Scientifically Proven "Train to Failure" Tactics

Take your strength and size gains over the edge.


STRONG EVIDENCE: Most powerlifters don’t train to failure. They usually stick to a tight regimen of a certain number of reps per set and never do more than that prescribed for the day’s workout. If a set feels light and they can get more than five reps (or whatever that day’s workout calls for), they still stop at five and simply add weight during the next workout. Recent research, however, should have most powerlifters thinking about changing their training strategy. 

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport (Canberra) have discovered that training to failure is important for maximizing strength gains. The scientists performed two different studies to address the failure question. In one case, they set out to determine whether training to failure was necessary for gaining strength. They had athletes perform bench-press sessions for six weeks, doing either four sets of six reps (with failure being reached during the last set) or eight sets of three reps (without ever reaching failure). 

Each workout was done three times per week. At the end of the study, the failure group had an increase in strength of 10%, while the group that never trained to muscle failure had a strength increase of only 5%. In other words, by training to failure for just one set of bench presses, the athletes doubled their strength gains as compared to the group that never reached failure. 

In another study, the Aussies investigated how much failure was required to maximize strength. They had three groups of athletes perform bench-press sessions for six weeks. Group one trained with four sets of six reps, going to failure for all four sets. Group two trained with eight sets of three reps, reaching failure for the last two sets. Group three performed 12 sets of three reps, training to failure for the last three sets. 

Separating the athletes this way allowed the scientists to compare the number of sets the athletes took to failure; it also allowed them to analyze the effects of different numbers of sets and reps. Despite the differences in the number of sets and reps performed for the bench press and in the number of sets performed to failure, all groups had a 6% increase in bench-press strength at the end of six weeks.

When both studies are compared side by side, there is a clear trend in regard to training to failure for strength. Training to failure for one set per exercise elicits twice the strength gains as not training to failure. Increasing the number of sets taken to failure from one set to two, three or four provides no more benefit than doing just one set to failure. 

In fact, taking more than one set to failure may actually blunt strength gains. Take-home message: for strength, do no more than one set to failure per exercise. No more, no less.

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