Failure training is a controversial topic throughout the fitness industry. On one side, you have some people that are all for it and believe that it’s the best way to make improvements in the weight room, and on the other side you have people that believe going to failure will only be detrimental to your progress. So who’s right?
What Is Failure Training?
Failure training, simply put, is a style of training that involves you pushing past muscular failure on a certain lift. When you go through a working set and you can’t do another rep with the weight that you are using with good form, you have reached muscular failure. That is the basis of failure training. Incorporation of dropsets, rest/pause sets, forced reps, forced negatives and forced eccentrics are some popular ways of pushing past muscular failure.
What Happens When I Go To Failure?
As mentioned previously, there are two opposite thoughts when approaching the topic of failure training. People on both sides have valid arguments. Failure training has pros and cons.
In research, it has been shown that failure training increases adenosine monophosphate in muscle (1). Increases of adenosine monophosphate is a sign that muscle cells are nearly completely drained of energy. When your body reaches muscular failure during a lift, there is a shock to your central nervous system. A shock like this to your nervous system causes you to acquire “central fatigue”. For example, if you were to do an exercise for 12 reps and reach complete failure, you may only be able to get 6 or 7 reps on the following set because your body is now experiencing central fatigue. However, if you were to have stopped short of 12 reps with 11 reps and not reached muscular failure, you would most likely be able to produce 9 or 10 reps on the following set.
This is why it is recommended to avoid training to failure too early in a training session. The total volume of a workout could be compromised if you experience central fatigue too early in the session. A reduction in total volume could lead to plateauing and your progress in the gym coming to a halt. Reaching muscular failure should be done at the end of an exercise, near the end of a workout, or on a day meant for hypertrophy. Research shows that reaching failure with a given weight on the last set of an exercise will result in greater muscle growth and strength (2).
Fast and Slow Twitch Muscle Fibers
One of the major benefits of training to failure is muscle fiber recruitment. You have two types of muscle fibers, slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers. When you start an exercise, you recruit mainly slow twitch fibers to move the weight because if your body is able to recruit primarily slow twitch fibers, your body will be retaining more energy than compared to using fast twitch fibers that use much more energy. This is your body trying to resist a drastic change in energy expenditure to maintain homeostasis.
As you near the end of a set, you start to recruit your fast twitch fibers, which are your fibers that are more involved with strength and explosiveness. By going to failure, you’re ensuring that you’re recruiting the maximal amount of muscle fibers which will be an effective approach to increasing muscle hypertrophy. Failure training will also provide for a greater amount of metabolic stress (the accumulation of metabolites in muscular tissue), time under tension, and lactic acid build up than just doing a normal set. It has been shown in studies that greater increases in lactic acid build up is critical for gaining muscle because of the amount of intramuscular growth factors that lactic acid will increase (3).
So if you’re in the gym and you feel a “pump”, then you’re experiencing lactic acid build up and science shows that the pump you’re feeling is actually an effective mechanism of muscle hypertrophy.
How Can I Use Failure Training?
Failure training is an important tool to add to your training. The benefits of failure training have been shown in the weight room and in studies. Appropriately implementing failure training is essential to reaping its benefits. Remember, failure training can affect your total volume from workouts if done at an inappropriate time and it can be extremely taxing on your body to repeatedly perform failure training week in and week out.
If you find yourself plateauing or unable to recover from training, you may want to take a week where you do not do any failure training to allow your body to fully recover. However, if you find yourself getting consistent results and recovering adequately from training, it is fine to keep implementing failure training.