Training to Failure? Or Training to Fail?

Training to failure (TTF) is a weight training term for when someone does repetitions to the point of muscular failure and they can absolutely not produce another repetition during that set. A common belief is that TTF is necessary to see gains in strength and hypertrophy. However, science may disagree with this. Today I will be answering three main questions:

  • Is TTF necessary to see significant gains in hypertrophy?
  • Is TTF necessary to see significant gains in strength?
  • Is TTF in any way detrimental to an athlete?

I will also be explaining the effects of TTF on fiber type transition, satellite cell proliferation, and motor unit recruitment.

1.) Is TTF necessary to see significant gains in hypertrophy? – NO

With respect to hypertrophy, research has shown that there is no significant difference in the magnitude of gains when participating in a training to failure protocol compared to a regular resistance training program (Stone et al. (1996); Riki et al. (2013)). Stone and colleagues (1996) conducted a study that measured cross-sectional area (CSA) of a group that trained to failure and a group that did not train to failure. The study ultimately determined that training to failure is not necessary for optimal gains.  This article also concluded that there is little information to support the practice of training to failure and that consistently training to failure offers no advantages in helping increase muscle mass.

This is also true for muscle damage. It is not necessary to work yourself to the point where you are barely able to walk or bedridden in order to see gains in hypertrophy. Flann et al. (2011) compared an EIMD (Exercise-induced muscle damage) group to a group that still did exercise but did not have muscle damage. They found that there is no significant difference in hypertrophy that occurs as a result of muscle damage from RT . Findings in the Schoenfeld et al. (2012) study further support this evidence. Komulainen et al. (2000) did a study on rats to determine whether greater muscle damage increased muscle hypertrophy compared to less muscle damage. To do this, they compared a group of rats doing concentric only exercises (less muscle damage) to a group of rats doing eccentric only exercises (more muscle damage). The study concluded that the eccentrically trained rats did not have greater increases in muscle hypertrophy than the concentrically trained rats. Therefore, according to current research, increased muscle damage does not contribute to increasing muscular hypertrophy in either humans or rats.

2.) Is TTF necessary to see significant gains in strength? – NO

There is no significant difference in strength gain when following a TTF protocol compared to a not TTF protocol (Drinkwater et al. (2007); Izquierdo et al. (2006)).

Drinkwater and colleagues (2007) did a study that compared strength gains using three programs inducing forced reps: 12 sets of 3 reps, 4 sets of 6 reps, and 8 sets of 3 reps. It was found that multiple sets of forced repetitions do not increase strength more than stopping at failure, even with greater volume with the forced reps. Variability in hormones as a result of different strength training protocols play a big part in the mechanisms of this topic (Izquierdo et al. (2006)).

The same may be true with respect to inducing muscle damage during exercise to increase strength. While research shows that an increase in muscle damage results in increases in strength after recovery (Fernandez-Gonzalo et al. (2014); Roth et al. (1999)), there is a lack of studies that compare a no damage-induced protocol and a damage-induced protocol. However, there are findings that suggest that even a low-intensity protocol that probably doesn’t induce muscle damage produces significant increases in strength (Takada et al. (2012)).

While the principle of overload is important when engaging in resistance training, TTF for every set is not necessary to see gains in strength. It may be beneficial to max out at the last set, but maxing out at every single set is not necessary.

3.) Is TTF in any way detrimental to an athlete?- IT DEPENDS

Depending on the goal and length of the desired training regimen, training to failure can be beneficial or detrimental. Research suggests that performing repetitions to failure is favorable for improving muscular endurance, but due to a decrease in IGF-1, strength, power, and hypertrophic gains are hindered (Izquierdo et al. 2006). TTF may be beneficial for strength/hypertrophy in the first 6 weeks of a program (strength gains mostly due to improvements in the neuromuscular system), but after that 6- week period it could be detrimental to strength, power, and possibly hypertrophy (Willardson et al. 2010).

Overall, research suggests that TTF every set is not harmful to strength or hypertrophy gains up to a 6 week period (Willardson et al. (2010)). After that, TTF becomes detrimental to strength and hypertrophy. It is best to just max out on the last set after that point.

  • For strength, this could be because of a decrease in IGF-1 as a result of TTF (Izquierdo et al. (2006))
  • For hypertrophy, this could be due to an increase in cortisol and a decrease in testosterone (Willardson et al. (2010)).

Overall Take-Home Points

  • TTF may not be necessary to see gains in strength, power or hypertrophy
  • TTF may be detrimental to gains in strength, power or hypertrophy after a period of 6 weeks
  • TTF is beneficial for those looking to increase muscular endurance
  • TTF produces anabolic effects at first, but catabolic effects occur if done for too long

Side Notes- Effects of TTF on:

Fiber type transition

  • The same adaptations occur as a non-TTF protocol.
  • Increase in percentages of type I and type IIa fibers and a decrease in type IIx (Campos et al. (2002); Terzis et al. (2008)).

Satellite cell proliferation

  • The same adaptations occur as a non-TTF protocol- An increase in satellite cell proliferation (Petrella et al. (2008); Hanssen et al. (2013)).

Motor unit recruitment

  • Motor unit thresholds decrease – requires less stimulation ( Harwood et al. (2012) ; Carpentier et al. (2001)).
  • Motor unit recruitment increases, leading to more efficient muscle (Carol et al. (2005)).

Feel free to comment/ ask questions.


B.Harwood, I. Choi, & C. L. Rice. (2012). Reduced motor unit discharge rates of maximal velocity dynamic contractions in response to a submaximal dynamic fatigue protocol.Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(12), 1821-1830.

Campos, G. E. R., Staron, R. S., Luecke, T. J., Wendeln, H. K., Toma, K., Hagerman, F. C., . . . Kraemer, W. J. (2002). Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: Specificity of repetition maximum training zones. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 88(1-2), 50-60.

Carol J. Mottram, Jennifer M. Jakobi, John G. Semmler, & Roger M. Enoka. (2005). Motor-unit activity differs with load type during a fatiguing contraction. Journal of Neurophysiology, 93(3), 1381-1392.

Carpentier, A., Duchateau, J., & Hainaut, K. (2001). Motor unit behaviour and contractile changes during fatigue in the human first dorsal interosseus. The Journal of Physiology, 534(Pt 3), 903-912.

Drinkwater, E. J., Lawton, T. W., McKenna, M. J., Lindsell, R. P., Hunt, P. H., & Pyne, D. B. (2007). Increased number of forced repetitions does not enhance strength development with resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(3), 841-847.

Fernandez-Gonzalo, R., Lundberg, T. R., Alvarez-Alvarez, L., de Paz, J. A., Mittuniversitetet, Fakulteten för humanvetenskap, & Avdelningen för hälsovetenskap. (2014). Muscle damage responses and adaptations to eccentric-overload resistance exercise in men and women. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 114(5), 1075-1084.

Flann, K.L., LaStayo, P.C., McClain, D.A., Hazel, M. & Lindstedt, S.L.  (2011).  Muscle damage and muscle remodeling:  no pain, no gain?  The Journal of Experimental Biology, 214(Pt 4), 674-679.

Hanssen, K. E., Raastad, T., Kvamme, N. H., Nilsen, T. S., Rønnestad, B., Ambjørnsen, I. K., . . . Institutionen för hälsovetenskap och medicin. (2013). The effect of strength training volume on satellite cells, myogenic regulatory factors, and growth factors. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(6), 728-739.

John K. Petrella, Jeong-su Kim, David L. Mayhew, James M. Cross, & Marcas M. Bamman. (2008). Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: A cluster analysis. Journal of Applied Physiology, 104(6), 1736-1742.

Izquierdo, M., Asiain, X., Gorostiaga, E.M., Ibañez, J., González-Badillo, J.J., Häkkinen, K. . . . Altadill, A. (2006). Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains. Journal of Applied Physiology,100(5), 1647-1656.

Komulainen, J., Kalliokoski, R., Koskinen, S. O., Drost, M. R., Kuipers, H., & Hesselink, M. K. (2000). Controlled lengthening or shortening contraction-induced damage is followed by fiber hypertrophy in rat skeletal muscle. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(2), 107-112.

Riki Ogasawara, Jeremy P Loenneke, Robert S Thiebaud, & Takashi Abe. (2013). Low-load bench press training to fatigue results in muscle hypertrophy similar to high-load bench press training. International Journal of Clinical Medicine, 4(2), 114-121.

Roth, S.M., Martel, G.F., Ivey, F.M., Lemmer, J.T., Tracy, B.L., Hurlbut, D.E. . . . Rogers, M.A. (1999). Ultrastructural muscle damage in young vs. older men after high-volume, heavy-resistance strength training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86(6), 1833-1840.

Schoenfeld, B. J. (2012). Does exercise-induced muscle damage play a role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy?Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(5), 1441-1453.

Stone, M. H., Jeff Chandler, T., Conley, M. S., Kramer, J. B., & Stone, M. E. (1996). Training to muscular failure: Is it necessary? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 18(3), 44.

Takada, S., Morita, N., Horiuchi, M., Kinugawa, S., Tsutsui, H., Okita, K. . . . Hirabayashi, K. (2012). Low-intensity exercise can increase muscle mass and strength proportionally to enhanced metabolic stress under ischemic conditions. Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(2), 199-205.

Terzis, G., Stratakos, G., Manta, P., & Georgiadis, G. (2008). Throwing performance after resistance training and detraining.Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(4), 1198-1204.

Willardson, J. M., Norton, L., & Wilson, G. (2010). Training to failure and beyond in mainstream resistance exercise programs. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(3), 21-29.

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  1. I think people WAY overestimate the importance of training to failure . In my eyes it should be used as a tool every now and again. Training to failure constantly will just fry your CNS ! Great stuff ! Very informative !

  2. I guess its more what you eat and believe me its genetics also as a rat can never be as strong as lion and a lion can never be as nimble as rat similarly everyone can’t be huge yes we do have supplement which produce huge human but they are not safe and have long term repercussions, I feel naturally one should try to work hard but then everyone has limit

    1. It may or may not matter what you eat to gain strength or hypertrophy. I have been reading a lot about intermittent fasting and it’s effects on strength and hypertrophy and will be posting about that in the near future. True, genetics do play a part in how big and strong a person can get and also on their fiber type composition. While your reference to rats and lions is interesting, it is also worth noting that rats can become stronger rats and lions can become more nimble lions. This article is simply to provide scientific evidence as to why TTF may be detrimental to strength, power and hypertrophy and to help those who may not know that. I do agree with you that supplements are generally trash but will be going into more detail with that in a future blog. Thanks for reading!

      1. Most welcome , I do agree that TTF is injurious as our motive is to be fit physically and emotionally but I guess psychological aspect is that TTF gives you higher level of cortisol which leads to aggression

      2. True that TTF increases cortisol levels. I wasn’t sure if it lead to aggression or not so I looked into it. In a study by Popma and colleagues (2007) they looked at the relationship between cortisol, testosterone and aggression in juvenile delinquent males. They found that an increase in cortisol levels actually moderated the negative behavioral effects of testosterone and that it made them less aggressive compared to low cortisol. Here is the study citation if you are interested in reading it:
        Popma, A., Vermeiren, R., Geluk, C. A. M. L., Rinne, T., van den Brink, W., Knol, D. L., . . . Doreleijers, T. A. H. (2007). Cortisol moderates the relationship between testosterone and aggression in delinquent male adolescents. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 405-411.

        …I personally think that a lot of muscle heads who act aggressive either do it because of their ego or because they might be on steroids which could throw off their hormones and lead to negative psychological behaviors.

      3. Yes I agree to an extent as cortisol basically is a negative hormone which is related to stress but then stress can decapitate in both ways depression or aggression ,regarding ego its not actually ego ,its kind of aggression which I agree is due to steroids .

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