What is training to failure?
For years bodybuilders and strength training athletes have claimed that progress when it comes to strength and hypertrophy comes from training to failure.
Commonly referred to as maxing out, training to failure is performing a resistance exercise till you can’t do any more repetitions for that particular weight. You’ve reached your limit.
It makes sense. Our bodies are biological adapters. If you deliver a particular stress on the body, it will adapt to manage that stress. Once that adaptation process has taken place, that stress ceases to become significant enough to spark more physiological change. Therefore if the stress you’re delivering is manageable then the body is not being given any reason to change. Quite simply, the stress must increase in order for adaptations to take place.
A number of studies have refuted this claim, with some suggesting that there is no significant difference between training to failure and not when it comes to the physiological adaptations of training. Some have also suggested that training volume is more important for growth.
Much of the research around resistance training however does not focus on resistance trained participants. One of the criticisms of this type of research is they study individuals who have not experienced much, if any, strength training.
A recent meta analysis aimed to determine whether training to failure was necessary for increases in strength and hypertrophy. They focused specifically on young adult participants, and what they found was there was no significant difference in strength and muscle hypertrophy adaptations between training to failure or not.
However, within the populations that were studied, they found a subsection that they labelled resistance trained participants. In this particular community, there was a significant difference In hypertrophy outcomes from the resistance training program for those who trained to failure. Not surprisingly those who train to failure gained more muscle mass.
The researchers still drew conclusions around the results that showed no difference, but what this particular meta analysis really indicates is that training to failure might be a necessary inclusion to a weight training program at some point in a person’s weight training journey, but is not necessarily something that needs to be instigated in the beginning.
For those just starting their weight training in the gym, the research suggests that these individuals do not need to train to failure to see increases in strength and size. However, it seems likely that these individuals will get to a point in their training – a plateau – where they will need to start training to failure in order to continue to see significant increases in strength and size.
What isn’t determined from the results of this study is at what point this step should be incorporated into an individual’s training program. It is likely that this point in one’s training journey will vary from person to person.
Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., Sabol, F. (2021) Effects of resistance training performed to repetition failure or non-failure on muscular strength and hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Journal of Sport and Health Science.