Seven Time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the movie Pumping Iron, “Muscle growth does not take place until the repetitions are taken place the point of failure.” Most trainers and athletes have advocated that repetition failure to failure is an essential characteristic of resistance training regimen. To date there is only a single exercise study reporting training to failure may lead to greater increases in strength and hypertrophy. Two studies have caused controversy in the resistance training research realm when experimental groups were matched for total work, both Folland et al. (2002) and Izquierdo et al. (2006) observed isometric force production, single repetition maximum strength, local muscle endurance, and explosive power gains were similar regardless of the level of local muscle fatigue induced by the resistance training regimen. Some researchers have advocated that taking every set to complete failure leads to long term overtraining.
There has not been a training to failure study for some time, so researchers decided to investigate the subject once again.
To compare the increases in muscular strength, size, and neural activation between three resistance training programs in which the participants always trained to muscular failure or predominantly not to muscular failure. 28 previously untrained males, who
first undertook a 4-week period of standardized resistance training to muscular failure before being designated as either high or low responders and then randomly allocated into one of 3 different groups. All groups performed a 12-week resistance training program comprising 4 sets with 85% of 1RM for the elbow flexors, training 3 times per week. The 3 treatment groups were differentiated in two ways: (a) the speed in which the elbow flexion extension movement was performed, and, (b) the number of completed repetitions within each set.
The failure group performed all sets to muscular failure (typically 6 repetitions in each set) and trained using a 2-second concentric and a 2- second eccentric muscle action. The fast-concentric not to-failure group trained without going to muscular failure (4 repetitions per set) and trained using a maximal concentric and a 2-second eccentric muscle action. Finally, the fast-not-to-failure group trained without going to muscular failure (4 repetitions per set) and trained using a maximal concentric and a maximal eccentric muscle action.
Both not-to-failure groups performed 1 set per week to failure in order to ascertain the loading for the subsequent week. At the end of the study, the researchers reported that although all 3 groups increased muscular strength in the arms, there were no significant differences between groups. Similarly, they reported that although all 3 groups increased muscle size in the arms, there were no significant differences between groups.
The researchers concluded that training to muscular failure is not necessary to achieve gains in strength and size.
This research is really interesting in that the groups not training to failure make similar gains to the group training to complete failure, but there are a few things to point out. 1.) The subjects that were tested were untrained and its not known if the study had used trained subjects would their have been a different outcome. 2.) The study investigated this type of training in the arms, would the outcome be different for the legs?
Folland JP, Irish CS, Roberts JC, Tarr JE, Jones DA. Fatigue is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains during resistance training. Br J Sports Med 2002: 36: 370–374.
Izquierdo M, Ibanez J, Gonzalez-Badillo JJ, Hakkinen K, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, French DN, Eslava J, Altadill A, Asiain X, Gorostiaga EM. Differential effects of strength
training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength and muscle power gains. J Appl Physiol 2006: 100: 1647–1656.
Drinkwater, EJ, Lawton, TW, Lindsell, RP, Pyne, DB, Hunt, PH, McK
enna, MJ. 2005. Training Leading to Repetition Failure Enhances Bench Press Strength Gains in Elite Junior Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 19(2): 382
Sampson, J.A, and H. Groeller. “Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength?” Scand J Med Sci Sports (2015): Ahead of print.
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