Training to Muscle Failure: is it Effective?

29th November 2019
When you consider strength training, you'll find that there are different opinions regarding what training method is the best. Training to muscle failure also has some controversy associated with it. Today we'll find out more about it.

When you bring up muscle failure, you’ll find people who are all for it, as well as people against it. On the one hand, a lot of people defend it as a great tool for improving muscular strength and general physical fitness. Others see it as unnecessary and even harmful to your body.

In this article, we’re going to look at this topic in depth. You’re going to learn everything about training to muscle failure. Of course, we’ll be looking at what science has to say on the topic too.

What is training to muscle failure?

This type of training involves using the fibers that compose your muscle tissue until they can’t generate the power necessary to overcome resistance. In other words, up to the point when you can’t perform a single repetition more during a weight training set.

Training to muscle failure requires that you reduce the number of sets for each exercise until you reach the point of failure. In principle, that means less work, quantitatively, but of a higher quality.

Nevertheless, as we mentioned before, there are many people who criticize this type of training. That’s because reaching muscle failure means you’re using very high weights for weight training. This could end up causing people certain muscle injuries such as tendinitis or muscle tears, among others.

Who can undertake this type of training?

Not everyone has the necessary ability to take on a program of training to muscle failure without suffering problems. It’s important to mention that this type of physical work is best suited for two types of athletes:

  • First of all, it’s appropriate for people who are looking for muscle hypertrophy. If that’s your goal, you can use muscle failure to increase your muscle mass and drive the growth of your muscle tissue.
A man performing an incline dumbbell press.

  • The second group consists of athletes who want to improve their performance in sports that involve endurance.

Experts generally recommend that beginners avoid this practice. That’s because you have to be able to execute the movements with perfect technique. You also need a good warm-up before starting a session of training to failure. This will help you to avoid any type of pain or injury.

Even so, and even when an experienced person tries to train using this method, they should always have external help. Training to failure always requires using high weights. Another person helping you could help limit your risks.

How can you reach muscle failure?

When you train for muscle failure, you’ll find two paths to reaching your desired objectives:

  • You can train with low weights. This is a good way to go when you want to do a higher number of reps or when you only have your own body weight to train with. Here muscle failure occurs when you can’t move the weight anymore.
  • On the other hand, you can work with submaximal loads. In this case, you lift about 85 percent of your one-repetition maximum and do no more than 10 repetitions in total. When you use these submaximal loads, you’ll experience muscle failure due to fatigue accumulated in the muscle. It should happen before reaching your final rep.

Methods for training to muscle failure

If you want to use this tactic during your exercise routine, you can make use of several strategies:

  • You can train to muscle failure throughout the whole session. In this case, you should lower the number of sets you do and increase the amount of rest time between them.
  • On the other hand, you might just want to include it before or after your main training session. In other words, you could generate muscle fatigue before or after doing some other exercise.
  • Some people put it at the end of their work out. This takes advantage of the fatigue achieved beforehand in a certain muscle group. In this case, you could do two more sets to muscle failure with less weight.
  • Use varying weights. In order to do this, do 10 reps at 75 percent of your one-repetition maximum. After that, you should remove half the weight, without stopping for rest, and continue to muscle failure.

Precautions to keep in mind

If you want to include this method in your training routine, you have to be very careful about it and do it with the help of a professional. If you abuse muscle failure training, you run the risk of overtraining. This, in turn, could cause you to suffer a muscular injury due to the high intensity of your sessions.

In order to minimize risks, it’s essential that you get enough rest between workouts of this type.

A man training to muscle failure using a high weight dumbbell.

What’s science got to say on the matter?

In the scientific world, the same controversy concerning training to muscle failure is present. On the one hand, researchers such as Foland argue that you don’t have to get to muscle failure to reap certain benefits in terms of muscle strength.

On the other side of the argument, though, you’ll find people such as Izquierdo and his collaborators. They say that training to muscle failure is a better way to stimulate a particular muscle and improve its endurance.

Even so, they also indicate that if your objective is to increase your muscle strength, this isn’t the ideal way to achieve it.

As you’ve seen in this article, training to muscle failure can be effective depending on what your objective is. Beyond that, be aware that it’s not for everyone. You need a certain level of experience in order to be able to get the most out of it.

  • Folland JP, Irish CS, Roberts JC, Tarr JE, and Jones DA. (2002): Fatigue is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains during resistance training. Br J Sports Med. 36: 370–373.
  • Izquierdo, M., Ibanez, J., Gonzalez-Badillo, J. J., Hakkinen, K., Ratamess, N. A., Kraemer, W. J., French, D. N., Eslava, J.,Altadill, A., Asiain, X., & Gorostiaga, E. M. (2006): Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md.: 1985), 100(5), 1647-1656.