Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Most people (in my experience) seem to be under the impression that, when lifting, they need to take their sets to failure in order to get results.
At first thought, it absolutely DOES make perfect sense. Which is probably why it’s the norm.
You have to push yourself to the limit to get better, right???
“No pain no gain” – isn’t that how the saying goes?
However, it turns out that this is just not always the case.
In fact, training to failure too often can have a lot of negatives.
And it actually isn’t necessary at all when trying to build muscle OR get stronger.
Contrary to what many people (even some whom I consider pretty good coaches/trainers) believe, the training stimulus to force a muscle to grow or get stronger doesn’t happen in “that last rep”.
It’s actually already happening during every rep before that.
The most important factor when it comes to muscle hypertrophy is not the difficulty of a workout or sets.
The number one factor when it comes to hypertrophy is TRAINING VOLUME. The amount of work(reps*weight) you’re doing over time.
….AS LONG AS it’s above a certain ‘intensity’ threshold.
Intensity, as it relates to resistance training, is expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max on that movement or exercise.
Obviously, lifting 10% of your one-rep max isn’t going to be heavy enough to force any adaptations. (Aside from specific situations)
It has to be ‘heavy enough’ in order to do it’s job as a stimulus.
Research suggests that ~60% is the minimum threshold for muscle hypertrophy adaptations to take place.
Now, once again, the most important variable in continuing to gain muscle is quality training volume.
As well as progressively increasing that volume over time – whether it be adding weight or (once strength increases slow) increasing the total number of REPS you do over time (weekly, monthly, etc).
Taking sets to failure causes a disproportionate amount of fatigue per the amount of work you’re doing.
The fatigue accumulated by pushing to failure or close to failure, simply far outweighs any added benefit of squeezing out those last few reps.
Recovery from that those sets, and from that workout, will take significantly longer and be harder to recover from.
In the context of one workout this isn’t a negative – but over time (a span of days, weeks, months), this means you won’t be able to do nearly as much volume – not that you’ll be able to recover from, anyway.
And as we already know, less volume = less results.
And what good is totally running yourself into the ground within a workout, if in turn you have to wait a whole week or more until you can actually be recovered and train that body part again with any effectiveness?
You’re not likely to be able to get a whole lot of quality volume in over time, or become very proficient at the movements, training a given muscle group or lift only once a week.
Not only that, but going balls-to-the-wall to failure every set is a good way to engrain BAD form.
Anyone who’s ever taken a set to failure knows that those last couple reps can get UGLY.
Especially on very technical compound movements, such as squatting and deadlifting.
Bad form under heavy weight leads to exponential increases in injury risk.
You will likely end up hurting yourself, eventually.
Which BEST CASE scenario leads to you having to take time off.
And at worst – very possibly permanent damage to your body.
Probably not a worthy risk to take for not much (if any) benefit.
My advice? Steer clear of failure most of the time.