The aim of this brief review is to examine training to failure for muscle hypertrophy. Will you build muscle faster if you train to failure? I wanted to find out. My hypothesis was that training to failure did lead to small but better gains, at least in some populations.
I haven’t carried out a systematic review. But here’s what I found:
Studies That Found Greater Hypertrophy When Training to Failure:
Gieβsing et al. (2016): lifters who trained to failure gained more lean mass than lifters who did not. Volume was similar between groups, but low (just 1 set), and the study has a number of limitations (there was substantial drop out and body composition was measured using BIA).
Goto et al. (2005): RPE 5 vs RPE 10. RPE 10 won. All other variables the same.
Schott et al. (1995): greater gains in hypertrophy when training was carried out to failure.
Studies That Found Similar Gains:
Martorelli et al. (2017) found no differences between repetitions to failure and repetitions not to failure when volume was equalized, although gains (17.5% vs 8.5%) and effect size were (not significantly) higher in the repetitions to failure group (0.31 vs. 0.13). A limitation of that study is that subjects were untrained young women.
Sampson and Groeller (2016): similar gains between groups. However, in that study, the group not training to failure actually performed one set to failure at the end of every week, confounding results.
Helms et al. (2018) found similar gains from training close to (RPE 8) or far from (RPE 6) failure. Note that they studied resistance-trained males, and the 8-week study may not have been long enough to see differences in these subjects.
Nóbrega et al. (2018) found similar gains in strength and hypertrophy after 12 weeks in beginners training to muscle failure or volitional interruption.
Training to Failure for Muscle Hypertrophy: The Count
So the final count is:
3 in favour of failure
4 similar gains
Studies on both sides have a number of limitations. Overall, the evidence is mixed.
A Tentative Conclusion on Training to Failure
At this point, a tentative conlusion may be that:
Failure may be superior when:
– Volume is low
– Recreational lifters
– Single-joint exercises
Failure probably isn’t superior when:
– Volume is high
– Well-trained lifters
– Compound exercises
With that said, since the evidence is mixed, we cannot conclude with certainty. If failure is superior in some cases, the benefit is likely to be small.