Scientifically Proven "Train to Failure" Tactics

Take your strength and size gains over the edge.


MUSCLING UP: So what about training to failure for gaining mass? After all, being stronger is great, but only if it accompanies more muscle. The bad news is that research studies haven’t looked directly at how muscles grow due to muscle failure. There are few research studies in general on muscle growth. That leaves us with research that primarily looks at muscle strength or hormonal responses and trying to extrapolate it to muscle growth. 

Looking at the Aussie studies, we could easily say that training to failure is important for muscle growth. Anecdotal reports from bodybuilders over many decades would support this contention. The question, however, is how much failure is optimal for muscle growth?

Indirectly, the Australian research suggests that taking at least one set to failure per exercise may be important for stimulating size increases. Another indirect answer comes from a study performed in Finland. It examined forced-rep training (in which an athlete takes a set to muscle failure and a spotter helps to finish two more reps). When forced reps were performed during all eight sets of a leg workout, levels of growth hormone (GH), an important anabolic hormone involved in muscle growth, were about three times higher than when eight straight sets were performed. 

The point to be gained from this study is that you need to train with high intensity to boost your GH levels. Training to failure every set can help keep your training intensity high and boost your GH levels at a time when it’s most critical — after your workout.

Of course, overtraining can be an issue with continuous high-intensity training. Overtraining can lead to suppressed levels of testosterone, GH and insulinlike growth factor-I; raised amounts of cortisol (catabolic hormone); and many other disturbances within the body that can sap muscle and strength gains. 

One study reported that subjects who consistently trained to failure and also with forced reps for six weeks showed early signs of overtraining. Clearly, training to failure every set is something you want to limit. 

What’s the take-home message for training to failure for muscle mass? Train to failure for all sets (after being warmed up) for a limited time — six weeks. Then back off by training to failure for just the last set of each exercise for another six weeks. Keep your approach staggered in this manner to maximize muscle mass while preventing overtraining. 

Beginners (those with less than a year of training experience) should spend at least the first 12 weeks going to failure for just the last set of each exercise. During the next six-week stretch, take every set to failure; then, back off again for 12 weeks, going to failure for just the last set of each exercise. 

Follow this pattern until you have at least a full year of training experience before stepping up to the advanced cycle presented in the “Failure Cycle” plan below. Following this plan, you may be failing in the gym a lot, but you won’t be feeling like a failure when you flex all of your newfound muscle. 

As for that misinformed guy at the gym who is flailing under an overloaded bar for his ill-advised bench press, go ahead and lift it off him. After all, bodybuilders, powerlifters and our fellow iron warriors in between are all brothers. Some of us just understand the finer points of failure better than others. Now you do, too. - FLEX