Is Training To Failure Necessary?

Recent research casts light on an old debate.

When Arthur Jones unleashed his training ideas upon the bodybuilding / strength training scene back in the 1970s, he started a firestorm of controversy.  His high intensity training prescription really stirred things up and they haven’t settled down since.

One of the key components of Arthur’s high intensity training was his insistence that in order to make maximum gains the trainee must “train to failure”.  What Arthur meant was that you had to perform an exercise to the point where you could no longer lift the weight in proper form.  For example, if you were performing an exercise with a weight that you could lift a maximum of 10 times, Arthur believed that you would have to lift that weight for all 10 repetitions in order to maximally stimulate growth.

If you ended the set before reaching 10 repetitions you would not grow as much as you would if you had lifted the weight for as many reps as you were capable of.  Strength coach and high intensity advocate Matt Brzycki summed up the argument for training to failure this way in his book A Practical Approach To Strength Training, “Simply, a submaximal effort will yield submaximal results.”(1)

Is training to failure as important as Arthur believed?  Does a submaximal effort really yield submaximal results?  Today, nearly 40 years after Arthur first began preaching training to failure, the debate continues.  In 2006 an international group of strength and conditioning researchers teamed up in an effort to definitively answer this question and their work casts some new light on an old debate.  Let’s have a look at that research.

The Research

The researchers believed that one of the reasons the question of training to failure was still unanswered was that all the research that had been previously done had failed to consider and control all the important training variables.  They  hypothesized that if all the training variables except training intensity were controlled that it would definitively show whether training to failure was better than training not to failure.

They recruited 42 competitive Spanish Basque ball players (Basque ball is the name for a variety of court sports similar to handball, raquetball, & jai lai).  These athletes had been training and playing Basque ball competitively for an average of 12.5 years and had been strength training twice weekly for at least 5 months prior to the start of the study.

Subjects were divided into three groups – one group that trained to failure, one group that trained to non-failure, and one control group – and began the 16 week training program.

Both training groups strength trained twice weekly and performed the same exercises, used the same weight (% of RM), and number of reps.  The training to failure group performed their exercises to failure, using 3 sets of 10 reps the first 6 weeks, 3 sets of 6 reps to failure the next 5 weeks, and  3 sets of 2-4 reps to failure during the final 5 weeks.  To keep total intensity and volume the same, the researchers had the non-failure training group perform 6 sets of 5 reps with the 10RM during the first 6 weeks, 6 sets of 3 reps during the next 5 weeks, and 3 sets of 2-4 reps during the final 5 weeks.  Table 1 sums up the sets, reps, and intensity for both training groups.

Table 1:  Training variables for each training group

GroupPhase 1, 6 weeksPhase 2, 5 weeksPhase 3, 5 weeks
Training to Failure3 x 10 reps,10RM weight3 x 5 reps,5RM weight3 x 2-4 reps85-90% 1RM
Non-failure training6 x 5 reps,10RM weight6 x 3 reps5RM weight3 x 2-4 reps85-90% 1RM

RM = repetition maximum, i.e. the heaviest weight that the subject can lift for a specific number of repetitions.

The subjects were tested multiple times throughout the study on a variety of measurements, including maximum strength and power, endurance, body composition, and basal hormonal balance.

The Results

What were the results?  Did training to failure produce greater increases in strength than not training to failure as is preached by high intensity advocates?  No, it did not.

There was no significant different at the end of the study in the maximum strength of the two groups.  “In conclusion, both training to failure and training not to failure resulted in similar gains in 1 RM strength, muscle power output of the arm and leg extensor muscles, and maximum number of repetitions performed during the parallel squat.”

There were two significant difference between the groups at the end of the study.  First, the training to failure group improved local muscular endurance in the bench press (maximum number of repetitions they could perform with a fixed weight) significantly more (85% vs 69%) than the non-failure training group.  Second, the non-failure group significantly increased muscle power during the final phase of training while the training to failure group did not.

Summary

Despite the claims of high intensity proponents, this study demonstrates that training to failure is not more effective for increasing strength than training hard, but not to failure.  When other training variables (volume, frequency, training weight, total reps, etc.) are held constant, training to failure is only as effective as non-failure training.

Training Application

The training lesson to be taken from this study is training to failure is not necessary in order to maximize strength. Training hard but terminating a set prior to failure is as effective for increasing strength as is training to failure.

References:

1.  Brzycki, M, A Practical Approach To Strength Training, Masters Press, 1995, pg 38

2. Izquierdo M, Ibanez J, Gonzalez-Badillo J, Hakkinen K, Ratamess N, Kraemer W, French d, eslava J, Altadill A, Asiain X, Gorostiaga E., Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains, J Appl Physiol, 2006, 100:1647-1656

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