Gyms are divided between coaches who believe you should always keep 3-4 reps in the tank and coaches who believe you should train the target muscle to the point of “failure”…
… but who is right?
If your goal is to build muscle, research suggests the latter.
Studies show that if you’re trying to build a ripped, muscular physique then you should be taking many (but not all) of your sets to the point of failure.
Today I’m going to show you how to do it, because when applied correctly, training to failure is an incredibly powerful tool which can greatly improve your results in the gym and have your pals wondering what the heck you’re doing – or using! – to see such progress.
But when applied incorrectly, it’s a complete waste of time!
Let’s break it down.
The Key Studies On “Training To Failure”
“Failure” is defined as taking the muscle to the stage of being unable to perform another rep with good form, and it can be applied to low, mid-range or high rep sets.
A 2010 study from McMaster University, Canada, was the first to really delve into the finer details of the potential hypertrophy benefits on the table.
Using the leg extension, the researchers worked with 15 male participants who were broken into the following groups:
- 4 sets of 4-5 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
- 4 sets 20-30 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
- 4 sets of 20-30 reps with a comfortable weight (no failure was reached)
The results were nuts. As you can see below, both of the groups who achieved muscle failure reported a significantly higher rate (40-60%) of muscle protein synthesis. (1)
Twelve months later, researchers from the same university conducted a follow-up study to test the muscle building properties of whey protein in the 24 hours after a workout, and it gave them a second opportunity to simultaneously test the benefits of training to failure.
This time the researchers had three groups of trained men supplementing with whey protein after performing unilateral leg extensions like this:
- 4 sets of 4-5 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
- 4 sets of 20-30 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
- 4 sets of 20-30 reps with a comfortable weight (no failure was reached)
The researchers found that the protein shake spiked muscle protein synthesis significantly higher for the trainees who achieved failure. (2)
One thing I hope you’ve noticed so far is that training in the higher rep ranges appears to be pretty damn good for stimulating muscle growth (more on this here), but there are also some things to consider.
The first is that the researchers in both of these studies measured muscle protein synthesis and not actual hypertrophy. Sure, MPS is a great indication that our muscles are in a state of heightened growth, but if we want to look at the bigger picture we need a study which is longer and which takes muscle measurements.
The second issue is that the two studies above did not use the rep range which is most linked with hypertrophy. Both trials had participants working with 4-5 reps and 20-30 reps, and it would be very interesting to see how the 8-12 rep range fits into the story.
We got our answer in 2012.
A study published in Journal of Physiology compared the hypertrophy results of two groups of trainees performing 3 sets of 12 repetitions on the leg extension. The participants used a relatively light weight (30% of their max) but one group slowed down the tempo to ensure they reached full muscle failure by the final rep.
The results confirmed what you’re likely already suspecting – training to failure produces greater muscle growth! (3)
Now if you’re wondering how the hypertrophy benefits of training to failure in the 8-12 rep range compare to training in higher rep ranges (to see where you could build more muscle), we can answer this question by looking at a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
This time around the team weren’t interested in comparing training to failure versus NOT training to failure, because the benefits were well established at this point. Instead, they wanted to see if we can stimulate more muscle growth by taking multiple sets to failure versus just one set, and whether training to failure in the mid-range can yield a better response than using high reps.
The researchers worked with a group of eighteen trained males as they performed the following bouts of leg extensions over a 10 week program:
- 1 set of 8-12 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
- 3 sets of 8-12 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
- 3 sets of 20-30 reps with a weight that caused muscle failure
What they discovered changed everything.
As you can see in the graph below, the study showed that the groups who achieved muscle failure across three sets improved muscle growth by around 7%, which was almost double the one-time group. This indicates that we will achieve greater hypertrophy results not just by reaching failure, but by doing so on a regular basis. (4)
The reason this study got so much attention, though, is because it was the first study to conclusively prove that you can build just as much muscle with high reps as you can with low reps. It appeared that the low rep training brought with it more strength improvements, and the high rep training produced improvements in muscular endurance, but in terms of hypertrophy there were no great differences!
This is HUGE NEWS, because it gives you multiple ways to unlock even better results!
How To Use This Information To Unlock Maximum Results
By now you should be starting to see the benefits of training to failure and how it can help you improve your muscle building results, so let’s put it into action!
Here’s the good news…
Now that we know high rep training can be just as useful as low rep training for hypertrophy, it means we can exploit two different muscle building pathways instead of just one:
- Progressive overload
- Metabolic stress
Progressive overload is probably the most popular muscle building pathway. This is the process of trying to lift heavier weights over time to gradually become bigger, stronger, and more muscular. When we lift heavy weights our body will develop our fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are explosive, powerful muscle fibers which are literally primed for growth – one of the key reasons why training heavy in the 8-12 rep range is so effective for hypertrophy! (5, 6)
However, we cannot rely on progressive overload alone.
(Think about it; if we kept trying to lift heavier we would eventually reach a plateau or get injured.)
The good news is progressive overload isn’t the only screwdriver in your toolbox!
Training with higher reps means we can stimulate muscle growth via the metabolic stress pathway. This pathway works a little differently as the focus shifts from sheer weight to time under tension but, as the studies above show, it’s another great way to build muscle. (7, 8)
But here’s the thing…
ALL of the studies above which produced maximum hypertrophy results with high reps had participants training to failure.
All of them. It’s literally CRUCIAL to unlocking the hyperyrophy benefits of high rep training.
And here’s why…
Lifting lighter weights for higher reps places primary focus on slow-twitch muscle fibers. These are weak muscle fibers which have a great capacity for endurance training. If we take our sets to failure, though, we can actually train BOTH types of muscle fibers (fully exhausting the target muscle!) by tapping into something known as the size principle. (9)
The size principle tells us that the body likes to recruit muscle fibers in order from smallest to biggest. Basically it’s trying to perform the given task with as little effort as possible. So when we grab a heavy dumbbell and perform a shoulder press our body instantly tries to recruit the slow-twitch muscle fibers in our shoulders, but quickly realizes they are no match for the load and switches to using explosive fast-twitch fibers.
When we grab a light weight and perform a shoulder press our body recruits the slow-twitch muscle fibers in the shoulders and performs the set.
(This all happens within a micro-second, of course, but it’s good to know what’s going on inside the muscle while you work!)
Here’s where things get COOL…
If we lift a lighter weight and take the set to failure our body will begin (as always) by recruiting the slow-twitch muscle fibers in our shoulders, and when they become fatigued it begins recruiting the fast-twitch fibers in the target muscle, so by the end of the set you have trained both sets of muscle fibers and stimulated maximum results!
THAT’S how you unlock maximum hypertrophy results from high rep work!
Now that you know how it works, we should also look at program design.
If you look at the graph above, you can see the classic linear periodization model. This is great for maximizing muscle growth because it allows you to “phase” your training program. You can have high rep training, a moderate rep phase, and a low rep phase so you can reap the benefits of them all – while keeping your workouts fresh with constant variety! (10, 11)
This is how athletes train, and it’s how I’d like YOU to start training from now on.
Whether you prefer to use a bro-split which has you training each body part once per week (like my popular Classic Size program) or you prefer a full body approach (such as Classic Full Body), this structure will get you insane results.
Here’s how it looks:
- Week 1: 15 reps per set
- Week 2: 12 reps per set
- Week 3: 8 reps per set
- Week 4: 6 reps per set
- And start over…
The goal is to choose weights which allow you to reach (or at last get near to) muscle failure on most of your sets. The weights will get heavier as the reps decrease with each week that goes by (tapping into both metabolic stress AND progressive overload).
Heck, you can even go “beyond failure” on the final set of each exercise if you REALLY wanna smash it!
(Yes, it’s a thing!)
So how do we go “beyond failure”…?
I mean, if failure means you cannot perform another rep with decent technique, surely your final set is OVER when you reach that stage.
That’s not strictly true…
Members of russhowepti.com will be familiar with “Muscle Busters”. These are nasty little techniques I add in to workouts to make sure there is absolutey, positively, 100% nothing left in the tank!
I might have you performing half reps. I might have you performing dropsets. That kinda thing.
Going to failure AND BEYOND signals the body to produce more anabolic hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-1) and research shows this can helps us to build EVEN MORE MUSCLE! (12)
“The further you can take a set beyond failure, the higher you can increase levels of these natural muscle building hormones and the further you can push muscle growth.”– Jim Stoppani
Here are a few highly effective techniques to take you “beyond” failure:
Perform your final set of an exercise then immediately lighten the weight by about 30% and continue squeezing out reps to failure. Job done.
Interesting fact; dropping by this amount should let you achieve almost the same number of reps you hit in your final set. (13)
- Rest Pause
This is one of my favourites – I often add this Muscle Buster to workout programs because it’s very effective and it’s so damn simple to do! Just rest for about 10 seconds after completing your final set then see if you can squeeze out a few more reps (at the same weight). That’s it!
Interestingly fact; you should be able to get 4-5 more reps even though you only rested 10 seconds. This is because your muscles can replenish phosphocreatine very quickly after a set, and Rest Pause allows you to take advantage of this. (14)
- Forced Reps
Your ability to perform forced reps at the end of your final set depends on you having a training partner. When you reach the point of failure, have youe partner assist you in a few more reps.
Interesting fact; research from Finland shows that this technique can recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers than stopping at regular failure. (15)
After your final set of an exercises have your training partner help you lift the weight then you control the negative phase, effectively taking you “beyond” failure. I like to slow it down to a 5 count, it burns like f**k.
Interesting fact; if you train alone you can still use this technique when performing single-arm exercises by using using your non-working side to assist in the lift (think about using your spare hand to help perform a dumbbell concentration curl then letting the working arm handle the negative phase by itself).
- Burd N. A., et al. Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise In Young Men. PLoS ONE. (2010)
- Burd N. A., et al. Enhanced Amino Acid Sensitivity Of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Persists For Up To 24 Hours After Resistance Exercise In Young Men. J Nutr. (2011)
- Burd N. A., et al. Muscle Time Under Tension During Resistance Exercise Stimulates Differential Muscle Protein Sub-Fractional Synthetic Responses In Men. J Physiol. (2012)
- Mitchell C. J., et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol (2012).
- Wackerhage H., et al. Stimuli and sensors that initiate skeletal muscle hypertrophy following resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985).
- Peterson M. D., et al. Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol (2014).
- Tee J. C., et al. Metabolic consequences of exercise-induced muscle damage. Sports Med (2007).
- Schoenfeld B. J., et al. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res (2010).
- Henneman E. Relation between size of neurons and their susceptibility to discharge. Science (1957).
- Phillips M. B., et al. Tools and Benefits of Periodization: Developing an Annual Training Plan and Promoting Performance Improvements in Athletes. The Sport Journal (2020).
- Williams T. D., et al. Comparison of Periodized an Non-Periodized Resistance Training on Maximal Strength: A Meta-Analysis. Spors Med (2017)
- Krzysztofik M., et al. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health (2019).
- Fink J., et al. Effects of drop set resistance training on acute stress indicators and long-term muscle hypertrophy and strength. J Sports Med Phys Fitness (2018).
- Marshall P. W. M., et al. Acute neuromuscular and fatigue responses to the rest-pause method. J Sci Med Sport (2012).
- Ahtaianen J. P., et al. Acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses and recovery to forced vs maximum repetitions multiple resistance exercises. Int J Spors Med (2003).
Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
Featured in Men’s Fitness magazine and voted in the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost, Russ is the author of ‘The Rip Down’ and is among the UK’s most subscribed personal trainers with 104,357 people getting his free weekly fitness tips e-mail.
In the gym Russ’ clients range from busy parents, to models, to athletes and actresses. Russ also worked alongside the UK government for 8 years in a venture combating childhood obesity in England.
Outside of the gym, he’s a proud Dad to three young boys.
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