All Athletes Must Train to Failure

Posted June 15, 2011 in Bodybuilding Myths 4 Comments »

Should Bodybuilders Train to Failure?

“No pain, no gain!”

You hit the gym like a maniac. You want every rep to burn. Every set has to be a max rep attempt. Maybe you even enlist a spotter to help you eek out an extra rep or two. Is training to failure or past failure a good practice for bodybuilders?

The Myth

“The only rep that counts, is the one you can’t finish.”

To grow as a bodybuilder you need to push every set to failure. That’s how Arnold and all the great 70’s bodybuilders trained, right?

Some of the following techniques, called “Weider Training Principles” are used to take each set past failure:

  • forced reps
  • forced negatives
  • rest pause
  • partial reps
  • drop sets

This is how bodybuilders have trained for years and it’s how bodybuilders should train today. Is it right?

The Truth

High Intensity Training (HIT), not to be confused with HIIT, was born of the train-to-failure mantra. One goal of HIT is to perform one set of each exercise, taken as far past failure as humanly possible. A number of successful bodybuilders have used HIT to build some serious muscle mass, but it has its flaws when you also consider strength and endurance.

In fact a better way for bodybuilders to train is to take several sets to failure, but not necessarily past failure. The more you train to failure in a workout, the more damage is accumulated in the muscle tissue. This could hamper your recovery, potentiate injury, and prevent you from training again withing 48 hours due to severe DOMS.

The Science

A study at the Australian Institute of Sport found that taking most sets to failure appears to be the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth. This is due to an increase in growth hormone (GH) levels stimulated by training to or past failure, as compared to stopping just short of failure. Since a high GH level is important for optimal muscle growth, we can assume that training to failure often would be ideal for bodybuilders.

In related studies, it was found that taking only a single set to failure (no more, no less) is ideal for strength gains.

The Conclusion

For most athletes, training to failure with more than one set per exercise is not a good idea. Most sports athletes prefer stamina, strength, power, and speed over bulk. In fact any athletes other than bodybuilders should avoid training to failure more than once per exercise.

On the other hand, based on the GH findings, bodybuilders should clearly train to failure on just about every set they perform, and even past failure using the Weider Training Principles metioned above. I am still not entirely sure if this is ultimately a better training methodology than muscle confusion and increased frequency, the principles on which the Werewolf Training routines are based.

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4 Responses to “All Athletes Must Train to Failure”

  1. I’ve tried both and think both methods have merit – higher frequency and once / week train to failure multiple times. With the high frequency method, I put on some muscle quickly but then stagnate just as quickly. With failure, I make some gains but increase strength as well. Perhaps a combo of the two would work better than each individually???? Say, frequent muscle group stimulation with some failure thrown in? Not enough that it causes overtraining??? THoughts people?

    • I believe that when you combine a little bit of everything, you get the best results. Obviously you’d want to to focus on those techniques that will most efficiently help you to accomplish your goals. More failure when bodybuilding, less failure when strength training, and always increase frequency when possible.

  2. Training to failure is not always good even if you are training for the Olympia, the ultimate in bodybuilding. My barometer is a great pump and where I stop is when the pump starts to diminish. No pain, no gain is a huge misnomer too. Pain is an indicator something is wrong, if you feel slight pain don’t go any farther with that exercise or stop exercising that body part altogether. The best things to do are mix-it-up so your body doesn’t become adapted to the routine, diet properly, lots of water, this can add size without effort and get that well needed rest. Working continually into the totally exhausted and pain zone will eventually cost you. God speed to your next new measurements!

  3. IMO, all else being equal, a stronger athlete is the better athelete.

    Athletes in sports where performance is a factor (strength, speed, power, endurance etc) should be training to get stronger (via compound movements, progressively increasing the load) since improved strength tends to improve/compliment other physical attributes.

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