Why ‘training for failure’ technique is not the best way to build muscle

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woman lifting weights

This popular technique may not be what it should be (Image: Getty Images)

Resistance training (such as weightlifting) is an effective way to increase muscle size and strength, which is important for people of all ages.

Having more muscle can not only help us lose weight, but it has also been shown to have benefits in reducing the risk of developing certain diseases, and it is even important for mental health.

Not only are there many different types of resistance training you can do to build muscle (such as bodyweight exercises or by using weight machines), there are also many small adjustments you can make to your training program to better build muscle.

A resistance training technique that has become popular recently is called ‘training to failure’. Some even claim that this technique can help people build muscle and strengthen more effectively than other techniques.

The idea of ​​failure training is that instead of just performing a certain number of repetitions for one exercise, you do as many repetitions of that exercise as you possibly can until your muscles are so tired that you can not perform the movement more. The person then rests to allow the muscles to recover briefly before repeating the pattern two or three more times.

Supporters of failure training say there are three factors that explain why it helps people build muscle better:

But when we actually look at studies that have examined training for failure, the benefits are not quite as straightforward.

For example, researchers recently compared the effect of performing three sets of squats with failure compared to doing the same number of squats, but evenly distributed over six sets. They found that training for failure condition produced greater levels of blood lactate (a chemical signal released by working muscles) and growth hormone than the other group did, both of which have been linked to muscle growth.

But the researchers also found that the group with training to failure had higher levels of cortisol in the blood. This hormone is released in response to stress, and research shows that it can actually inhibit muscle growth.

Woman practicing weightlifting in gym

Do not push yourself to exhaustion (Image: Getty Images / Westend61)

Another study showed that both muscle strength and power (using as much force as quickly as possible) were significantly lower when performing both squats and bench press to failure.

Muscle injuries and soreness were also significantly higher in the 24-48 hours after training compared to those who performed only a certain number of repetitions of squat and bench press during training.

Both of these factors combined can actually reduce a person’s ability to develop muscle and strength when exercising.

The best method?

To understand whether training for failure helps build muscle and strength, two reviews from 2021 collected data from 19 different studies that compared individuals who performed exercises, either with failure or only for a certain number of repetitions. Overall, both reviews found that training for failure had no benefit whatsoever in increasing muscle size, strength, or power compared to the other technique.

Both reviews also showed that any moderate benefit of training for failure depended on many different factors – such as age, how regularly the person trained, and what other types of training they did (such as cardio exercises, such as jogging). Some of the studies included in the reviews even showed that training to failure was counterproductive for muscle growth and strength building. This is probably because of the fatigue a person may experience when training for failure, which can affect how much training they are actually able to do in total during a workout.

There are a few explanations as to why training for failure may not be as effective as some claim.

First, research shows that failure training does not necessarily recruit more muscle fibers – which is often cited as a benefit of failure training when it comes to helping build strength and muscle. In fact, research shows that other methods, such as lifting heavy weights to a certain number of repetitions, are more effective at recruiting a greater number of muscle fibers during a certain movement.

Second, it is unclear whether the stress that training to failure puts on our metabolic system actually contributes to greater muscle growth.

And third, research shows that the increased levels of certain hormones in our bloodstream, as a result of failure training, do not necessarily increase muscle growth.

However, if you prefer exercise over failure, research shows that having ample rest between sets is the key to building muscle size. In fact, research shows that people who rested for five minutes between sets (compared to those who only rested for one minute) were able to lift a heavier weight and build more muscle. This may be because it allows your muscles to recover between exercises.

While failure training may not be better than traditional strength training, it can still lead to gains in muscle size and strength and allow people to stay fit and healthy.

By Rob Erskine, Lecturer in Neuromuscular Physiology, Liverpool John Moores University and Gerard McMahon, Associate Professor Exercise Physiology, Ulster University

Click here to read the original article on The Conversation.

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