Is Training to Failure Necessary for Muscle Growth?
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Never Go to Failure (Snap City)
We’ve all heard that going to failure is the best way to force muscular and strength adaptations in the body. And, while going to failure with a heavy weight certainly accomplishes this, it also weakens the connective tissues and makes muscles prone to rupture. There are some exceptions to this rule though. Time under tension (TUT) and burn-out sets seem to place greater stress on muscular tissue while minimizing tendon and ligament strain. This makes going to failure using these methods safe and effective for maximizing development of the red muscle fibers.
There are two main reasons failure sets with a heavy weight, say one to six repetitions, cause injury. First, form breakdown usually occurs the nearer you are to failure. When we use 85-100% of our one-rep max with improper form it’s asking for an injury to happen. Immediately stop if you feel your form breaking down and take a moment to regain your composure before continuing. A single near-maximal set is all any lifter needs for developing strength.
The second reason failing permits injury is simple: we’re placing a maximal strain on micro-torn muscles. In a six-rep set with a maximal load, the fourth and fifth reps cause small tears to the muscle. Then, the final rep is placing incredible stress on these tears. Imagine your muscle is a rope with a carry capacity of 500-pounds. Could this rope support a 400-pound weight? Of course, it could. But what if the rope were frayed? It could easily tear clean through. You don’t want your muscle to be that rope.
My suggestion is to either perform high repetition sets, TUT sets, or stop short of failure in the low rep range. If you could complete five repetitions with perfect form, a sixth with faltering form, and maybe a seventh with mediocre form then I’d think it wise to stop on the fourth or fifth rep. It’s tempting to go all-out and push yourself as hard as you can, I get it. But remember that muscle tears take weeks or months to heal and can sometimes cause permanent damage. Playing it safe from the start and going slow is the wise alternative.
Bodybuilders would most benefit from avoiding the low rep-range altogether. However, if your sport necessitates strength (i.e. powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, football, wrestling, etc.) then there are some great tried and true ways to safely get stronger. Popular programs such as 5x5, 5/3/1, 3x5, 5x3, and 10x3 are good, but sub-optimal and often dangerous, especially for the beginner lifter. Below are workout templates designed for novice and intermediate strength athletes.
Before getting into the programs, I think it’s important to lay out some warm-up and cool-down strategies to be proactive about injury prevention and muscle recovery. Before lifting any significant weight, always do some light cardio to get the heart rate up and get some good oxygenated blood flowing. You could alternatively practice deep breathing if, for whatever reason, some injury prevents you from doing cardio. Perform a full-body dynamic stretching routine, going nice and slow, before you start the workout.
After completing your workout, do more dynamic stretches and massage out your muscles. If you can’t reach a muscle (your back, for example) then roll out using a tennis ball. This will help get the lactic acid out of the muscles and will also promote blood circulation. Take a cold shower or bath after your massage with a natural NSAID like ginger, turmeric, or hemp seed to reduce swelling. You should always do some static stretches several hours following your workout, and never immediately after.
Novice program (<6 months lifting)
Frequency and volume will start high to get the lifter experience with each lift. Intensity remains low during this period to avoid injury. Train every other day, rotating between workout (A) and workout (B). All percentages are based off your one-rep max (40% x 12 means you’d use 40% of your one-rep max for 12 repetitions). Every 16 total workout sessions increase the weight by 10 pounds on upper-body movements and 20 pounds on lower body movements. On military press and strict EZ curls only increase the weight by 5 pounds.
- Bench press 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
- Military press 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
- Barbell row 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
- Weighted sit-up 3 sets of 10 with a weight you could get for 15 reps
- Low-bar squat 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
- Deadlift 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
- Lateral pull 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
- Strict EZ curl 40% x 12, 50% x 10, 60% x 8, 70% x 6, 80% x 4
If you’re unsure what your one-rep max is then use a conservative estimate.
Intermediate program (6-24 months lifting)
Workout frequency is every other day, just like with the novice program. However, intensity is higher with more accessory movements. All percentages are based off your one-rep max (40% x 12 means to use 40% of your one-rep max for 12 repetitions). Every 16 total workouts increase the weight on upper body movements by 5 pounds and lower body movements by 10 pounds.
- Incline press 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Bench press 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Flat DB fly 3x10
- Weighted sit-up 3x10
- Low-bar squat 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Leg press 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Hamstring curl 3x10
- Calf raises 3x10
- Military press 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Upright row* 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Rear DB fly 3x10
- Weighted sit-up 3x10
- Deadlift 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Barbell row 50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 2, 90% x 1
- Lateral pull 3x10
- Calf raises 3x10
*Upright rows can be dangerous when using certain hand placements, ranges of motion, and if the shoulders are impinged. To safely perform an upright row, keep your hands an inch or so apart on the barbell and lean back slightly as you pull your hands up to the bottom of your sternum. If your hands go above the sternum you risk damage to the rotator cuffs, so be careful. An alternative exercise would be DB lateral raise if you prefer a safer, albeit less practical movement.
As you gain experience, you’ll develop your own strategies for injury prevention and programming. But for most athletes, these tactics will be immensely beneficial to make progress while avoiding sprains and strains.
Written by Alex Schaffer