Training to Failure The Smart Way

hypertrophy intensity strength volume Jul 15, 2022

Edited By: Danielle Abel, MSN, RN, CSCS

There's a vast amount of evidence that training to failure and training close to failure can maximize muscle hypertrophy; we did the heavy lifting for you and put together a summary of the evidence to help you set up your training routine to be the most optimal. 

Principle #1: Can maximize hypertrophy without failure

  • Study 1: PMID 34100789 - Resistance training with different velocity loss thresholds induce similar changes in strength and hypertrophy
    • 10 participants with at least 2 years of resistance training
      • Unilateral training on the leg press and leg extension 
        • 1 control leg 
        • 1 experimental leg
          • Group A: 15% velocity loss (farther from failure)
            • equated to 5-10 RIR (reps in reserve)
          • Group B: 30% velocity loss (closer to failure)
            • equated to 1-4 RIR (reps in reserve)
    •  Interesting point: the volume of work was equal between the 2 groups, whereas the intensity is what was manipulated  
    • The conclusion: there was no difference between strength and hypertrophy gains when velocity loss prescriptions keep sets farther (that 5-10 RIR range) or closer to failure (that 1-4 RIR range) 
    • This study design is very common, and there have been other studies that have shown similar outcomes 
      • One such example: Gantois, P., Nakamura, F. Y., Alcazar, J., de Sousa Fortes, L., Pareja-Blanco, F., & de Souza Fonseca, F. (2021, June 29). The effects of different intra-set velocity loss thresholds on lower-limb adaptations to resistance training in young adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis.

Key point: The current overall literature shows that you can maximize hypertrophy while training at least a few reps shy of failure

Practical Application

Let's consider the compound lifts of a full body training session with RIR incorporated:

  • Deadlift: 4x8 at 65% 1RM for the first set, 67% 1RM for the second set, 70% 1RM for the third set, and 72% 1RM for the fourth set
    • RIR targets to correlate with the above are
      • Set 1: RIR 7
      • Set 2: RIR 6
      • Set 3: RIR 5
      • Set 4: RIR 3
  • Bench Press: 4x8 at 65%, 67%, 70%, & 72% again
    • Set 1: RIR 7
    • Set 2: RIR 6
    • Set 3: RIR 5
    • Set 4: RIR 3 

It's important to recognize that we need to manage fatigue in a program while also progressively overloading. So starting a program at a lower level of intensity is helpful in managing fatigue while also giving plenty of room for progression. 

Principle #2: Accessory movements should be closer to failure

In comparison to our main compound lifts, there isn't as much central nervous system fatigue associated with isolation movements, especially those with less muscular stretch. 

  • Study 2: PMID 31895290 - Muscle failure promotes greater muscle hypertrophy in low-load but not in high-load resistance training
    • When doing lower load accessory movements, it's probably important to work closer to the level of failure (pick up at 5:01)
  • Let's look at the accessory movements of that same training day we reviewed above
    • Single Leg - Leg Press: 2x8 with an RIR target of 3-4
    • Cable Row: 2x10 with an RIR target of 1-3
    • Bench Dips: 2x12 with an RIR target of 1-2
    • Hanging Leg Raise: 2x20  

You can see here that the accessory intensity was programmed closer to failure with this concept in mind. A progression of this same program would include taking these accessory movements all the way to failure near the end of the training block for at least 1 or 2 sets. 

  • Since these movements are accessories, they won't cause as much fatigue accumulation in the central nervous system
  • Training them closer to failure will promote maximum hypertrophy opportunities 

Ready for help implementing these concepts? Check out our Program Design 101 course here.

Principle #3: Consider taking the last set only to failure

  • Study 3: PMID 34941608 - Effect of the Repetitions-In-Reserve Resistance Training Strategy on Bench Press Performance, Perceived Effort, and Recovery in Trained Men

    • Well-trained men with an average bench press of 290lbs
      • Group A: Performed 5 sets, with all 5 sets to failure
      • Group B: Performed 4 sets, with only 1 set to failure with the other 3 sets leaving 3-4 reps in reserve
        • Pros: Performed on well-trained men
        • Cons: Not a long term study on strength and hypertrophy outcomes, measured things like creatine kinase and trying to hypothesize how it would affect things like recovery & fatigue
          • Albeit it wasn't statistically significant, creatine kinase was higher in the men that took all sets to failure in comparison to the group who only took 1 set to failure
            • Meaning the all sets to failure group had higher levels of fatigue accumulation
      • The applicability here is that it is probably helpful to keep most sets shy of failure or maybe only one set to failure or possibly sets to failure as you're close to your deload week
      • Well trained lifters who are training ongoingly throughout the year can benefit from this principle most knowing that pushing intensity ongoingly can produce levels of fatigue that are difficult to recovery from long term
      • Well trained lifters could strategically take 1-2 sets to failure as they approach their deload week 


Principle #4: Inverse relationship between volume and proximity to failure

For example, if you're training low volume in a strength block you can probably take a larger amount of your sets to failure because the volume isn't very high. Powerlifters are a good example of this with higher intensity competition movements with high intensity, but low volume. 

Compared to a hypertrophy program, a strength program could use 0-2 RIR more consistently, whereas the higher volume muscle building program should likely be closer to 3-5 RIR the majority of the time. 

With hypertrophy programs, you want to make sure you can recover adequately and manage fatigue, so it's important not to have a high volume & high-intensity approach all of the time with your compound and accessory movements. 

For strength programs, you may want to have your competition-specific movements higher intensity, whereas your accessory or technique work is lower intensity and higher volume. 

This program that we reviewed above may actually in fact, be flipped if it were programmed with the intended outcome of strength. So instead of having lower intensity compound movements, you would have higher intensity compound movements. For the accessory work, instead of higher intensity movements, you would have lower intensity accessory movements. 

Download The Free Guide: 5 Steps to Write a Strength and Conditioning Program to help you implement the concepts reviewed above. You can download it here.  

Or if you're ready to learn more, our Program Design 101 Course teaches you exactly how to organize an annual training plan and provides sport-specific examples, and even includes done for you programming templates by phase. Click the link here to check it out.




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