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Is Training to Failure a Safe and Effective Method for Improving Athletic Performance?

Khamoui, Andy V MS, CSCS1; Willardson, Jeffrey PhD, CSCS2; Dawes, Jay MS, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, FNSCA2

Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 4 - p 19-20
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31821a7b38
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TRAINING TO FAILURE IS A POPULAR TRAINING METHOD USED TO IMPROVE MUSCULAR STRENGTH, SIZE, AND ENDURANCE. AT THIS TIME, THE VALUE OF THIS TRAINING STRATEGY FOR IMPROVING ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE IS A TOPIC OF CONSIDERABLE DEBATE. IN THIS COLUMN, THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS AND DETRIMENTS OF THIS TRAINING METHOD WILL BE PRESENTED.

1Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida; and 2Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois

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PRO

Training to failure involves the inability to perform a lift beyond the sticking point as a result of fatigue induced by previous muscular work (i.e., consecutive repetitions) (1). Although failure may be achieved in a few repetitions using high loads (∼95% 1 repetition maximum [RM]), light to moderate loads (6RM-15RM) or percentages of these loads (e.g., 80% 10RM) are typically used when training to failure (1,3,4). In practice, this will require either partner assistance from a spotter (1) or load reductions (3) to overcome the sticking point on the terminal repetitions of a set. This approach to resistance training has been and continues to be used among lifters of varying training levels with the intended purpose of acquiring favorable adaptations, particularly muscle hypertrophy (5).

Although enhanced muscle size has commonly been the desired outcome among practitioners of training to failure (e.g., bodybuilders), evidence exists supporting its application for improved strength, power, and muscular endurance, characteristics considered more relevant to athletes. For instance, Izquierdo et al. (3) assessed the impact of an 11-week resistance training program using repetitions to failure versus nonfailure on strength, power, and muscular endurance in national-caliber athletes. Volume was equated between the failure and the nonfailure groups; however, the group performing sets to failure used a set and repetition design that required load reductions when the athlete paused for more than 1 second or could not overcome the sticking point on terminal repetitions of a set. Both protocols improved strength (1RM bench press and 1RM squat) and concentric power (bench press and squat at 65% 1RM) to a similar degree. However, muscular endurance performance on the bench press at 75% 1RM was significantly greater in the nonfailure group.

Another study examined the effect of a 6-week upper-body training program with sets to failure or nonfailure on 6RM bench press strength and 6RM bench throw power in elite junior athletes (1). Total volume was also equated between the failure and the nonfailure groups; however, the failure group performed a higher number of repetitions per set (6 versus 3) but fewer total sets (4 versus 8) such that assistance by a spotter would be required on terminal repetitions. The investigators reported significantly greater gains in 6RM bench press strength and 40-kg bench throw mean power after training to failure compared with the nonfailure group. Taken together, both studies indicate that short-term resistance training (<11 weeks) using repetitions to failure has the potential to elicit positive performance adaptations.

It is important to note that among the limited investigations controlling for total volume, those that did not show a clear benefit of training to failure over nonfailure still reported similar performance improvements in muscular strength and power (2,4). Very few studies to the author's knowledge have reported substantial performance decrements relative to a nonfailure program. In other words, a convincing body of evidence against the training to failure approach has not been documented to the degree where it can be advised against outright.

The studies that reported augmented performance after training to failure indicates that it can be used favorably. Obtaining positive adaptations with training to failure likely relates to its application and manipulation within a training program. An excellent review by Willardson et al. (5) addresses training to failure because it relates to program design. The authors state that repetitions to failure should be performed for a 6-week cycle and then alternated with a nonfailure training period of equal duration. The intended purpose of such an approach would be to maximize benefits from training to failure while minimizing injury risk and overtraining. It can also serve as a method of introducing variation into an athlete's training program.

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REFERENCES

1. Drinkwater EJ, Lawton TW, Lindsell RP, Pyne DB, Hunt PH, and McKenna MJ. Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes. J Strength Cond Res 19: 382-388, 2005.
2. Drinkwater EJ, Lawton TW, McKenna MJ, Lindsell RP, Hunt PH, and Pyne DB. Increased number of forced repetitions does not enhance strength development with resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 21: 841-847, 2007.
3. Izquierdo M, Ibanez J, Gonzalez-Badillo JJ, Hakkinen K, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, French DN, Eslava J, Altadill A, Asiain X, and Gorostiaga EM. Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus non-failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains. J Appl Physiol 100: 1647-1656, 2006.
4. Stone MH, Chandler TJ, Conley MS, Kramer JB, and Stone ME. Training to muscular failure: Is it necessary? Strength Cond J 18: 44-48, 1996.
5. Willardson JM, Emmett J, Oliver JA, and Bressel E. Effect of short-term failure versus nonfailure training on lower body muscular endurance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 3: 279-293, 2008.
6. Willardson JM, Norton L, and Wilson G. Training to failure and beyond in mainstream resistance exercise programs. Strength Cond J 32(3): 21-29, 2010.
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