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Will Training to Failure Build Bigger Muscles?
Extended Set Training

Training your muscles to failure is a popular way to shake up an exercise program. The idea is simple. If you push the muscle until it fails, it'll force the muscle to adapt to the stress and grow. The more a muscle is pushed, the more it grows. Working a muscle to failure is like giving it the ultimate push.

There's just one thing wrong with that idea. It's not entirely correct. If you've been doing the same exercises for months, training to failure for a week or two will definitely shock your muscles. The problem is, it won't necessarily help them grow bigger.

In a study carried out at Ohio University in 2002, researchers found that subjects who engaged in low or intermediate rep programs saw greater muscle growth than the group that did high reps. You read that right. Doing FEWER reps lead to greater muscle growth.

The people that engaged in high reps saw the biggest increases in endurance. For the record, low reps were defined as 3-5, intermediate reps as 9-11 and high reps as 20-28. When you train a muscle to failure, you're typically doing 15-30 reps.

After discovering that, I looked for studies that actually trained people to failure, rather than just comparing higher or lower rep ranges. There were several to choose from and they all came to the same conclusion. Higher reps, when done to failure help with endurance. Lower reps build bigger muscles.

The most recent was a study done in 2010 at the Research Center of Rowing Club Orio in Spain. In an 8 week program the group that did only a moderate number of reps, not to failure, achieved the "[greatest] enhancements in strength, muscle power, and rowing performance when compared with...training volumes of repetitions to failure..."

What the means when you're designing your training program is simple.

  • If your goal is bigger muscles and greater strength, stick with low and intermediate rep ranges.
  • Those of you who want greater endurance, should occasionally push your muscles to failure.

There are several ways you can train to failure. Over the years I've talked about Cheat Reps, Drop Sets, Forced Reps, Half or Partial Reps, Negative Reps and Rest-Pause training. The one I haven't described before is known as Extended Set training. Here's how it works.

Extended Sets

Extended Sets have you move from a hard version of an exercise, to increasingly easier variations of the same exercise. You don't change the weight, you move your body into stronger biomechanical positions. You can do this by changing the angle of the exercise, your grip position or both. A typical example for your chest is the dumbbell press.

Dumbbell Press

Start out with the bench on an incline and do your first set to failure. Then move the bench to a flat position and start pressing again until you fail again. Remember, you don't change your weights. Finally you move the bench to a decline position and keep doing reps to failure. This is your first set. Rest up to 60 seconds and repeat the cycle two more times.

Mechanically your body is weakest when it's at an incline, gets stronger when you lay down flat and is strongest when you're at a decline. You're doing the same movement each time, pressing the dumbbells up. Only the angle of the bench is changed.

Back

An extended set for your back would involve changing your grip. Start by doing a wide-grip lat pull down, move to a close-grip lat pull-down and finish with a close, reverse-grip pull-down. Just like the chest exercises, you do the same movement each time. But instead of different angles, this exercise requires nothing more than grip changes.

Extended sets are an advanced training technique that involve heavy weights and relatively short rest periods. You shouldn't attempt them if you've been working out for less than a year. Always use a spotter because when you fail, you don't want weights falling down on you.

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8/1/2010
Updated 12/21/2012