Updated: Jan 17, 2022
If you’ve watched the movie “Pumping Iron", you have probably seen the hardcore, peak intensity training that bodybuilders in the Golden Era went through.
Some of those bodybuilders, like Serge Nubret, swore by the effectiveness of training to failure… On EVERY SET!
And well, the truth is that for most of us, reaching failure on every working set will lead to burnout quite quickly.
This is why it is important to understand this concept and learn how to integrate it into your training regimen properly.
So let’s dive straight into this and discuss training to failure, shall we?
The Intensity Factor
In sports science and weight training, intensity measures how close you get to your maximum strength capabilities.
To put it simply, the heavier the weight you lift, the higher the intensity, meaning that technically, your one-rep max (1RM) represents 100% intensity for you on a given exercise.
For example, if you can bench press 100 kg for one single rep and fail to do a second rep unassisted, 100 kg is 100% intensity for you on the bench press.
One of the more important things to remember is that the heavier you lift, the more fast-twitch muscle fibers are activated.
Fast-twitch fibers are the stronger, more powerful muscle fibers, which can exert great amounts of force, explosively.
However, fiber recruitment is the primary means of lifting heavier, only up until ~80% of your maximum strength capabilities (intensity).
Going above 85% and until failure is only possible with an increased frequency of brain to muscle signals.
What Does This Mean For Me?
With this information in mind, it is quite clear that training to failure is way more strenuous for the nervous system.
Nevertheless, reaching muscular failure is quite a powerful stimulus as well, but due to its strenuous nature, it should be properly implemented into your routine.
Generally, you should test around muscle failure by only taking 1 set for each muscle group to failure per week and working up from there.
If you go overboard with failure, you will experience:
Prolonged muscle exhaustion
Lowered strength capabilities
Monitor those and adjust the volume of failure sets in your training split accordingly!
Failure And Muscle Growth
Some of the legends like Arnold & Serge can sell you on the idea that reaching failure is ESSENTIAL.
However, modern studies suggest that staying 2-5 repetitions shy of failure is more beneficial for muscle growth than training to failure.
Nevertheless, each and everyone reacts differently to certain stimuli, so your best bet is to, again, test around!
Carefully managing your training intensity will allow you to optimize your quality training volume in the long term, thus creating a better stimulus and maximizing gains.
Improper implementation of training to failure can prevent this from happening due to its innate ability to, well, fry your nervous system!
This is why your main means of creating greater stimulus should be to increase training weight, number of repetitions and sets, and also, opening up better recovery windows between sets.
Only when you have this covered, you should consider implementing sets to failure, in which case, you can start with just one set and see how far you can take it.
Train smart, not hard!