Should you lift to failure during your training sessions when hypertrophy is your goal?
An old question that still has pro’s and cons.
Here’s a long brain fart for you on both pro’s and cons of training to failure:
- Enhancing muscular endurance more so than training not to failure
- Teaches mental toughness which is useful for sports that require strength endurance
- Increases acute metabolic fatigue and thus cardio workload
- Has been shown to elicit greater strength and hypertrophy gains short term
- Suits a balls to the ball, all out mindset
- Ensures full muscle fibre recruitment of the large motor units and rate coding
- Increases microtrauma (which may or may not be a bad thing)
- Time efficient
- Really bloody hard to truly achieve muscular failure and not just technical failure
- Mentally tough to stick to for long periods of training
- Can make frequent training a challenge (which is bad if skill training is important)
- Can over train fast twitch prominent trainees if performed too often (fast twitch fibres can take much longer to recover fully and should therefore be fatigued less often)
- May reduce the total amount of work per session that is possible (bad for skill training if you need non fatigued skill training*)
*skills are often thought to be best trained whilst fresh but not all skills are used only when fresh. Some sports require you to be able to perform specific skills under fatigue and mental duress. They must be trained in the same way.
Fast twitch dominant individuals looking for hypertrophy should basically avoid training to true muscular failure if they are training the muscle or movement more than once per week. Accumulated fatigue can atrophy fast twitch fibres thus making them smaller and weaker. Bad juju right there.
This falls in line with tried and tested once per week body part/lift splits that have been around since the stone-age of non rotating barbells whereby big strong dudes (and dudettes) lift heavy stuff until their vessels bulge (to failure training or very near) and then spend a week letting those fibres recover before straining them again.
It works and works well for fast twitch fibres if strength is your primary focus with size nowhere on your goal horizon. It works wonders as has been shown the world over….trainees with a large ratio of fast twitch fibres will grow without problem on this style of routine though provided they eat enough: simply because they have more big fibres taking up room in their muscle, sorry, tough shit chaps you’ll have to put up with big muscles from bugger all training volume.
Not fast twitch dominant?
Like most of us eh? Well that would appear to need something along the lines of the following:
More total tension time accumulated throughout the course of a session and week/month/training life cycle.
Which means less frequent training to failure but still high effort near to failure (2 reps or so shy of failing) which you’ll learn to get close to with time.
Lots of reps and sets with about 65-75% of your 1rm in a smooth and controlled rep speed (not bounced around or using *explosive acceleration, we are not all fast twitchers, remember).
*explosive reps demand less cross bridge attachments due to the force velocity curve, which means less of the total muscle fibre “working”. Yes the force is high with explosive reps but when that force is coming from the elastic component of the muscle complex it means little for fibre hypertrophy. Take Plyometrics for example; they produce very high levels of force and have been shown to produce equals amounts of muscle hypertrophy as traditional weight training but not equal muscle fibre hypertrophy which can only mean one thing: that the hypertrophy has been in the non contractile elements (the elastic components in this case) of a muscle. Slower lifts direct more of the tension to the fibres as more actin and myosin cross bridge attachments can be made.
How many reps and sets?
No one knows for certain as it is a moving target dependant on many factors but more seems to be better, to a point: 3-5 sets to fatigue on average but slow twitchers appear to need more tension time than fast twitchers. This is a fine balancing act between fatigue and lifestyle stress. If you sleep well, eat well and are not stressed then you’ll recover faster and handle more training. Shitty sleep, food and stress = shitty training recovery.
So if I train to failure and if hypertrophy is my main goal what should my training week look like?
Train each muscle group or each lift just once per week with some heavy work in the 4-6 ish reps (will vary with individual limb lengths – long limbs may get less reps due to the time each rep takes and vice versa for short limb fast twitchers) range for 1-3 sets MAXIMUM
You can, no, must train each muscle group or lift more frequently for maximal hypertrophy progress as your dominant fibre type will recover far faster and if left a week between sessions will have spent 4,5 or maybe even 6 days recovered and waiting for more tension time. Yes, you’ll still grow but slowly.
Work a muscle or specific lift at least every other day for 5-10 sets of 10 to 20 smooth and controlled reps and again this may very with individual limb lengths.
Mix fibre types (like most of us)
Well it would seem sensible that if we have a mix of fast and slow fibre types that we hit the middle ground here as to frequency of training to failure:
twice per week per muscle/lift and with 3-5 sets of the typical 8-12 reps dependant on limb length.
But What if I don’t want to train to failure or at least not every training session?
A dandy question indeedy, what if?
Most of us that have been lifting for any number of years soon realise that to choose either training to failure or not to failure is a foolish task…. after all, we don’t just drive fast or drive slow to get somewhere, do we? We use both methods, have to use both to continue a journey successfully for years.
Periods of driving like a loon may work short term but over a long enough time line, you’ll crash and burn baby.
Same holds true for failure training: do it too hard , too often and over a long enough time line, you’ll lose interest and gains. Crapola.
First try and figure out how often you can (lifestyle restrictions) train and then figure out how often you train to failure, here are a few examples that may work out well:
Once per week is all that’s available to you to train?
Lift full body routines for about 75-100 reps each lift/muscle group If you are a slow twitcher. 40 – 70 reps if you are like most of us with a mix of fast and slow twitch and 20 -30 reps if you are a true fast twitcher.
With perhaps the last set or two working to failure working with about 65-75% of your 1rm and feel free to adjust these intensity percentages as you need to, they are just a guide.
Twice per week training?
As above for slow and mixed fibre types but split the reps between the workouts. Fast twitchers: one session should be not to failure (very far from it in fact) and half rep numbers.
Thrice per week?
Slow twitchers….as you were: full body, 5 or so sets or 10-20 reps slow and controlled.
Mixed fibre type? Split the 40 – 70 reps (roughly) across the three workouts, stick to full body but make only one of the days a day with sets to failure included. Two of the days should just be about accumulating tension time.
Fast twitcher? Any more than twice per week and you are teetering on the edge of fatigue and weakness here. Manage fatigue well, avoid failure training more than once or twice per month and keep your workload down too…high frequency training can work for you if fatigue and volume are kept in check.
More than three times per week and only the most slow twitch dominant can handle failure based training from what I can tell so far.
If you are fast twitch dominant and still want to train lots of days per week then you may want to simply split your body into parts or lift specific days, like so:
Day 1) Back and biceps / pulling exercises
Day 2) Legs and Abs / lifts
Day 3) Chest and triceps / pushing exercises
Days 4) extras/weak points
etc etc…..use your imagination for setting up a split if you are fast twitcher looking for a way to train more frequently.
Slow twicthers and mixed types I would mostly recommend full body routines for hypertrophy.
How do I know which type I am?
Another daisy of a question…
Some people are a dead give away:
Naturally heavily muscled and stronger than nearly everyone you know? Fast twitcher. You can lift more than most but only for a few reps before you tire.
Good at endurance and can keep going for hours on end but not very strong? This is highly suggestive of a slow twitch dominant body. You are not as strong as many but can perform shit loads of reps with a high percentage of your 1rm.
Neither of those stand out in your mind? The you’re probably a good mix of the two and can lift a moderate number of reps with your 1rm.
There are more complex fatigue testing protocols which I have written about before but I am not yet convinced they are needed.
As you can see, it can be a total minefield of variables but a good trainer should be able to help you navigate it.
Well this turned into a monster piece on training to failure, fibre types, volume and workout templates….well done for sticking with it if you did, you hopefully took something away with you that will help you pack on some useful muscle.
Until next time,
Your Epsom, Surrey and London Personal Trainer,
R Ham WIlliams