When you exercise, should you be training to failure? In the quest for optimal fitness gains, you’ve likely heard around the gym that it’s necessary to push your body to its absolute limits and train to complete failure. But is this approach actually the key to unlocking remarkable results, and why do people swear by it?
Training to failure involves performing an exercise until you’re physically incapable of completing another repetition. There’s a lot of conflicting research surrounding this topic so it’s important that we dissect why this is a common belief.
Advocates argue that the intense effort recruits more muscle fibres, leading to greater muscle growth. However, conflicting research surrounding this topic makes it challenging to discern the truth. In this article, we will explore the benefits and drawbacks of training to failure and explore alternative approaches to help you maximize your fitness gains.
Benefits of training to failure
Maximizing muscle growth: When it comes to what makes muscles grow, the common belief is that as you approach failure, your body recruits additional motor units and activates more muscle fibres, stimulating greater muscle development. A recent meta-analysis supports this with evidence suggesting that training to failure can lead to an exponential increase in muscle growth. This is not to say that you won’t be building substantial muscle without achieving failure, but that it might not be the most optimal way to do so.
Knowing where failure is: One of the most common mistakes that people make in the gym is underestimating how close they actually are to technical failure. This will see individuals end their set far too early for them to achieve any stimulating growth, despite their belief they’re close to failure. Whilst muscle gains can still be achieved with a few reps left in the tank, training to failure can optimise your results by accurately helping you gauge your proximity to technical failure – the point where form breaks down – more accurately.
Building mental discipline and fortitude: Pushing through challenging reps and overcoming the mental barriers of fatigue can lead to enhanced mental discipline. The ability to endure and persevere through difficult workouts increases discipline and resilience both in and out of the gym.
Breaking through plateaus: Everyone experiences plateaus during their fitness journey. When progress seems to stall, training to failure could be the key to breaking through these barriers. By pushing yourself to your limits, you challenge your muscles in new ways, potentially sparking renewed growth and progress.
Negatives of training to failure
Increased injury risk: While training to failure can be effective, it comes with an increased risk of injury, especially if exercises are performed with poor form. It’s crucial to ensure proper execution and avoid allowing form breakdown for the sake of a few more reps. Focusing on “technical failure” – the point at which perfect form cannot be maintained – is key to mitigating injury risks, particularly during complex movements.
Limited impact on strength: Contrary to the muscle growth benefits, research suggests that training to failure may not significantly improve strength compared to leaving a few reps in reserve. If your primary fitness goal is strength building, it might be more effective to focus on other training methods, like progressive overload, with a few reps left in the tank.
Individual variability: As with any training approach, responses to training to failure can vary significantly among individuals. While some people may see positive results, others could experience negative consequences, such as overtraining or burnout. Taking a personalized approach and listening to your body’s signals is essential to determine the suitability of this technique for you.
Demanding rest: Consistently training to failure requires more recovery time due to the heightened fatigue it induces. It’s easy to fall into the misconception that fewer sets will take less time, but this overlooks the importance of ample rest to support proper recovery and avoid compromising progress.
Alternatives and suitability
Gradual introduction: Beginners or those with imperfect form should approach training to failure with caution to reduce the risk of injury. As you gain experience and confidence in executing exercises safely, you can gradually incorporate training to failure in isolation movements, such as bicep curls or lateral raises.
Periodization: Alternating between periods of training to failure and non-failure can strike a healthy balance between pushing your limits and preventing burnout. Periodization allows you to cycle between different training intensities, promoting optimal muscle growth and recovery.
Listen to your body: No single approach fits all. Pay close attention to how your body responds to training. Prioritize proper recovery, adequate nutrition, and rest to ensure an enjoyable and sustainable fitness journey.
Training to failure can be a powerful tool when used judiciously as part of a comprehensive fitness routine. It has the potential to enhance muscle growth, mental resilience, and workout efficiency. However, it also comes with risks, including increased injury potential. By finding a personalized approach and maintaining moderation, you can optimize your fitness journey, achieving sustainable progress and better overall results. Ultimately, the key to success lies in understanding your body, listening to its signals, and striking the right balance between pushing your limits and promoting proper recovery. The road to fitness is a journey, and every step counts towards a stronger and healthier you.