Chris Campbell CSCS, USAW, AOLC
Great question. And it is a loaded question. It seems the more you learn in any
subject, the more complex the answers can become, so I’ll try to keep it simple.
There was a study done by the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2006 that compared the effects of training to failure and NOT training to failure. Here are the results:
If you train to failure, there are short-term benefits (1-6 weeks):
- build muscle
- build strength
- improve power
- improved endurance
HOWEVER, these benefits, are pretty equal to those of programs that DO NOT train
Here is the big difference. After the 6-week mark, things started to shift:
- Non-failure subjects saw a greater increases in lower body power output
- Non-failure subjects saw greater increases in maximal strength
- Training to failure subjects saw greater increases in maximal number of
repetitions performed on the bench press (endurance)
- Training to failure subjects saw reduced levels of resting IGF-1 (an important
hormone in anabolic processes of the body) as compared to non-failure
subjects…not good for muscle building
- Training to failure saw decreases in resting levels of total testosterone
concentration…again, not ideal for muscle building
Your training progression, rep scheme and tempo reflect the results you will get.
Train fast, be fast. Train slow, be slow. There is a time where you need to train
slower in your program (stability or hypertrophy phases) but if the majority of your
sessions are this way, you will not be a faster, more powerful athlete.
I believe that ANY training program works initially…but the true test of a training
program are the long-term effects and results.
I especially dislike training plans that people follow when their success is judged on
“how hard” the workouts are, not how effective. I know..CRAZY right?
ANYWAYS, back on topic…
One reason is that the CNS (central nervous system) is extremely sensitive to max-
out efforts. This is why when you perform one set to failure; let’s say to 10 reps, on
the bench press, when you come back for the second set, you may only perform 6.
However, if you stopped at 9 on the first set, you could probably knock out 8 or so
on the next set.
Physiologically we know that if a max out set of 10 takes 30 seconds (which it
probably is even shorter than that), we should be ready to go in a minute or so. But
while the muscles may recover, the nervous system cannot.
If your nervous system is fatigued, there is no way for you to teach your body how to
produce maximal force, and if you try, you are at risk for an injury.
The study showed that there is an advantage to NOT pushing to failure when
training in a “peaking” period where you are attempting to improve power and
When is it OK to train to failure?
I personally enjoy the mental toughness aspect of training to failure. The burn and
muscle pump is a plus too. I like to throw in failure sets into hypertrophy phases of
programs and as Finishers.
I would not advise training to failure in overhead movements, or in multi-joint
exercises at the end of a workout. If you want to feel the burn after a workout, stick
to single-joint exercises like bicep curls and triceps press or use a machine so you
don’t have to worry about compromised form.
Should you max out on reps till failure? The answer is…there is a time and place for
it. Long term, the “rep till failure” program starts to wear the body down and is not
effective in maximizing power and strength gains.
Izquierdo M, Ibañez J, González-Badillo JJ, Hakkinen K, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, French DN, Eslava J, Altadill A, Asiain X, Gorostiaga EM.Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains. J Appl Physiol. 2006 May; 100(5): 1647-56.