Over the last decade gym culture has become increasingly popular — and this is a great thing.
I mean, people are willing to train hard for the sake of self-improvement. People are willing to push themselves in the gym, rather than sit at home wallowing in self-pity.
How good is that?
But with this has come one tiny negative.
The misconception that if you don’t leave the gym in a pool of blood, sweat, and tears, your workout was for nothing — which is a complete load of… well you know what.
Which begs the question: should you train to failure?
What is training to failure?
In short, training to failure describes training until you cannot complete another rep.
Let’s use the squat as an example.
You hit the gym with the intent to squat 80kgs for 10 reps – but you hit rep 7 and things start getting a little, well, uncomfortable.
Your legs are burning, but despite the pain, you keep pushing.
Rep 8 is slow.
Like, really slow.
In fact, it is agony — the barbell feels like it weighs a ton.
Then, on your ninth rep, things don’t go quite to plan.
You get into the bottom position and push as hard as you can. Your eyes are squeezed shut, your muscles are screaming, and for the first time in your life, your veins have veins.
You have a vision of god. After all this time, you finally understand the meaning of life — and still the bar does not budge.
You can no longer complete a rep.
You my friend, have trained to failure.
Do you need to train to failure?
All this effort must be for something, right?
Unfortunately, no, not really.
Training to failure for strength?
Despite feeling like it is doing a lot, there is a growing body of research clearly demonstrating that when it comes to getting stronger, training to failure is not necessary.
In fact, it may even be detrimental.
Evidence suggests that choosing to stay 2-3 reps short of failure every single set will actually allow you to build more strength than training to failure every single set.
Although this seems a little counterintuitive, it makes sense.
When you train to failure, you induce fatigue. And this fatigue impairs your ability to perform your next set — a process that repeats itself with every single set to failure you perform.
As a result, your ability to produce force becomes impaired, and you won’t be able to perform as many repetitions across your workout.
All of which compromises your ability to develop strength.
And interestingly, the same holds true for muscle growth.
Training to failure for muscle growth?
Research has shown that training 2-3 reps shy of failure every set will cause similar amounts of muscle growth as training to failure every set.
Which again makes sense.
Because training to failure reduces the number of reps you can perform for each subsequent set, your training volume (i.e. the total number of reps you perform in a given workout) goes down.
And why is this important?
Well, total training volume is often considered one of the most important factors for muscle growth.
Now, I should note that while this is definitely the case for heavier loads (i.e. 12 reps and less), it does seem to change slightly if you are using lighter loads for higher repetitions (i.e 15 reps or more).
In this scenario, because the weight is so light, you may actually need to go to failure to maximize muscle growth.
However, when it comes to your core lifts, there is no need.
Take Home Message
I would argue that injuries are more likely to occur if you are training to failure — this is when your technique is more likely to break down, and you are more likely to make a mistake. But the good news?
You literally have no reason to train to failure if you are lifting with appreciable loads and sound technique. In fact, it may even leave you with worse results.
Keep a couple of reps in the bank and watch the gains roll in.