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Posted 2 years ago

Do you need to train to failure?

One thing you will see from all VW Physique coaches and athletes is the fact that we train to muscular/mechanical failure. Training to failure refers to taking yourself to the point at which your muscles and nervous system are so fatigued that they cannot generate enough force to move the resistance you are lifting. This is what we mean when we say we’re “Giving it the Beanz”.

However, when new clients first come on board, this concept can seem quite strange and alien to them as they have perhaps never trained this way. Therefore, this article’s aim is to discuss training to failure and whether it’s needed to progress your physique.

Aim when lifting

Before we answer the question of whether training to failure is needed, we first need to assess what our key aim is when lifting weights and training.

If you’ve landed on this website, it is likely that your goal is to add muscle mass to your frame and continually improve your physique, week upon week. This is done by trying to recruit as many individual muscle fibres as possible in the target muscle group on a given exercise. If you watch some of our tutorials on YouTube, this is what we’re trying to help you achieve when talking about “initiating muscles” and “keeping tension” in different body parts.

But why would we do this?

Well, by training with this intent, we are actively trying to break down as many muscle fibres as possible. This, in turn, will allow us to get the biggest adaptive response out with the gym – that is, muscle growth. This adaptive response is controlled by what we’ll call the muscle building pathway (mTOR). This is where training to failure comes into play.

Muscle breakdown and growth

In order to help us understand this process a bit better, let’s work through a specific example: imagine yourself performing a leg extension in the following two scenarios.

In the first scenario, you go on the machine, select a weight that isn’t too heavy, move the pad without any intent, and perform 10 repetitions when you could have actually done at least another seven or eight more. You then rest and perform another two sets this way, equating to three submaximal sets.

In the second scenario, you’re on the leg extension, and you select a weight that you know you’re strong enough to move for anywhere between 8-10 reps before failing. Throughout each rep, you’re initiating with your quads, actively squeezing every muscle fibre that you can and generating as much tension as possible. You fail on rep 9, and after a rest, proceed to perform one more set of slightly higher reps with the same principle of “big beanz”.

If your goal is to add muscle mass, which one do you think will have the biggest impact on stimulating the muscle building pathway?

Thinking back to the first scenario, it is clear that you aren’t providing the muscle fibres with a large enough stimulus to actually see a significant response from mTOR. If we assume that in this case, you’re recruiting 50% of the muscle fibres in the quads, that still leaves 50% of muscle fibres at rest/not worked. In comparison, if we assume that by training to failure, you’re able to recruit 90% recruitment in the quads, it leaves no question as to which approach will be more optimal for us to build muscle. More stimulus equals more growth; therefore, training to failure will bring you the best progress.

It’s important to also note that training to failure enables you to be more efficient and productive with your volume. In the examples above, the second scenario provided us with more benefit in two sets relative to three sets of submaximal effort in the first scenario. As such, not only does training to failure bring you better results, but it also means you spend less time in the gym and can actually put more effort into each set. This portion of the argument speaks to the low vs high volume debate.

But ‘Big Davey’ doesn’t train to failure

The main off-putting thing about training to failure is that it is hard. Plus, it’s likely you’ve already come across the large number of bodybuilders who don’t train to failure and prioritise high volume style training (i.e. 15-20 reps and multiple sets per exercise). Of course, these people seem to be doing quite well and adding muscle mass too. So, how are they doing it?

Well, the difference is in the mechanism by which muscle growth is achieved – in this case, the adaptive response to training is caused by metabolic stress / cellular swelling. This process involves driving a lot of blood to the target muscle group and generating a lot of waste product build-up such as lactic acid (through high reps). Whilst this does provide stimulation for muscle growth, the overall response is lower than that which is achieved by mechanical failure in the low volume approach. Hence, the high volume per set is also matched by higher number of sets to compensate for this deficit. So, don’t be confused by Big Davie who tells you that the bigger you are, the more you must train. This isn’t true – I’m currently writing this article, sitting at 290lbs, having implemented the low volume approach to get here. In fact, only a small portion of my training involves higher rep work.

Scientific Evidence

We all love a good evidence base to justify the means to an end: as always, you may find a bunch of Karens that will come at you with studies proving through evidence that you can still gain muscle when training sub-maximally and not training to failure. And they’re not wrong: there is evidence that supports this approach, so if these studies were to be interpreted as the holy grail, then they would be right.

However, the research cited is problematic, as the sample participants do not represent your average bodybuilder, people like us. One study might prove that sub-maximal training is optimal for muscle anabolism, yet they’ll have tested this on “trained individuals” who turn out to be between 50-60 years old, have been lifting weights for three months, and the experiment is conducted in the calf muscle.

Of course, it’s not always this way – there are some great hypertrophy researchers out there who do show the benefits of training to mechanical failure, but you can imagine this is also quite hard to demonstrate (I can’t imagine many serious bodybuilders signing up to a research project where they might miss out on substantial improvements based on what condition they are assigned for the study). Therefore, when interpreting study results, you must always take the evidence which a pinch of salt and ask yourself: is this applicable to me? Personally, I don’t feel many are, which leaves us relying on anecdotal experience and the bodybuilding community for personal evidence.

In summary, training to failure can elicit a greater response on the muscle building pathway than training sub-maximally. If the goal is to gain as much muscle as possible, then it would be wise to train in such a manner. However, it isn’t the only way to elicit muscle growth, and the majority of old school mindset bodybuilders show us just that. It then can fall down to the individual and personal preference on which method they prefer.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons