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Training Not to Failure?

I’m a bit troubled by the concept of not training to failure. In his book Muscle Structure, Function & Control, Dr. Michael Wolf states, “the signal for hypertrophy is clearly intensity of contraction.” If that’s true, would not the only way to assure one is getting the appropriate intensity of contraction to be to go to failure? Has new research demonstrated that intensity of contraction is not the key to hypertrophy? For 40+ years I’ve believed training to failure is THE way to increase muscular size & strength. That’s not the case?


I too have always felt that training to failure was the key to growth and I trained that way almost all the time but I’m not so sure it’s the only way or best way to stimulate growth. God knows how many workouts I’ve trained to failure with nothing in the way of visible results to show for it and other times I’d train higher reps for the burn and still have nothing to show in the way physical results. I might have gotten a little stronger but no visible sign of muscle change. Maybe this 30 10 30 with an emphasis on the concentric but still incorporating the positive is the answer?

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I personally think training to failure is not the way to go for long term success, avoiding injury, and seeing the results you want to see. I think lifting heavy but sub-maximal, and being guided by bar speed is the way to go. On this site (and others), there is often the general premise that if you spend years lifting you will develop injuries that you just need to learn to work around. I reject that philosophy and believe that smart training will give you more than it takes away, and you should feel better, stronger, and less injury-prone if you train intelligently.


My search skills have failed me… I can’t find links to books or online publications by Dr. Wolf, at least not ones that seem to relate to muscle physiology. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

My reading of the current scientific theories is that hypertrophy is triggered when you recruit muscle fibers and force them to work under high levels of muscle tension. This triggers a cascade of hormones and signalling chemicals that induces the body to add muscle. The technical term is “mechano-transduction”.

If you are training with relatively light loads, then training to failure is necessary to recruit all the muscle fibers. But if you use heavy enough weights, failure then become optional because all the muscle fibers have to become engaged from the start of the set, just to move the weight.

The definition of high muscle tension is also not quite so obvious: it refers to the tension developed on active muscle fibers, and not necessarily the total load on the entire muscle. So, according to these theories, you can develop high tension on individual muscle fibers even with light to moderate loads, as long as you use the right conditions, i.e., fatigue the muscle deeply and train to failure. Of course, if you just use a relatively heavy weight, you don’t have to go to failure to ensure recruitment and high muscle tension.

Of course, there probably is some threshold level of volume that is also required, i.e., you have to subject muscle fibers to high tension for some amount of time (or reps) to get maximum stimulation.

So, according to this thinking, training to failure with lighter weights (and longer sets) works about as well as using heavier weights and stopping short of failure, at least for hypertrophy.


I think lifting heavy but sub-maximal, and being guided by bar speed is the way to go.

Isn’t this essentially the method of doing heavy squats and leg presses? (especially without a workout partner.) I had great success developing hips and thighs with this method and I started with long lean upper thighs.

Doesn’t 30 10 30 in essence do all that? You are using sub max weight on the 10 regular reps and adjusting the bar speed of the 30 second negative to stretch to 30 seconds?

That strategy is becoming more popular within the powerlifting community. I believe that someone like Chris Beardsley would say that when the bar speed slows down despite your best effort to move faster, that is when you are getting maximum cross bridging and therefore experiencing maximum tension on the working muscle fibers. Don’t know if that has been proven in a scientific sense…

== Scott ==.
That sort of fits in with an earlier post where I mentioned seeing some really big guys using very heavy dumbbells to do presses or whatever only doing about 5 reps and doing only partial movements.
So if both methods above work equally well for hypertrophy which method drains the system more? Which would take longer to recover from or would they require equal recovery time?
On another note I would think the heavy way would be more likely to open one up to injury?

Are you sure he’s using ‘intensity’ the same way it’s used in HIT circles? Most scientific type papers use the word ‘intensity’ to describe ‘tension’. As in, 3RM is higher ‘intensity’ than an 8RM.


Those are great questions, and a relevant observation.

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I’ve been at this seriously and consistently for 37 years , even longer if you count the three years I did it from age 16 through 19. Before I learned of HIT style in the mid 80’s I trained like everybody else.

HIT came along and stressed minimal training time, training to failure and full range of motion. Quite a few HIT advocates - not all - really tried to get their message across by knocking the more conventional ways by simply saying those who trained in that manner ( multiple sets and NTF ) were pussies and just didn’t want to work hard.

That attitude grabbedr me … I fell right into it … and trained that way for over 15 years ; preaching to anyone that would listen how multiple sets were ‘wrong’, partial reps were ‘wrong’, split routines were ‘wrong’ and anyone doing more than one set to failure and not falling on their face at the end of the workout just didn’t know what they were doing.

Fast forward to now and you see a lot of the ‘old ways’ weren’t so wrong after all … De Simone points out that full range of motion ( I was really guilty of this ) isn’t as important as it is was said to be and reckless and dangerous in some cases, training until you collapse unnecessary and just stupid , some movements like squats aren’t really better than other quad movements that were considered ‘cop-outs’ , some claimed that EZ curl bars ruined the exercise when that wrist position is actually natural and safer on the shoulders.

The really funny thing about this to me is younger guys who only knew classic HIT ( Leistner style for example ) and see some of the HIT guys changing their tune a bit , think its a ‘new’ development by them in training … when all it is is just going back to the way it was done over 50 years ago.

I believe it’s all good and beneficial for your personal goals. The problem is being like I used to be … dead set that there’s only one correct way and believing there are only a couple guys who know what they’re talking about. Nobody was more guilty of being that than me !


Mike Mentzer was partially correct in that weightlifting is an anaerobic sport. Carbohydrates supply energy for this anaerobic process. Carbs turn into glucose which turns into ATP. ATP furnishes phosphagen for the fast twitch fibers. This amounts to 10 seconds of full muscular power. All Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters utilize this principle. Sequential muscle fiber recruitment hardly guarantees complete fast twitch recruitment. Does everyone remember that Casey, Ray and Mike Mentzer were extremely strong. Training the phosphagen system is invigorating, while training to failure generates fatigue. I wished that I knew why!

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