Lifting to Failure: Max Gains or Waste of Time
Fitness influencers love to post videos of them or their clients training to the point of absolute exhaustion. Have you ever wondered if this is the right approach for helping you reach your maximum gains in strength and hypertrophy? It looks great for the Gram and TikTok, but is this the right way for you to train or will training until failure lead you down the road towards your perilous doom? Well, I might be exaggerating when I say perilous doom, but you get the picture.
Let’s address some of the advantages and disadvantages of training until failure. Just a heads up, this is a really dense subject, so this is just a brief overview of the points that standout the most to me; later, I’ll post videos that go into greater detail about each of these topics, as well as others that I didn’t have time to discuss.
When it comes to social media fitness influencers, there’s no question that posting videos that show them training until failure is highly effective for grabbing the viewers’ attention. Many of these influencers promote training to failure as the most effective way to build muscle size and strength, as this has been proven by scientific research. When I say “training until failure”, I mean that you are going through your sets in which you push your muscles to the limit and don’t stop performing repetitions until you LITERALLY cannot do anymore. This means that you’re still pumping out reps, even when your muscles are feeling like they’re on fire. Let’s talk about how training until failure can be an effective way to help you build some massive muscle.
Grgic et al. (2018) was a meta-analysis that looked at 22 studies and found that training until failure resulted in significantly greater muscle hypertrophy compared to training without reaching failure. One of the biggest keys to building muscle mass is volume, that is the total amount of work calculated by Sets X Reps X Weight. The researchers concluded that the success of growing muscle mass is most likely when training to failure is most likely related to maximizing training volume.
I had a client that came to train with me because he had become frustrated that he was stuck in a plateau. He was having success in growing muscle, but has been stuck in the same spot for some time. I told him that when it comes to training for building more muscle mass, maximizing training volume is huge. I extended certain exercises that are perfectly safe to train until failure from 3 to 5 sets. I drew this from the 2014 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research study that demonstrated more muscle hypertrophy by adding more volume with added sets. After a couple months, he came to me excited because at his family’s Easter get-together, everyone was remarking about how muscular he was getting.
When you’re training until failure in search of building more muscle size, do you have to lift heavy weight or is it okay to go light? Researchers from Auburn and Oklahoma State universities looked in muscular response in young men who trained until failure and comparing the differences produced by lifting heavy versus light (80% 1RM vs 30% 1RM). They found that when it came to hypertrophy (muscle size growth), results were similar. However, since it took more repetitions for reach failure when lifting light, even though hypertrophy results are similar among the two, most busy people would benefit more out of lifting heavy because it was more time-efficient.
How about the effects of adding more volume by training until failure? Brad Schoenfeld, out of Lehman College in the Bronx, NY, is one of the leading experts when if comes to muscle hypertrophy, have worked with some of the top bodybuilders around the world. In Schoenfeld et al. (2019), he and his colleagues found that maximizing training volume is excellent for growing muscle mass, but not so much for gaining strength. This doesn’t mean that you won’t gain strength through training until failure, but that this is not the most effective approach if you wanted to gain strength, instead of just seeking to build mass.
If you’re a working adult over age 30, I have a pretty good feeling that you are well-acquainted with my good friend “mental fatigue”. When these kiddos, aka fitness influencers, talk about training until failure like it’s no big deal, without even seeing you, I already know that those videos have you rolling your eyes. While training until failure is effective in growing muscle mass, a poorly designed training program that pretty much has you doing a crazy number of exercises that have you going until failure, this is likely to make your mental fatigue even worse.
As we conclude — do you have to start training until failure? Like so many things related to fitness, it depends. There’s no question that training until failure has wide support at being beneficial in building muscle size, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for you. You need to consider your ultimate goals, as well as your lifestyle away from the gym. For some of you, this means having to rearrange some of the things you have going on in your life as you pursue maximal amounts of muscle growth, while others may have to settle for slower results or simply maintaining current muscle mass.