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Training to failure: Myth or method to muscle mass and strength gains?

Training to failure (momentary muscle failure) is more important than the load when weight training for fitness, health or bodybuilding gains and goals. 

Most of us are focused on training smarter, eating better and tweaking our equipment so we achieve our fitness and health goals, whether that means a finishing a marathon, losing weight or earning a personal best in a competition.  

However, when it comes to getting stronger, it is important to think about failure. Specifically, momentary muscular failure—or working until complete fatigue, where no more reps can be performed—and how that is critical to making your muscles bigger and stronger. Over the years almost every imaginable combination of sets, reps and loads have been used by people who want to get stronger to either look better or improve performance in sports. However, recent research suggests that perhaps all of this is mostly a distraction and the key is going to volitional fatigue whatever the sets, reps and load. 

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A recent study by Robert Morton from the lab of Stu Phillips at McMaster University in Canada makes this point. In this study, 49 young men who had been strength training for at least two years were randomized to either a high rep- lower weight program vs. a lower rep-higher weight program of whole body strength training. The subjects trained four days per week doing leg-press, seated rowing, bench, hamstring curls and front planks on Monday and Thursday. On Tuesday and Friday they did machine-guided shoulder press with bicep curls as a “superset,” triceps extension with wide grip pull downs as a superset and machine-guided knee extension.  

In the study, 24 subjects did 20-25 reps at loads of 30-50% of their maximal strength and 25 subjects did 8-12 reps at 75-90% of their max. Each set was supervised by a trainer and done to volitional, or voluntary, failure. The program lasted for 12 weeks. Loads were increased when the subjects could do more reps than 25 or 12 reps respectively. Strength testing, muscle biopsies, body composition and hormone concentrations in blood were measured before and after training. So, what were the main findings?


“In response to resistance training strength increased for all exercises in both groups, with only the change in bench press being significantly different between groups (High rep: 9kg, Low rep 14kg)….. Lean body mass, fast and slow twitch muscle cross sectional area increased following training with no significant differences between groups. No significant correlations between the acute post-exercise rise in any purported anabolic hormone and the change in strength or hypertrophy were found…….Our data shows that in resistance-trained individuals load, when exercises are performed to volitional failure, does not dictate hypertrophy or, for the most part, strength gains.”

The bottom line: The study found training to failure is more important than the load, per se. In order to increase muscle mass and get stronger, train to failure.

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There are a lot of implications for this work. First, these experienced resistance trained subjects showed some pretty big gains in strength. Second, people worried about injury with heavy loads can use lower loads to failure. Third, for the average person looking to simply get stronger, a simple circuit with the exercises performed to volitional fatigue or “failure” two or three days per week can return pretty impressive results.

This study is also an example of how ideas in exercise training recycle from time to time. In the 1970s there was almost cult like enthusiasm for “Nautilus” machine training that was profiled in Sports Illustrated in 1975. The program featured a limited number of whole body exercises performed on innovative equipment. Training was to failure with workouts lasting less than thirty minutes done three times per week. There was also a lot of focus on eccentric contractions, which essentially means letting the weight down slowly. All of this was developed by an iconoclastic innovator and mechanical genius named Arthur Jones and it worked. Jones took his program to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and under controlled conditions got impressive results that were published in a combination scientific paper/infomercial that included plenty of data but also pictures of football star Dick Butkus and Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula.

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Old school nautilus machines are no longer made, but you can get more information on this approach to training on a website devoted to it and there is a terrific video of late Casey Viator a champion body builder and star pupil of Arthur Jones putting a client through a classic Nautilus style workout. 

So, the next time you do some strength training make sure you fail in the short run to succeed in the long run.