There is something that feels special about taking your body to the point where you can no longer perform another rep. It feels intense, hardcore, powerful. However, your goal is likely to put on as much muscle as possible instead of simply feeling like you had a productive workout. While training to failure might give you a very productive feeling, it is not an optimal strategy for gaining as much muscle as possible.
What Causes Muscle Growth?
The biggest determinant of muscle growth is your overall training volume. To find [training] volume, you can use the following equation:
Volume = weight x sets x reps.
For example, if you bench pressed 200lbs for 3 sets of 12 then you did 7200lbs of volume (200*3*12).
The amount of training volume that you do per muscle group will have the biggest impact on that muscle’s growth (Schoenfeld et al., 2014). In order to keep gaining muscle, you need to keep progressing how much volume you do over time, this is called progressive overload. When presented with the physical stress of training volume, your body responds by developing a certain amount of muscle mass. This response occurs so that you can handle that physical stress the next time that it is presented. To keep increasing the amount of muscle you develop, you must keep increasing the physical stress, or training volume. If you do not increase volume, then you will not continue developing new muscle mass.
It is very important to note that this does not mean that your body will be able to respond well to an exceedingly high quantity of volume. At a certain point, there are diminishing returns. You can lift so much volume that your body is simply not able to recover and you even digress (Fry et al., 1997).
Thus, to continuously gain muscle you need to progressively overload volume without performing so much training volume that you surpass your ability to recover and improve.
Failure and Volume
Training to failure is extremely fatiguing for your body and may affect the amount of total volume that you are able to lift within a training session and also across your training cycle (Helms et al., 2015). As an example, let’s say your plan was to go to the gym and bench 200lbs for 4 sets and you go to failure getting 12 reps on the first set. You have now caused a large amount of fatigue and will likely only decrease in progress. Now, you will likely only get 9 reps on the next set, then 7 and then maybe 6. You lifted a total of 6,800lbs of volume (2,400+1800+1400+1200).
If you would have done more volume if you had done stayed away from failure on the first set and performed 4 sets of 10 (8,000lbs) or even 4 sets of 9 (7,200lbs).
Failure and Progression
Lifting to failure causes a great amount of systemic fatigue and muscular damage that will require significant recovery time. As a result, you will likely not be sufficiently recovered to have an overloading session the next time that you train that muscle.
As a final point, if you went to failure during the first week of your training cycle, then what will you do next week to progress? You already maxed out. How can you possibly lift more than your max? The short answer – you can’t.
Training to failure will inhibit your ability to recover enough to present overload while also leaving you with no room to progress even if you wanted to!
Staying Away From Failure
To keep up progressive overload and thus, hypertrophy, it is beneficial to stay away from failure. You will likely want to stop your sets 1-3 reps short of failure. This strategy will allow you to maximize your training volume as well as your ability to progress it. A good strategy is to come closer to failure as you progress through your training cycle. If your training week is 3 weeks long, you may lift until you’re 3 reps from failure on Week 1, then 2 reps away from it on Week 2, 1 rep away from it on Week 3, then deload and restart! You can increase your proximity to failure across the weeks by manipulating your rep number and/or weight being used for each exercise.
Train Smarter, Not Harder
Training to failure will inhibit your ability to effectively progress, both in strength and hypertrophy. Smarter training needs to be implemented, rather than simply training harder. To train smarter, stay 1-3 reps away from failure and increase training volume from session to session. We have created a great example program here!