To train to failure or not to train to failure? That is the question – or, at least, it’s one of a number of questions that get asked again and again about weight training.

A meta-study from 2021 may finally settle the interminable debate, however.

Researchers gathered together 15 previously published studies for their own study and concluded that there appears to be no noticeable difference between training to failure and not.

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Training to failure: absolutely necessary or overrated and potentially counterproductive?

training to failure

The researchers looked at fifteen separate papers on the topic of training or not training to failure and considered the effects of each on i) strength increases and ii) muscle mass increases.

In short, the researchers discovered the neither form was more effective than the other, as the two figures below illustrate. The first is for strength increases, and the second shows muscle mass increases.

Here’s the researchers’ conclusion:

“Training to muscle failure does not seem to be required for gains in strength and muscle size. However, training in this manner does not seem to have detrimental effects on these adaptations, either. More studies should be conducted among older adults and highly trained individuals to improve the generalizability of these findings.”

The final caveats are worth noting. It is entirely possible that older adults and individuals who have been training for long periods of time may benefit from the enhanced stimulus of training to failure, more than younger or untrained individuals.

Push your bench press gains to the next level by altering the tempo

bench press

Researchers have shown that altering the tempo of your bench press – specifically lowering the bar more slowly and raising it faster – can push your gains to the next level.

The research involved 20 subjects in their forties, all of whom had been doing weight training for between 18 and 19 years.

The researchers divided the subjects into two separate groups. The subjects in one group continued to train as they were used to, moving the weights at their own preferred speed for the bench press [SPS]. This group was used as the control group.

The experimental group, by contrast, performed bench presses at a fixed speed. The subjects pushed the weights up at 80-100 percent of their maximal speed [FPS].

The upward (concentric) movement took the experimental group 0.8 seconds to perform, whereas this movement took the control group 1.3 seconds. The downward (eccentric) movement lasted 2 seconds in the experimental group and 1.5 seconds in the control group.

With regard to frequency and weight, both groups trained twice weekly for a period of three weeks, using weights that were 55 percent of their 1-rep maximum. Between sets they rested for two minutes.

For the experimental group bench press training ended when the athletes could only lift at 80 percent of their maximal speed, while the control group continued to train until the point of exhaustion.


Training to failure: some conclusions

On the basis of the meta-analysis, we’d suggest carefully rationing the occasions on which you train to failure. It certainly shouldn’t be something you do all the time and you shouldn’t let it detract from the rest of your workout. There’s no reason to go balls-to-the wall on every set.

You could consider implementing enhanced intensity phases into your programming to take advantage of shorter bursts of training to failure, but make sure to get sufficient rest to compensate for the added neuro-muscular fatigue.

In short, stay safe and train smart, people!

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