Training to failure is kind of a controversial topic among modern bodybuilders – there is still an ongoing debate about whether the benefits of reaching muscle failure outweigh the risks it brings.
But what is muscle failure anyway?
In short words, muscle failure happens when your muscles can’t produce enough force to continue moving the weight during the lifting phase of a certain repetition. Many seasoned bodybuilders will tell you that training to failure is the most vital part of real muscle growth, while others maintain the view that “training to failure is training to fail”. The term “training to failure” is used to describe several different levels of muscular exhaustion during an exercise. The most common examples are positive failure, which happens when you’ve reached failure right before hitting the top part of the motion and thereby can no longer perform another rep with proper form without a spotter’s assistance, and negative failure or total failure, which refers to failing in the bottom part of the motion. After reaching total failure, your muscles are absolutely spent and you no longer have the strength to move the weight at all.
Going through all the pain and draining your muscles to their last drop of fuel is a double-edged sword. In many cases, this level of determination will separate a great physique from an average one. But in others, it can be a serious setback with a great potential for injury. This is because training to failure comes with a cost, and if not used wisely, it will definitely bring more harm than good to the overzealous gym rat. Multiple studies have shown that training to failure on every set leads to increased resting levels of catabolic hormones and reduced anabolic growth factors, which makes frequent training to failure absolutely counterproductive. In addition, other studies have found that this kind of training is associated with an unfavorable decrease in protein synthesis because of elevated levels of the nucleotide adenosine monophosphate (AMP).
However, all of these information should not scare you away from using failure as a method in your regime – you just need to take it seriously. If you’re going to use it, make sure you do it in an adequate way. In other words, training to failure can be a very powerful tool in the muscle building process if you apply it only on the last set of a certain exercise. Failure training will increase the levels of lactic acid in the muscle cells and force the larger fast-twitch muscle fibers to work in order to finish the lift, resulting with greater muscle growth than non-failure training.
Keep in mind that although forced reps and dropsets, which are designed to help you squeeze few more reps out of your already drained muscles, can spur even bigger gains by producing greater metabolic stress, lactic acid and stimulating more muscle fiber recruitment, these methods will also take an even greater toll on your body and shouldn’t be used too frequently. Research has shown that consistently hitting your muscles with an unmanageable stimulus can easily result in overuse injuries including muscle tears and bone fractures.
The take-home message from all of this is that the safest way to use this technique is to use it infrequently and only on the last set of a given exercise, while abusing it will almost certainly result with serious injury in the long run. If you want real success, train heavy but also train smart!