volume, which decreases the overload placed on the muscle. A 2007 study by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, concluded that training to failure could be an effective tool for increasing muscular development, but it should be used in the context of increasing the overall load placed on the muscle to break through training plateaus.[i]
When you go to failure and perform one or two additional repetitions on your last set, you are increasing the total training load placed on the muscle. This study suggested, that “While training to failure was not essential for increases in muscular characteristics such as strength and hypertrophy, training to failure might allow advanced lifters to break through training plateaus when incorporated periodically into short-term microcycles. Furthermore, training to failure should not be performed repeatedly over long periods, due to the high potential for overtraining and overuse injuries.” Another study which had lifters using loads that were 75% of their one rep max concluded that “Fatigue and metabolite accumulation does not appear to be critical stimuli for strength gains.”[ii]
Training to complete failure is not necessary to maximize growth, but you do have to work with heavy loads, perform the lifts with good form, and work sufficiently hard. Working close enough to failure means you do not want to leave more than one or two reps in the tank on your working sets. Unfortunately, most people are not very good at knowing how close to failure they are during a set. Taking your last set of each exercise to failure is a foolproof way of making sure you maximize the stimulus and are working hard enough for your muscles to grow and validating your perceived exertion level on your preceding sets. For example: If you performed two sets of 6 repetitions with 200 pounds, and your perceived exertion was 9, meaning you could have performed only one more rep, but you are able to perform 8 repetitions on your third and final working set, you now need to revise your RPE from a 9 to an 8 for your proceeding sets.
The 2007 study by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning, also asserted that habitually going to failure may result in decreased resting levels of testosterone and increased resting levels of cortisol, which are counter-productive to hypertrophy. It may also make you more susceptible to overuse injuries and overtax your nervous system, especially when performing taxing movements like the squat and deadlift. Only the genetically gifted and or those using performance-enhancing drugs can routinely train to failure on all sets. Powerlifters are some of the biggest strongest people on the planet, and they rarely train to failure. They have a target number of repetitions that they want to achieve to have a successful workout. We should do the same. You want to generate power on each repetition, and power is mass times acceleration. As you approach failure, the weight will slow to a grind; at that point, you are not generating much power.
Pre-steroid era bodybuilders and modern powerlifters often advocate avoiding muscle failure. They want to perform a goal number of repetitions on each set successfully. They want to build small wins. These small wins keep them motivated because each victory is another step closer to their goal. After all, our goal is to get bigger and stronger, not failure.
Using this philosophy, they have built an impressive amount of muscle. Powerlifters often cycle their weights. For example, each week they might attempt to increase their three-repetition max (RM) slightly. If your three-rep max on the bench press was 185 pounds, and you could increase the weight just one pound each week, at the end of the year your new three RM would be 237 pounds. That would add an appreciable amount of muscle to your chest, shoulders, and triceps. It is much better to succeed with a one-pound increase than to fail with five.
If you are an experienced lifter, you might wonder how it is possible to add weight to the bar in one-pound increments. You can use ½ pound fractional plates to add as little as one pound to the bar. You can purchase a set of eight (8) ½ pound plates on Amazon for approximately $33. You can add weight to fixed dumbbells using PlateMate magnetic plates in 1.25 or 2.5-pound increments.
Pre-steroid era bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl often criticizes proponents of going to failure every set, by saying that it quickly led to overtraining, injuries, and mental burnout. He argues, who wants to go to the gym with the goal of continually failing. He advocates stopping one or two repetitions short of failure. Some recent studies have suggested that going to failure is not required to achieve muscle growth if a sufficiently heavy load is used, 75 to 90% of your 1 RM max, 4 to 10 repetitions are performed, and enough volume, 3 to 5 sets are performed for each exercise. Bill says that workouts should be a positive experience that leaves you feeling great, not wiped-out. His advice follows a bodybuilding axiom, “stimulate, not annihilate,” your muscles into growth. The key to muscle growth is progressive overload, not training to failure.
[i] Paul Gamble, PhD, CSCS, “Periodization of Training for Team Sports Athletes,” National Strength and Conditioning Association Volume 28, Number 5, pages 56–66.
[ii] J P Folland, C S Irish, J C Roberts, J E Tarr, and D A Jones, “Fatigue is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains during resistance training,” British Journal of Sports Medicine 2002.