training-to-failure

Muscle-Building Myth #2: Thinking that training to total muscular failure is the one and only way to train

Written by Shane Duquette on June 4, 2012

But isn’t it no pain no muscle-gain? In rare cases this can be true, but this depends on your particular goals, level of experience and training plan. For most guys stopping short of total muscle annihilation will get them to their goals much faster. For ectomorphs looking to quickly build muscle this is always the case—unless you’re such an enormously muscled ectomorph that no one would ever describe you as one. There’s a very big difference between uselessly fatiguing yourself and getting a good workout, but even most advanced trainees can’t recognize the difference. I’ve been there.

But isn’t that last rep the only one that matters?! Isn’t that last rep the one that separates the weaklings from the champions?! Grab a seat by the squat rack, and let me tell you about keeping 2 in the tank.

Why you shouldn’t train to failure

If you train to total muscle failure you’ll totally crush those muscles. This means they’ll require a ton of recovery to get back to the point where you can train them again. Most weightlifters do this because they think it’s the only way to make their muscles grow—not true. Your muscles will actually grow quicker by stimulating them with a heavy load, and steadily and progressively upping that load. Frequently. Not once a week.

… But most guys damage their muscles to the point where they can only train them once per week, and thus need to follow a bodybuilding split routine instead of a full body training routine. This results in much less frequent stimulation and a significantly reduced weekly hormonal response from your training. As ectomorphs we need those hormones.

The difference between giving it 95% and 99% are very similar—both will build you beastly muscles and allow you to train them often enough to build them really damn quickly. Take it to 101% (failure) though and wham—huuuuuge recovery time required before your muscles recover and you can train them again.

There’s also form to consider, and yours should be stellar. One of the biggest factors in putting on muscle rapidly is executing each exercise properly. We aren’t form nazis here—there’s a balance to be found. Training shouldn’t feel clinical. Pushing yourself to the limit on every single set though is taking things way too far. It’s almost impossible to maintain rockin’ form when you’re struggling against failure, so this should only ever happen rarely, once you’ve built up great habits and great form has become intuitive. At that point hey yeah, let your form twist a little as you struggle to break a new personal record, but as you’re training to build muscle this should not be a regular occurrence.

Now I’m not saying you should come out of the gym feeling like you didn’t work out. You should. You should need to rest between sets and you should definitely feel your muscles working—really damn hard. You shouldn’t come out of the gym feeling like crap for the rest of the day though. You should recover shortly after and feel fantastic. You shouldn’t be getting sick every second week because your body is struggling to keep up with your training regime, you shouldn’t be sore all the time, and you shouldn’t have trouble sleeping. Training is supposed to make you feel superhuman, not geriatric.

When should I train to failure?

Sometimes, when you’re struggling to push beyond your genetic potential or training to compete in a powerlifting event, you need to go really damn heavy. When you do, you need to back off for a couple weeks afterwards and train light. This isn’t the most effective way to build muscle or strength, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, depending on what your goals in the gym are.

And there’s a caveat with pushing yourself to your limits and taking an exercise to failure. It should only be done on particular exercises. Some joints and muscle groups should never be taken to failure. Your rotator cuff (shoulder joint) for example, should never ever be brought to the point of failure. That’ll be how you wind up with a messed up shoulder. It’s also totally unnecessary if your goal is building muscle.

The Solution?

If you’re a typical trainee—even one with a few years lifting experience—you’ll gain strength and muscle mass much quicker by lifting close to failure, and then training each muscle group more frequently. We typically train three times per week, and stimulate all major muscle groups each time. This results in much much more rapid muscle growth and strength increases when compared with the guy who’s absolutely wrecking his muscles with every workout.

How do you do it? Keep two in the tank. If you really feel adventurous leave just one in the tank every once in a while. Feel like you have more than one or two in the tank after an exercise? No problem. Count that set as a warm-up, up the weight a bit, and hit ‘er again. When you finish a set you should be thinking to yourself “Phew that was tough… but I prrrrrobably could have done one or two more if I had really given it everything I had.” That’s what we call keeping two in the tank. Keeping two in the tank will turn you into a tank.

Even when you aren’t going to total muscular failure, most advanced training programs include de-load weeks to allow for full muscle recovery. A de-load week is where you reduce the training volume to let your body catch up with itself and start fresh into the next phase of training. You should be doing one of these every few weeks. We go hard for 4 weeks and then have a de-load week in the fifth week before gearing back up.

As a bonus to building muscle more quickly, training with a bigger emphasis on recovery will also result in far fewer injuries, a stronger immune system, and less time spent suffering from muscle soreness and fatigue.

If you liked the post, “Like” it, share it, and Check out the other Muscle-Building Myths.

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So, what'd you think? 24 responses below.

Archer

Really like your posts, read them all. But Im a little confused about sets. Some say that its better for ectomorphs to use pyramid reps. for example, (25/15/8, or 10/8/6/15 with 4 sets. Instead of 4 sets and 8 to 10(even reps) because this way we overtrain our muscles.

Shane Duquette

Thanks man, I’m glad you like them!
Oh man I understand your confusion. Putting together a training program is tricky business. The good news is that all of those will result in muscle growth.
How many reps and sets are “best”, and what would result in overtraining depends on so many different things: what the exercise is, what that muscle group responds best to, how many other exercises in your workout work the same muscle group, how close to failure you train to, how often you train that muscle group per week, and how many weeks in a row you’re doing high (or low) volume.
I study this stuff like a demon and read dozens of pubmed studies every morning with my coffee. Putting together a “perfect” training program still confuses the hell out of me. Luckily that’s Marco’s specialty, so we’re covered.
I recommend going to one source that you trust and doing their program verbatim. There are many correct ways to train. If you try and mix and match though chances are you’ll overlook the subtle things that make the programs work as a system.
Which do we do? … all of them. For a variety of reasons. At different points in our training. If you’re putting something together yourself though just keep it as simple as possible. Even reps is fine.
I hope that helps!

Shane Duquette

Reading an interesting meta analysis of studies on optimal number of sets: 6-18 sets per muscle group per week. Ideally 3-6 sets per muscle group trained 2-3 times per week. That’ll give ya optimal strength and size gains.

Vas

B2B is awesome, I was never even thinking about core training, now Im paying a lot of attention to it. But I was just curious If you guys(or any of the people on your program) ever run into uneven muscles development.

Shane Duquette

That’s awesome man, I’m glad you like it! I hope our blog is helping.

Almost everyone has muscle imbalances! Most people use their body asymmetrically, and some struggle with it more than others. A baseball pitcher, for example, would have a ton of trouble trying to develop a symmetrical upper body.

The first 5 weeks of our program is made up mainly of iso-lateral lifts (like a 1-arm bench press), and this continues on to some extent throughout the program. This balances out most minor asymmetries, and is more than enough for most of our members 🙂

vas

Thanks for the reply. I will definatly be joining the program. Is it possible to complete the 1st phase using a home gym (bench, barbell, dumbells)

Shane Duquette

Yes sir! Some of our guys do the whole program at home, although I’d definitely say you’d get more out of the later phases at a real gym.

And that’s awesome man. Can’t wait to see you on the other side 🙂

loeverage

Hey man,

love the blog….no bs….just quality advice

was wondering if you have to train 2-3 times a week in order to see gains. Could you still become a beast (albeit more slowly) training 1-2 times a week?

cheers

Shane Duquette

Sure! It took Albert, the transformation shot earlier in the article, 6.5 weeks to do 5 weeks worth of workouts. He still made great gains! It might just be a little harder to keep the gains lean, and take just a little bit longer. You can definitely definitely still get there.

Another thing to keep in mind is habit forming. Training just 1-2 times per week might not be enough for you to ever come to feel like training is a part of your lifestyle, and thus you’ll always need to actively do it. If you train a bit more often, it becomes almost like, say, going to the bathroom – you just do it. It’s not like you would ever think “ahh I’m too busy for that right now” you just find time for it – no big deal.

Good luck man 🙂

Nabs

This other website describes the ideal weekly volume and volume per muscle group and is an advocate of not training to failure by leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank. It also shows how you can do a full body workout three days a week. I am going to follow it. Basically, Shane and his bros pretty much nailed it, and are crushing it in the gym.

Palash Agrawal

How do you progressively increase the weigh if you dont train to failure??????

Shane Duquette

I’m not sure I understand your question. What makes you think that training to failure is the only way to progressively increase how much you’re lifting?

Palash Agrawal

Well lets it took x reps to train to failure with a certain weight. Then next time you would try lift more reps with that same weight to reach. I think of failure as a measuring point to when a set is finished. How else would you decide when to stop a set? And how will your workouts be challenging if you don’t train to failure.

Shane Duquette

If you try to stop just short of failure, say, then you’d do x reps with a certain weight … then next workout hopefully do x reps with a heavier weight. Same thing. The only difference is that for some x is failure, whereas for others x is failure minus one or two reps.

You’re correct – the workout would feel less challenging. If your goal is to create a challenging/fun workout though, that’s a different goal. Most of our readers are looking to build muscle mass rapidly, not train recreationally. Whenever possible though, it’s always best if you can get both great results AND have a good time doing it 🙂

For me, I still find it challenging stopping short of failure, especially when the weights get heavy. Deadlifting 375 for three reps is still tough for me, even though I suspect I could get five if I really gunned it. But sometimes, to test myself or ramp up the intensity, I’ll train to failure. Every few weeks or so. Or on just a couple isolation exercises that aren’t as fatiguing (like curls, say).

Chris

Do you not ever find that training every muscle group each workout is something of a tall order? I’m assuming you guys achieve this through compound lifts though, rather than systematically targeting every muscle – which would probably take all day! This is an interesting concept though, the idea of whole- body workouts I previously associated more with beginner, calisthenic sort of programmes. Similarly, I had the idea that a week was more optimal in terms of time for stimulated protein synthesis and muscle repair to occur – do you find, then, that this more frequent stimulation of the same muscles allows adequate time for muscle fibre repair in between its stimulation/ damage?

Ps great blog guys, keep it up, it’s encouraging to finally see something a bit more evidence- based out there.

Shane Duquette

Yeah, it’s a lot easier and more efficient than it sounds when you use compound lifts. You just need to be mindful that you’re stimulating all the muscles you’re trying to stimulate. We use a mix of both compound and isolation lifts to do that, and our workouts only take about an hour. If you strictly use isolation lifts that’s when you run into training programs where you’re in the gym eight days per week tackling one muscle group at a time for an hour or more. To me that’s what sounds like a tall order! Different people prefer different approaches though, and there are many ways to skin a beast!

This obviously depends on your situation. Many untested pro-bodybuilders train with less frequency than that, but that’s because their anabolic response is assisted by drugs, so they don’t need to stimulate it as often. For a natural trainee things are different. The anabolic response to training only lasts for about 48 hours tops. If you’re only training a muscle group once per week you’re missing out on five days of growth!

As a result, not surprisingly, most research shows that stimulating a muscle group around three times per week is best, whether you’re a total beginner or a very seasoned weightlifter. However, overall training volume per muscle group remains more important. You can still make decent gains even if weightlifting frequency isn’t optimized.

(Another thing to keep in mind is intensity. If you go to absolute failure on every set if every workout obviously you won’t be able to train with the same frequency and volume as someone who’s a little more moderate, as you’ll be absolutely beating your muscles to a pulp each workout. This is why many good training programs advocate stopping before failure.)

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Ahmed

Hi Shane,

What do u think of Drew Baye, HIT? He speaks highly of training to failure, low frequency/low volume workout, all of which go against your exercise philosophy. U think his HIT approach could also work for ectos?

Thanks,
Ahmed

Shane Duquette

I think if you’re really in a hurry in the gym it can be a good way to still get some decent results. You may get, for example, 60% of your results from the first set, 30% from the second and 10% from the third—especially as a beginner. So just doing one set per muscle group per workout is going to get you further than doing a few sets with one muscle group and then leaving early.

Is it anywhere near optimal for ectomorphs (or drug free lifters in general)? The research pretty unanimously says no. In fact, volume has generally shown itself to be the most important training variable, with the most you can properly recover from tending to be ideal for most people.

Ahmed

Thanks but what of recovery? More volume or frequency may affect recovery right?

Shane Duquette

Correct. It’s always a balancing act. For example, if you stay a rep or two away from failure when lifting that lets you recover far more quickly and train more frequently / with more volume. On the other hand, if you train a muscle group all the way to failure you may need to wait a few days before training it again (and many guys use triple splits for this reason). Both are valid approaches, but more volume/frequency keeps on proving itself to be a little better for building muscle, quite a bit better at building strength, and way better at improving lifting technique and posture (because there’s way more frequent practice). It’s likely a fair bit healthier too. Still, it’s not the only good way to train, just a good way to train.

Matt

Really great info on this site Shane! You write very well. And I love how everything is science backed with relevant studies referenced.

I have a demanding career and 2 young children. Free time for me is scarce. It’s very hard for me to make it to the gym now than twice per week. So my thought is since I can’t get to optimal volume / week, in my case, wouldn’t the next best thing be to try and make up for it with more intensity by going to failure on my sets? That is what I do. And I keep the weight a little higher and target failure at about 8 reps. My main goal is hypertrophy for size and mass gains, with strength being secondary.

I typically do a 2 day split. 1 day is legs and back. The other is everything else. Allows for the extended recovery need from the intensity. Plus I’m very prone to DOMS (or maybe that is from going to failure). Or do you think since I’ll always have at least 2 full days between workng out that I should switch to 2 full body workouts pee week? That would get me more frequency and about the same weekly volume but a little less volume per workout to fit all the body parts in for each session.

I’ve trained on and off for 20 years. So fortunately I have a lot of nuclei and the magic of muscle memory serves me very well. I’m coming off a 3+ year hiatus from around the time my son was born. Already seeing noticeable gains in 2 weeks. I pretty much already figured out the diet end of things over the years and for the most part employ all the tactics you recommend. Calorie surplus, adequate protein, not shying away from carbs, etc.

The higher intensity / lower frequency and lower volume has always worked very well for me. But I’ve never tested biasing toward frequency over intensity or more volume. Any studies specifically testing that? Any that show some outlier individuals that thrive primarily on intensity? I’m probably more of a mesomorph/ ectomorph hybrid. 5’7″, and hover around 150 lbs. With prob around 15-20% bf when eating like crap and not workng out. Any studies that show diminishing returns from more volume? Like maybe the first 6 sets per week get you 80% of the gains and those additional 7 -16 sets get you that last 20%. Trying to figure out how much I’m”leaving on the table”

Thanks!

Shane Duquette

Thank you, Matt!

The highest training volume that you can recover from will get you the most gains, but you can still make rather nice gains with a lower volume approach. You’re also in the exact situation where a lower volume approach is advisable, especially since you might not be sleeping or resting as much as a lazy bachelor.

Yes, I think switching to two full body workouts per week would be better. Less volume per body part per workout, but I bet it would give you a higher volume overall. The trick to that will be focusing on the bigger compound lifts—deadlifts, squats, bench press, rows, chin-ups and overhead presses. You’ve been lifting a long time now, so I suspect you’ve got the skills to handle those more advanced lifts (although you may be rusty!). If you don’t have a barbell/power rack, then you could do dumbbell variations. Just keep ’em heavy and compound.

Going to failure is good, yes, given your circumstances. You wouldn’t want to go to failure on every set, though, just the last set of the exercise. If you go to failure too soon, you’ll wreck your strength on subsequent sets. More soreness, worse results. Switching to full body workouts will help with that as well because you can blast away at a muscle group fairly hard… then just switch over to a new muscle group. You wouldn’t be doing loads of follow-up sets with an already-thrashed muscle.

Studies don’t usually look for outliers. Most of that comes down to personal experimentation. Doing some titration can be a good idea.

Do studies ever show diminishing returns from more volume? In terms of strength, very yes. A fatigued muscle will not test as strong. You can even cause a (temporary) reduction in strength with overly high volume. In terms of size, also yes, but that’d be a more extreme scenario. With two workouts per week, you wouldn’t be training with too much volume.

Keep in mind that you’d still need balanced workouts. If you’re very strong, for example, deadlifts can be quite taxing even when volume is low. A single 700-pound pull will stress your body pretty hard.

If you find yourself overly DOMSing or tired, the first thing I’d do would be to stop a rep shy from failure on the final set, two reps shy of failure on the others. That would likely get you the most bang for your buck in terms of optimising volume/intensity.

I hope that helps!

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