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 who 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 bed ridden 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) 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 increase in 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 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 is not necessary to see gains in strength, power or hypertrophy
- You should max out the last set of exercise, not every single set.
- 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
- 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
- Same adaptations occur as a non TTF protocol- 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.
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