It is generally old school thinking to adhere to the idea of taking every set to failure or you won’t make gains. However, it is also easy to look at the dude in the gym doing 5-pound curls with 4 sets of 8 going nowhere near failure and think, is that all it takes?
Today I will be breaking down how hard we should be training in order to make them gains!
Alright, first off, does it make sense for us to simply move some weight around and *poof* we grow muscle? No. Of course, there needs to be a certain level of effort.
What may be slightly less obvious is if we need to be pushing our sets to all-out failure. Is that the level of difficulty we need to stimulate our muscles for growth? That is also not the case.
The answer is somewhere between the middle of this statement, and closer to going to failure.
Generally, sets need to be done within 4 reps of failure. What does this look like?
Consider a barbell curl. Imagine we know exactly how many reps we will be able to do with, let’s say 50 pounds. Let’s say we will be able to complete 10 repetitions with good form, and we will reach muscular failure for that movement, with good technique, on the 11th rep.
That means that 10 reps left 0 reps in reserve, or more commonly stated, 0 reps in the tank. So leaving, at most, 4 reps in the tank to make a set effective for muscle growth would mean our working sets should be done with a minimum of 6 reps, for this example.
Of course, we can do sets with 7, 8, 9, and 10 reps in them as well.
You may be thinking, 4 reps in the tank… that seems like a very easy set. Well, think about a set you have done where you went to complete failure while using 0 breakdowns in technique. Chances are, you experienced a high degree of “good muscle pain” while completing that set. By good muscle pain, I basically mean the burn.
I am also betting that by rep 6, the movement was slowing down significantly and you were starting to feel the burn a bit.
If you haven’t done a set like this, try it to get the knowledge of what proper failure looks like.
So it is when people allow technique breakdowns to occur that the reps that get closer and closer to failure actually feel easier than they should. So naturally, the 6th rep in that set would feel pretty easy if you let your technique breakdown.
Take out that technique breakdown and the 6th rep will feel much different.
Not To Failure?
You may have noticed that I haven’t much-mentioned training to failure. Like, actually taking a set to failure to grow muscle. It is the hardest a set can properly be done, so isn’t it important? Well, you don’t really gain much benefit from taking a set to failure than going 2 reps from failure, for example.
What training to failure does do, is it creates a lot more fatigue. So going to failure on a regular basis seems like a poor use of recovery ability compared to the benefit we get from it.
We only have so much ability to recover, and when we exceed that on a regular and consistent basis, things tend to go downhill.
Should you never train to failure? No, it does have some applications. Maybe you are at the very end of a hypertrophy block, and you’ll be taking a deload or off week before your next training block. There isn’t much harm in pushing to failure to extract the last bit of benefit you can from your sets before your body will recover and realize the gains you have stimulated for.
If doing this, obviously you need to structure it in a way that after your first exercise, the rest of your workout isn’t trashed, and that you’re not going so hard on the early sets in an exercise that you can only do like 2 proper reps in subsequent sets.
Or, maybe you find pushing yourself and doing really hard sets is fun. Consider going to failure occasionally throughout a training block, maybe on the last set of isolation based exercises that are towards the end of your workout or the last exercise of that workout for a specific muscle group.
This way you get some of that fun feeling, and you still get some of the minimal benefits of failure training compared to just under failure training, without overusing this training technique.
Well everyone, hopefully, this article has been able to give you some good insight on how hard to train for them gains! Do you have questions remaining, or have I sparked some new questions for you? Leave them in the comment section and I will be sure to respond!
Take care y’all!
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Until Next Time,
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