You’ve probably heard the expression, “Go hard or go home.” Or perhaps the more popular, “No pain, no gain.” Or maybe even, “Pain is weakness leaving your body.”
Each of these tidbits is great for motivational purposes, and all of them point to one thing:
You need to work hard to make any progress in the gym. Pain is not something to fear but to embrace. So, the idea of training to failure makes sense because what else can we do to fulfill this idea of hard work?
But is that truly the case? Is training to failure necessary, or might there be an easier and more effective alternative?
What Does Training to Failure Mean?
Not everyone understands what training to failure truly means, so let’s take a quick look:
Training to failure means lifting a weight until you can no longer do complete repetitions with proper technique. For example, if you’re doing barbell curls, failure would occur when you can’t lower the barbell to your thighs and lift it to the top without swinging or tilting your body back.
Do We Need Training to Failure to Grow Effectively?
The short answer is no, training to failure is unnecessary for muscle growth. In fact, pushing yourself to your limits too often can have the opposite effect: overtraining and muscle loss.
One of the main factors that determine our rate of muscle growth is our training volume––the amount of work we do inside each workout and training week. The more work we do, the more we grow. Of course, that effect works up to a point, as doing too much can make us overtrained.
The problem with training to failure is that it leads to excessive fatigue that impairs our recovery, preventing us from accumulating enough training volume to grow well.
A Practical Example of How Training to Failure Can Hinder Muscle Gain
Consider the following scenario:
Set 1 - 11 reps (to failure)
Set 2 - 7 reps (to failure)
Set 3 - 4 reps (to failure)
Set 4 - 3 reps (to failure)
Total: 25 reps
Set 1 - 8 reps
Set 2 - 8 reps
Set 3 - 7 reps
Set 4 - 7 reps
Total: 30 reps
The first person worked harder but ended up with fewer reps because of his impaired recovery. He couldn’t maintain that performance for all of his sets despite starting better. His alternative was to rest much longer between sets (up to 5-6 minutes) and possibly get some extra reps.
In contrast, person B managed his fatigue better and ended up with five extra reps.
So, What Does All Of This Mean For You?
Training to failure is like many other tools you can use strategically to elevate your training. But, like with most things, too much of it can have the opposite effect and stop you from growing well.
The best way to approach your training is to leave one to three reps in the tank across most sets, but don’t feel discouraged. Doing so might seem like you’re not working hard, but it takes tremendous effort to truly push yourself near your limits all the time.
Aside from that, you can take the occasional set to failure and increase the muscle stimulus without necessarily hindering your performance on subsequent sets or workouts. For example, you can take your final set for each muscle group to failure.