In strength training, it is traditionally recommended to work within shorter repetition schemes, say 3-8 reps, compared to 8-12 reps for hypertrophy. Newer research tells us if you work a muscle to failure, you’ll get hypertrophy and strength gains regardless of the repetition scheme. It is often understood when strength training you should pick a weight you can maximally lift five times, but unable to lift six times (with safe technique), i.e lifting to failure.
However, does each of your sets actually have to be a very strenuous set to failure? Let’s have a look at the research.
Training to failure and not to failure are comparable
The general consensus in research is that non-failure and failure training have similar increases in muscle strength (as long as the non-failure weight is still reasonably heavy).
When the studies did not equalize training volume, training to non-failure was found to lead to better strength gains. However, this is likely because the non-failure groups performed more sets of each exercise, and it is generally accepted that training volume increases strength in a linear manner (to a certain extent).
Does training to failure increase injury risk?
Further research is needed in this area. However, it is hypothesized in sports science that training to failure is harder to recover from. If completing a movement multiple times a week such as squatting, it is likely to be more beneficial to not squat to failure as this reduces injury risk and improves recovery time for future training sessions.
Therefore, training to failure is generally unnecessary to maximize strength gains. And if you train regularly, you should perhaps not train to failure for the majority of the time, due to the risk of injury and overtraining.
What about hypertrophy?
In respect to muscle hypertrophy, one systematic review found that training to failure seemed to increase muscle hypertrophy, however it is not essential and hypertrophy gains were still made in the non-failure group, albeit slightly less. A second systematic review found that when training volume was equal, there was no significant difference in the effect of training style on hypertrophy gains.
Overall, it appears that training to failure and not to failure seem to have very similar outcomes on muscle hypertrophy and strength. Accordingly, we believe it's best to do whatever will keep you showing up in the gym or training every day. That said, if you’re lifting heavy weights multiple times a week, it may be in your best interest to not go to failure every time to allow appropriate recovery for the next session.
If you're after a personalised strength training program that is tailored to your injuries and goals, feel free to give us a call on 3061 7128.
Davies, T., Orr, R., Halaki, M., & Hackett, D. (2016). Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(4), 487–502. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0451-3
Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., & Sabol, F. (2021). Effects of resistance training performed to repetition failure or non-failure on muscular strength and hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sport and health science, S2095-2546(21)00007-7. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2021.01.007
Vieira, A. F., Umpierre, D., Teodoro, J. L., Lisboa, S. C., Baroni, B. M., Izquierdo, M., & Cadore, E. L. (2021). Effects of Resistance Training Performed to Failure or Not to Failure on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Power Output: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(4), 1165–1175. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003936