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Going to failure in strength training

Hadyn Luke posted this on Tuesday 5th of March 2013 Hadyn Luke 05/03/2013

Tags: Training methods


Going to failure in strength training

This blog examines whether it is beneficial to go to failure when carrying out strength training programmes. It’s an issue that has been widely debated in the health and fitness industry and it’s useful for a personal trainer to keep up to date with the latest industry findings.

What does strength training involve?

Strength training comprises working at a resistance range of one to five repetitions. The aim is to increase an individual’s strength by stimulating muscle fibres and activating motor units. A personal trainer will therefore set exercises that require a client to lift a heavy weight and work at a high intensity in order to activate as many motor units and muscle fibres as possible.

Research on going to failure in strength training

In research reported in an article by Michael R Bracko in the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal (Vol 17/No 1), muscle activation during strength training was evaluated using electromyography (EMG).

The participants in the study were 15 untrained women with a median age of 42. Using a resistance band, the participants carried out a lateral raise using the deltoid muscles. The test was carried out using a three repetition maximum and a 15 repetition maximum.

Going to failure – is it necessary?

The results were that during the three rep max exercise, full stimulation of the muscle fibres was achieved, as would be expected. 

However, when the participants carried out the 15 rep max exercise, there tended to be a plateau around 10-12 reps, which was then followed by a reduction in the recruitment of muscle fibres.

This suggests that if a personal trainer gives a client a 15 rep max exercise but halts it after 10-12 reps, it will achieve the required results, and that “working to failure” is not always necessary as far as achieving strength goals. 

Traditionally, a fitness instructor may have been told that fitness training must be one to five reps with as much stress put through the body as possible. However, this research suggests that potentially the body could receive the same amount of muscle recruitment by working at a lower intensity and stopping the exercise at the plateau, without forcing the body to go to failure. 

Lateral shoulder raise v other strength training options

To counterbalance these findings, it could be argued that the exercise chosen for this study – the lateral shoulder raise – is not a classic strength training exercise. Unlike exercises such as the bench press, it involves a small muscle with a big lever.

The importance of neuromuscular fitness

Another aspect to this argument is that strength is not always about how much weight you put through the body. The neuromuscular attribute of fitness is also important. This means practising a technique over and over without going to failure, so that when the exercise is performed at a later date, the client will have improved their ability to carry it out more efficiently.


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