Spend enough time at the gym and you’re bound to hear the phrase “training to failure” – but what exactly is it and, perhaps more importantly, how do you know if it’s right for you?By: Dan Salupo
The purpose of any sound strength training program is to systematically manipulate certain variables (e.g. sets and reps, weight, amount of rest, etc.) over a planned period of time to create new stimuli for our muscles to adapt to—“a biological process that eventually makes them stronger,” says Iván Chulvi-Medrano, PhD, Faculty of Physical Education and Sport at the University of Valencia, Spain.
One popular resistance training modality used to facilitate the muscle strengthening process, referred to as muscular failure, is defined by Chulvi-Medrano as “the point during a resistance exercise in which the activated muscle group is unable to generate enough force to complete a full- repetition due to fatigue.” Used properly, training to failure can be an effective tool for progression, or increasing strength over time. Essentially, by reaching this point of fatigue or “failure”, our bodies adapt by recruiting, repairing, and strengthening the muscles necessary to perform the exercise—thereby increasing the amount of weight we’re able to lift.
Although training to muscular failure has been proven to be effective for increasing strength, Chulvi-Medrano, who recently reviewed nearly 30 studies on the topic, believes the decision of whether or not to implement a muscular failure training program depends largely on a risk VS benefit analysis. For example, “training to failure may increase muscle adaptation, however there is a tendency to jeopardize proper technique when the muscles are fatigue, thus raising the risk of injury,” warns Chulvi-Medrano. “Moreover, research has shown an increased risk of over-training as well as a loss of motivation as a result of a muscular failure training program.”
In addition to evaluating the risks and benefits, Chulvi-Medrano also recommends assessing one’s own resistance training status when considering a muscular failure training program.
“Research suggests, for example, that muscular failure can be applied occasionally to highly experienced athletes seeking to improve their performance in plateaus periods,” reported Chulvi-Medrano in his recent paper published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise. “However there have been no significant differences found between training and training to failure among less experienced exercisers.”
Thus, the decision to adopt a muscular failure training program should be made only after considering the benefits and risks involved, as well as your current stage in the game. So while an exerciser who has advanced experience in resistance training may elect to train his or her muscles to failure during a plateau period, an older adult with limited training experience could achieve similar benefits from an alternative strength training program without as much risk.
Nonetheless, if and when you decide you are ready to implement a muscular failure training program, Chulvi-Medrano advises adhering to the following guidelines:
1. Application shall be planned – including sets with 8-12 repetitions near voluntary fatigue. This range of repetition is used because it can cause synergistic increases in strength, muscle endurance and hypertrophy in a healthy way. The number of sets should not be too high, since the benefits are very similar to small volumes and large volumes.
2. Only use muscular failure in one or two exercises per muscle group, preferably in the last set(s). These exercises should be performed at the beginning of the workout session.
3. Since training to muscle failure can cause interference on the proper technique of the exercise, be sure to use guided-machines when performing exercises.
4. Time of rest between sets is crucial because it significantly affects the changes in hormonal and metabolic systems. The methodology of muscle failure training requires at least four minutes of rest between sets; applying less recovery time will result in a loss in execution speed, increased fatigue and a decrease in training load.
5. A given training session should alternate between different muscle groups to prevent cumulative fatigue
6. Implementing a muscular failure training program should not exceed 7-weeks to avoid the risk of injury and/or overtraining.
To get you on the right track, Chulvi-Medrano has provided the following example of a 7-week muscular failure training program for improving bench press performance. If you decide to follow the program, be sure to come back and tell us what you think in the comments section!