Sunday, March 16, 2008

Training to Failure: Is it truly necessary?
A brief review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Willardson suggests otherwise. A review of the literature outlines several factors to consider when training to failure. In this review failure is defined as "the point during a resistance exercise set when muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to control a given load". The review reveals the following findings regarding the use of training to failure.
  • Optimal improvements in muscle performance occur when planned variations are implemented into the training program of advanced lifters
  • Training to failure may provide sufficient stimulus to push past an existing training plateau through greater activation of motor units and a larger endocrine response
  • Training to failure may be associated with increased risk for injury

Based on the above findings, Willardson makes the following recommendations:

  • Training to failure should not be practiced for extended periods of time in a training cycle due to increased risk for overuse injury and potentially decreasing growth enhancing endocrine response
  • Training to failure should be incorporated conservatively throughout the planned training cycle of advanced lifters and could be useful in pushing through a plateau
  • There is no reason for recreational lifters or older adults to lift to failure
  • Strength and conditioning professionals should consider the goals of the individual when designing an optimal load for their client

The review concludes there is more research needing to be done regarding the issue of training to failure on performance measures such as muscular power, hypertrophy, and local endurance. Willardson states there remains a great deal we have to learn regarding the precise physiological mechanisms at play regarding the outcomes of training to failure.

Willardson, J. (2007). The Application of Training to Failure in Periodized Multiple-Set Resistance Programs. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(2), 628-631.


  1. Rod, that study goes against the recent recommendations of the combined efforts of the CDC, ACSM, AGS, AHA, ACS and NIH for older adults.

  2. Selena thanks for posting that link. However, the guidlines listen in that pdf do not indicate older adults should train to failure at all. Perhaps you are misreading the guidelines.

    There is a big difference between the intensity of exercise defined as percentage of 1RM and training to failure.

    The guideline you posted advocates training at a percentage of 1RM (in this case ranging from 40-60%). This equates to a repetition range of ~12-20 repetitions which is not very intense at all. The guidelines from the CDC etc...makes an even stronger case for the JSC review.

    More importantly to your point, it does NOT indicate older adults should train to failure anywhere in those guidelines. Can you please ellaborate on how you came to this conclusion? Thanks.

  3. In your original post, the definition of failure: In this review failure is defined as "the point during a resistance exercise set when muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to control a given load".

    A 10 RM means that the person is only able to perform 10 repetitions at that resistance and would not be able to perform the 11th repetition correctly. When there is a range of numbers before RM, the intensity is to fatigue.

    You mentioned the first ranges that were 40-60% of the 1 RM. Those are not to fatigue, but if you take a look a little further down that chart, you'll see the intensity is to fatigue.

    It is advocated that the healthy older adults CAN perform strength training to fatigue.

  4. Selena. I think we likely agree in principle. The distinction between fatigue and failure in my mind may be where we see things slightly differently.

    The definitions of a 10RM not allowing an eleventh rep is a good point. However you also must realize that the RM charts are guidelines. A 10RM weight isn't always the same as a 10RM effort.

    Example: Let's say 100lbs is my 10RM. My first of three sets consists of 10 reps to concentric failure. My second set with the same 100 pounds (my 10RM) is likely to produce an 6-8RM effort due to fatigue. A good 10RM effort may require me reducing the load to ~90 pounds to make the 10RM weight match my 10RM effort.

    Numerous authors in exercise science have had difficulties reaching a consensus as to these terms. I agree with the findings in this review that training to true "failure" should be used sparingly.

    In this largely sedentary population that often benefits by ANY well executed exercise plan, the debate is splitting hairs IMHO.

    About 30% of my patient population falls under the category of older adult. Believe me. (or ask them!) They routinely train to fatigue as the guidelines recommend and end up with significant gains in strength.

    I simply don't think consistently training to concentric or eccentric "failure" is what the CDC guidelines have in mind. If you choose to do this periodically, who knows. Consistently? I don't think so in light of effective and safer alternatives.

    Good stuff!

  5. I believe I come from "old school." I use the terms "failure" and "fatigue" to actually mean the same thing. The reason the person can't control the resistance is due to fatigue. The rest period between sets is a factor as to how someone performs the 2nd and 3rd sets IF the person is exercising to failure with more than one set of repetitions.

    With healthy elderly, I exercise to failure by the definition provided in your original post (which was what I was taught as fatigue and tied to the overload principle).

    When an article discusses a "training cycle" and "advanced lifters," the target audience will be those weightlifting for physique (in my opinion). Those that weightlift for physique tend to train to failure, yes, but their failure occurs much sooner, in my mind - like within 1-3 repetitions. Training to failure at high resistance and very low repetitions can definitely cause injury.

    You also have to realize that your original post did not mention anything about functional gains. Depending on the specificity of the exercise being performed, exercising to failure using the overload principle will lead to functional improvement. You have to consider that 10RM isn't going to be at 90-95% of a 1RM which is what might be the case with weightlifters. Do we as therapists really care about hypertrophy, local endurance or muscular power? (Yes, each of those have a very important role, but generally we do not measure those aspects during our assessments.) The outcomes that we measure with the individualized exercise programs we implement for healthy or even unhealthy elderly need to have more far reaching effects on actual daily performance.

    After attending the exercise pre-conference course at the CSM, I can assure you, the guidelines for the elderly are 10RM to failure.

  6. I'm sure those are the guidelines mentioned in the pre-conference symposium Selena, but it looks like we interpret them quite differently as does this and other literature reviews on the topic.

    Fatigue and failure are not the same phenomenon. I think we'll need to agree to disagree on this one. I've been lecturing on this for nearly 11 years using both the ACSM and NSCA as reference.

    If you can provide incontravertable evidence that failure is necessary to produce meaninful functional gains in the elderly population, I will certainly reconsider my stance. Until then, I'll go with the body of evidence currently presented.