Doing sets to failure, what is it and why it is important

Many people in the fitness society love the technique of training to failure. Plenty weight lifters really rely on it to achieve muscle growth. One of the most famous powerlifters, Arnold Schwarzenegger, also set the tone for this by using the technique himself. Some even believe that
if you aren’t doing sets to failure you don’t provide proper stimulation for your muscles to grow.

What’s the muscle failure?

To put it simple, muscle failure is the point where you cannot do more repetitions for your muscles just won’t contract. To go deeper into this, while you are doing the set you are stimulating the muscle motor units to work and when you reach the point of muscle failure all
motor units are recruited in the motion and fast twitch fibers are stimulated.

How do the muscles get bigger (hypertrophy)?

In order for your muscles to get bigger the muscle fibers in them should increase in volume.
According to scientists, metabolic stress and muscle damage are two of the culprits of muscular hypertrophy. But here we’ll actually talk about another one of the culprits – the mechanical loading. Mechanical loading is a specific stimulus. It’s how great the force the muscle fiber
exerts is. That stimulus is what makes the volume of the fibers to increase. Still, there is another aspect of this – in order for muscle hypertrophy to occur the force should be greater that a specific threshold. What’s important here is that in order to achieve such force the fibers should be contracting at slow speed which can be achieved when your muscles are contracting against heavy loads and/or during fatiguing conditions.

Benefits of the muscle failure

Muscle failure allows you to stimulate the hypertrophy to a maximum level and you can apply this technique to every exercise. So you can easily implement it in your training regimen.

It increases the production of lactic acid in the muscle more than if you aren’t training to failure.
And, according to some studies, greater amounts of lactic acid produced in the muscles are really important for the growth of the muscles.
Also, when you get near the end of the set the small muscle fibers will be fatigued and if you continue to do the exercise the nervous system will have to start using the larger fibers which are faster-twitching. But this has a disadvantage – when you reach this stage, the nervous system will be fatigued and you’ll probably have what’s known as “central fatigue”. Thus, you’ll have a much lower capacity for the next sets.

Cons of the muscle failure

When you are doing sets to failure you are fatiguing not only the target muscles but the whole body, the central nervous system is also affected. If you don’t use this technique properly, you can inhibit your short-term and long-term recovery and due to this your growth can be inhibited.

According to some research this type of training, if used in any set, will increase your resting levels of cortisol (a catabolic hormone) and will suppress some anabolic growth factors. Since, if you do every set to failure you risk hindering your long-term muscle growth.

A study in Spain has shown that training to failure increases the adenosine monophosphate (AMP) much more that non-failure training – this elevation indicates that the cells are depleted of energy. When there isn’t enough energy in the cells this lowers the synthesis of proteins.
Thus, if you wish to use this technique you should properly and wisely incorporate the failure training in your sessions.

When to do sets to failure?

  • On exercises on which you cannot use much weight. If you are weaker you can’t put as much weight as someone stronger but in this case you can use the training to failure technique.
  • When you plan to do only one set. Well, we all know that one properly done set can be much better than several poorly done set or zero sets. Sometimes we don’t have the energy and the time needed for a longer work-out. But in this case you can easily maximize the benefit of your one set by doing it to failure.
  • On the last set of the exercise. When you reach the last set of the exercise you’ll have already done some sets of it and won’t have to save yourself for further sets of the same one so you can easily do this last set to failure (unless the exercise is a really taxing one).
  • On small muscles and exercises. If you train some of your small muscles to failure this won’t put too much pressure on your central nervous system so you can easily train to failure in this cases (still, don’t overdo it).
  • Before a deload. When you’ve planned to take a break for some time, then you can let yourself train to failure on the last sets in the training session before the deload.

What should you really remember?

  • Doing sets to failure can be an anabolic process. Still, if you do it too often, it will actually be a catabolic exercise (which means it won’t lead to muscle gain but to muscle loss).
  • If you use this techniques, you should let yourself rest for an appropriate amount of time (aka you should rest more than you usually do). Remember, your body needs to recover itself. And keep in mind that failure training doesn’t go well with drinking and partying.After using the technique you need to provide yourself with adequate amount of sleep and proper nutrition. If you plan to go drinking and partying after the work-out it’s better to skip using the ‘sets to failure’ technique.
  • Don’t use the technique on every set. It’s best to do it on the last set of your exercise or on the specifically planned for hypertrophy work-out day.
  • This is a powerful technique but also taxing on the body. Remember to use it correctly and to not do it too much.


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