Training to Failure doesn’t Trigger Muscle Growth, Progressive Overload does!

Countless studies have demonstrated that progressive overload is the key to muscle and strength gains.  Going to failure too soon in your workout will hurt your performance, and undercut your total workout volume. We want to maximize our performance during each workout. We do this by stopping short of failure on all but the last set of each exercise. Your maximum effort should be given to the last set of the last exercise for any given body part.

Our goal is to lift as much as possible during each workout. And to increase that overload from week to week, month to month. You accomplish this by keeping a repetition or two in the tank, until the very end of your workout. As soon as you take a set to failure, your performance on succeeding sets will degrade substantially. For example, if you went to failure on pull-ups using your 10 repetition maximum. You might only get 7 repetitions on your next set and 5 or 6 on your third set. Your total number of repetitions would have been 22 or 23. Had you stopped a couple of repetitions short of failure on your first and second set, you would have been able to perform at least 8 repetitions on all three sets for a total of 24.

We want to lift heavy, but stay fresh as long as possible during your workouts. If this was your last basic compound exercise for your back, and you took the last set to failure, you might have achieved a total of 25 or 26 repetitions. Your workout volume in either case would be greater than if you had taken the first set to failure. Taking sets to failure should be primarily used as a means of creating progressive overload and not a goal in and of itself.

Progressive overload is the trigger for muscle growth, not training to failure. Training to failure is a method of producing progressive overload, not a trigger in and of itself, as some experts would have you believe. Scientific studies have demonstrated the superiority of performing three sets of an exercise vs. one set to failure. One set to failure will stimulate growth, but it is a minimum effective dose. If you don’t want to invest much time in the gym, one set will produce results, but they will be suboptimal.

RPE Scale (lifting)

A simple, yet effective way to evaluate your rating perceived exertion (RPE) is using this table developed by respected strength coach and competitive powerlifter Mike Tuchscherer.

A 2007 study by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded, “training to failure should not be performed repeatedly over long periods, due to the high potential for overtraining and overuse injuries.” Another study which had lifters using loads that were 75% of their 1 rep max concluded that, “Fatigue and metabolite accumulation do not appear to be critical stimuli for strength gains.”

Short rest intervals and training to failure repeatedly will increase human growth hormone levels, but I haven’t found any studies that correlate it with long-term increases in muscle mass. I have found studies that have concluded just the opposite. Going to failure too soon in your workout will hurt your performance, and undercut your total workout volume/progressive overload.

Training to complete failure isn’t necessary to maximize growth, but you do have to work with heavy loads, perform the lifts with proper form, and work sufficiently hard. Working close enough to failure means you don’t want to leave more than one or two reps in the tank on your working sets.  Unfortunately, many people aren’t very good at knowing how close to failure they actually are during a set.  Taking your last set of each exercise to failure is a foolproof way of making sure you maximized the stimulus and are working hard enough for your muscles to grow and validating your perceived exertion level on your preceding sets. For example, if you performed two sets of 6 repetitions with 200 and your perceived exertion was 9, meaning you could have performed only one more rep, but you’re able to complete 8 repetitions on your third and final working set, you now need to revise your RPE from a 9 to an 8 for your proceeding sets.

Modern powerlifters and old school/pre-steroid era bodybuilders often advocated avoiding muscle failure. They wanted to successfully perform a goal number of repetitions on each set. They wanted to build small wins. These small wins kept them motivated, because each victory was another step closer to their goal. After all, our goal is to get bigger and stronger, not failure. Bill Pearl often criticizes proponents of going to failure every set, by saying that it quickly led to overtraining, injuries, and mental burnout. He argues, who wants to go to the gym with the goal of constantly failing. He advocates stopping one or two repetitions short of failure. His advice follows a bodybuilding axiom, “stimulate, don’t annihilate” your muscles into growth. The key to muscle growth is progressive overload, not training to failure.


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