Training to failure is still a very popular way for many to do weight training. The idea is that only by reaching momentary muscular failure you become stronger. Failure in this respect means that you are exhausted to the point that you can no longer lift the weight.
This has always been open to debate, but now research has shown that people who train to failure all the time are limiting their strength gains. The best way to train is to stop each exercise set before you reach failure, to almost fail. Going “beyond failure” as popularized by Mike Mentzer and other HIT bodybuilders will only make you weaker.
In June 2010 the National Strength and Conditioning Association stated:
“Failure training performed too frequently can result in reductions in the resting concentration of testosterone and contribute to the overtraining syndrome. The research suggests the greatest effectiveness when failure training is practised consistently over 6-week cycles, interspersed with exclusive nonfailure training cycles over equal periods. Coaches should consider athletes’ training status and goals and the point in a yearly training cycle to determine whether sets are to be performed to failure or ended short of reaching failure.” Dr. Jeffrey Willardson.
This supports the periodization training method that many athletes follow. Periodization follows cycles of high intensity and heavy work with cycles of lower intensity endurance training. The main purpose to this form of training is to avoid adaptation, where you become more efficient and performing a particular type of exercise, and so gain less from it.
Our bodies want to just maintain their current level of fitness, so development tends to decline the longer we do something. Increasing intensity sparks new growth but prolonged intensity then leads to overtraining and a reversal of fitness and muscle development.
Middle Intensity Training is Best
In similar research it was determined that for the best strength improvements you should train at a middle intensity, between working to failure and endurance training.
“short-term resistance training using moderate volumes of high relative intensity tended to produce higher enhancements in weightlifting performance compared with low and high volumes of high relative training intensities of equal total volume in experienced, trained young weightlifters. Therefore, for the present population of weightlifters, it may be beneficial to use the MIG* training protocol to improve the weightlifting program at least in a short-term (10 weeks) cycle of training.” González-Badillo et al, 2006.
*MIG refers simply to the moderate-intensity exercise group in the study.
One of the problems with this type of research is that it never takes into account the genetics of the individual. Some people may just respond better to a high intensity method. The normal optimum response may be volume training but generally bodybuilders do have slightly freaky genetics.
Many bodybuilding professionals have adopted a high intensity training method, with Mike Mentzer being one of the first to make HIT popular and then more recently Dorian Yates. However, they still have many years of volume training under their weight lifting belts before starting a high intensity protocol.
The facts about weight training seem to have not changed a great deal:
- For muscle size, volume training is best – i.e. bodybuilders methods
- For power and functional strength, high intensity training periodized with cardio training to increase VO2 is best
- For pure strength training moderate intensity with periods of high intensity works best
See Are You Training for Muscular Strength, Size, or Power? and Weight Training Intensity or Volume for Bigger Muscles? for some older discussions on this topic.
How you lift weights should depend entirely on your goals. It is still my belief that many of the pro-bodybuilders that have followed a HIT method do massive warm-ups which are not mentioned in the discussions on their methods. One persons warm-up is another’s first work set.