Over the years, we’ve all be told that if we wanted to build the maximum amount of muscle mass, we need to take our exercises to total muscular failure.
I have to admit that I’ve been a follower of this kind of training method for a long time.
I’ll be the first to tell you that if you know what you’re doing and know how to use this kind of training, it can be one of the most effective muscle building methods you can do.
However, I do have a big problem with the way that the fundamentals of this technique has been spread.
It doesn’t matter where you look, it can be in muscle magazines or published books about building muscle, weight training to muscular failure has been made to be the end all for building muscle mass. You see, a lot of the information sources out there will list training to muscular failure as a necessity to build muscle regardless of your training level. This can be very dangerous to the beginner and intermediate weight trainer.
Training to muscular failure has always been associated with high intensity training. If you ask me, training to muscular failure is but one way to increase the amount of intensity you incorporate into your weight training program.
As we all know, the more intensity you incorporate into your weight training routine, the harder you force your body to work. By forcing your body to work harder, you force it to adapt to these new stress levels by getting stronger, faster, or bigger. By training to muscular failure, you introduce a technique that overloads your muscles, which can greatly enhancing your intensity levels.
Can this type of weight training build muscle? Most certainly. However, there are some drawbacks to this type of weight training. First off, this is an advanced technique and should not be attempted by the beginner. This is probably my biggest concern with training to failure. For a beginner to start off with training to muscular failure can be detrimental to a person’s training progress and also dangerous in terms of injuries. First off, a beginner has no idea of their bodies capabilities. If a beginner has no idea of their own’s body limitations, this technique will be more or less, a waste of time and energy.
Here’s what usually happens. A beginner will read somewhere that training to momentary muscular failure is the only way to build muscle mass. So, they will keep adding more weight to the bench press, week after week blasting out 2 maybe 3 reps and finally going to failure on the fourth repetition. After 3, maybe 4 weeks, they get a lot stronger and expect that this kind of training will only help them get stronger.
However, shortly there after, their progress comes to a shocking halt and they can’t get past a certain amount of weight. So, they add more weight to the bench press and get assisted repetitions in the hopes of getting past the plateau. In their desperation, they forget proper form and start bending and twisting trying to get the weight up. What ends up happening? That person usually quits. If they do stick it out, they may form bad habits that stay with them until they get injured. However, injuries is the usual case here and it’s only a matter of time.
Also, training to momentary muscular failure puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the connective tissues and joints. Now, I speak from experience here. You have to understand the limitations of your own body and only attempt this kind of training once you have an understanding of your own bodies capabilities.
Now, here’s something that I think everyone has to understand with training to muscular failure. Although it can be used as a high intensity training technique, it must not be misinterpreted as the only high intensity training technique to build muscle. Here’s my honest take on building muscle and strength. In order to build muscle, you have to keep improving from workout to workout, week after week, month after month for each of your weight training cycles. I’d recommend 12 to 14 week weight training cycles followed by 2 weeks of rest.
The key here is to keep improving. That doesn’t necessarily mean training to muscular failure. As long as you keep improving from workout to workout, you’re going improve in terms of conditioning, strength, muscle quality and size. What does it mean to improve from workout to workout?
Basically, what you want to do is use heavier weight using the same repetitions with the same rest periods, or do more repetitions with the same weight and rest periods than the previous exercise session, or use the same weight, do the same amount of repetitions but do it in less time.
As you will notice, nowhere does it say to bring each and every exercise to momentary muscular failure. Why? How do you really know if you are improving by taking 205 pounds to muscular failure on rep 6 in the bench press each and every workout? You don’t.
The real key to building quality muscle mass is how you improve from workout to workout. By constantly improving from workout to workout, you know that what you’re doing is working and your body is constantly getting better. This is the only way the muscle building process works.
I’ll admit, for the first part of my weight training days, I’d always take my last set on every exercise to failure. However, because of the weight I used, my body type and the length of my training cycles, I put my body in harms way. That is, my joints today are suffering because of my training methods and weight training cycles. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that training to muscular failure is part of the overall picture and not the whole picture itself.
I’m not saying training to failure is a bad technique because it’s not. It can be very powerful. However, it’s how it’s used that makes it a bad technique. Just because you take 205 pounds to momentary muscular failure on the 6th repetition of your bench press each and every workout doesn’t mean you’re building muscle. How do you know you’re improving?
By using the above noted principles, you may or may not take your exercises to momentary muscular failure. The key to muscle growth is improvement. By consistently improving from workout to workout, you will ensure constant muscle growth. Take that same 205 pounds and aim at performing it 12 times instead of 6 times over a 12 week period, and you’ll see that you will come in at the weight from a different angle.
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All the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.