Training to failure - necessary for strength gain?

Charles Poliquin has researched many successful strength programs from all over the world - Cuba, Russia, the former East Germany, Bulgaria, etc. He says that the one thing they all share in common is the use of maximal voluntary contractions (MVC); in other words, they all train to failure. But quite a number of other strength coaches say we don’t need to train to failure. Who’s right?

i would debate to whether or not he said this.

Are you sure he’s talking about training to failure? Or just training with enough of your 1RM to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible?

In the world of exercise physiology, a maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) is simply the maximum contraction an individual is capable of producing. The only time a weight trainer produces an MVC is when training to failure. Poliquin says that MVC’s are critical to the strength-building process. He says this on his “The Science of Bodybuilding” CD as well as in an answer to a question on his website’s Q&A forum. He couldn’t be more clear in expressing his view on the matter.

Poliquin has actually stated repeatedly that continous training to failure is counterproductive. Poliquin advocates the use of strict form with maximal velocity, as you began to lose both form and velocity he believes you should end your set there (in most cases). I am sure you are just misinterpreting him.

scall - that sounds more like Staley to me. I think you’re mistaken.

I trained Poloquin style for 6 monthes. And I belive under his system you should only be going to failure, or forced reps in your third and 6th workouts.

He also believes in cycling volume, but intensity is always kept at high levels.

Training to absolute failure everyworkout would seem pretty ruff to me.

Training to failure provides greater overload of more muscle fibers, and thus more growth. The obvious.


It’s an enormous strain on the nervous system, not to mention the muscles themselves. Extended recovery periods force one to train less often. Post-failure sets occur with dramatically reduced loads, and thus much lower intensity. And finally, the nervous system may learn to ‘give up’ prematurely.

‘MVC’ is a plateau-buster, though for the most part unnecessary if you continuously rotate exercises and angles of attack.

I’d like to distinguish between complete muscular failure and the ability to barely make the last rep. The latter I do continuously; the former, only on occasion.


I think he means so that the next rep is “failure.” But I’m not sure what criterion he uses to anticipate that. I don’t think he uses a change in concentric tempo the way Charles Staley does. He might use a change in concentric tempo, along with the perception of great effort in the concentric phase. He might use a SLIGHT deterioration in form and cut the set, predicting a greater deterioration of form in the next rep which he would label “failure.” I’ve asked CT a similar question on his board.

This is yet another example of how some trainees insist on there being only ‘absolutes’.

Whether we examine macronutrients in a diet, or training principles, you’ll always get someone wanting to put ‘all their eggs in one basket’.

In reality, there are many shades of gray.

Fairy certain Poliquin does not advocate training to failure continually, although there is a time and a place for almost everything.

In any gym I’ve yet to see any really, really strong lifter train to failure (at least what I would consider true failure) yet they continually make progress. The guys who don’t progress in strength are usually the onces training to failure, banging out forced reps etc. As Chad Waterbury said recently, the failure reps prolong recovery too much.

I noticed that Don recently posted this same question over on Charlie Francis’ web site. I think it’s an interesting point. Charlie never had his sprinters deliberately lift until failure. And yet, his sprinter threw up huge weights:

Ben Johnson: bench 450x2, squat 600x6
Desai Williams: bench 385, squat 525x6
Mark McCoy: bench 365, squat 525x6, power clean 335

And this was from realtively small amounts of weight training used merely to supplement their sprint training. I’ve actually met Charlie, so I’m not making up statements about his training methods out of thin air, like some people.

I don’t go to failure, and yet my strength and to some extent my msucle mass is blowing up at a good clip

I think your definition of maximum voluntary contraction is incorrect and does not necasserily involve training to failure.

Why couldnt lifting a weight and applying maximal possible force to the bar and thereby causing it to accelerate ie using the CAT method be considered maximal voluntary contraction.

If you look at the groups that he claims train with MVC’s i dont think that they frequently trained to failure.

I could be wrong i am keen for others to comment…

Don Stated: “In the world of exercise physiology, a maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) is simply the maximum contraction an individual is capable of producing. The only time a weight trainer produces an MVC is when training to failure.”

Im not sure about this statement of yours…
How is this (maximum contraction an individual is capable of producing) measured???
I mean … if it is measured by maximal force output, then training to failure is definetly not “The only time a weight trainer produces an MVC”
It would be by doing a 1 repition maximum with the CAT method or by lifiting a weight that is 50-70% of maximum with the CAT method. IF you are using anything less then 100% of your 1RM then going to failure would indicate that you are infact NOT using MAXIMUM voluntary contaction (assuming that force output is the determinant) as the bar speed has significantly slowed and even stopped indicating less force output.

I would agree with poliquins statement that all great strength athletes at one time or another use MVC but I disagree with your interpretation of what this means…

Failure training is defined as a point when you can no longer move a load under control, or at all. In other words, if you are applying maximum force to a load, and the load is not moving, you have hit failure. On the same note, if you can no longer control the load, failure has incurred. So what’s the big problem with failure training? In EITHER of the aforementioned examples, force output DECREASES. Training to the point where force output decreases makes no sense if performance is your primary goal. Even if you are training for pure hypertrophy purposes, the failure training will overly fatigue the nervous system and mandate longer recovery intervals, compared to non-failure training.
Let’s get back to decreased force output. For the bench press, if the load is 300 lbs., then you must apply MORE than 300 lbs. worth of force to move the load (this is obvious since a force production of exactly 300 lbs. would not move the load). Therefore, during the non-failure repetitions, more than 300 lbs. worth of force is being produced. As soon as you can no longer move the load (i.e., maximum force production and no movement) your force output has decreased to 300 lbs. When you can not control the load, force output has decreased, again, below 300 lbs. of force. Therefore, training to the point where no movement, or control of movement, is possible is counterproductive to increasing the ability to produce more force (i.e., everyone’s goal who is not training to decrease performance).
So many of you might be saying, “I don’t care about increased performance, I only want to get huge.” As I stated long ago in the “Things We’ve Learned” article - Performance increases precede body composition changes. Therefore, if you want to change your body, you must increase performance. But if you still don’t believe me then carefully analyze the parameters of the most successful hypertrophy programs that you know of. EDT is a perfect example of a very successful hypertrophy program that mandates increased performance.

First of all, you have to define failure. Here is a quote from a recent article of mine:

“Lastly, I am not a proponent of training to absolute failure. And while fairly self-explanatory, the term “failure” seems to carry quite a bit of ambiguity within the bodybuilding community. Well, let me clear things up a bit; you fail when you attempt to do something and do not succeed- that’s “failure” by definition. Therefore, I recommend you terminate each set one rep before you bite the dust, or simply, never attempt a repetition you will not complete in near perfect form.”

Somehow, people think that if you barely get out that last rep, then you trained that set to failure. How? Where is the failure? What did you fail at? You fail when you attempt something and do not succeed; therefore, if someone succeeds on all reps and you say they “trained to failure,” you’re, simply put, wrong.

On to Maximum Voluntary Contractions. Performing a MVC is not training to failure. If you peform the rep, you succeed at lifting the weight, and no failure occurs. A MVC can be a 1RM, the 6th rep with a 6RM load, the 10th rep with a 10RM load, etc. Attempting an 11th rep with a 10RM load is pointless; you’re body has already put forth maximal effort and the working muscles have been maximally stimulated. Why then, would you continue to tax the nervous system after this point? It provides no benefits, only drawbacks.

During the course of a set, you know if the next rep is going to go up or not; my advice to you- don’t attempt the rep if you are not going to complete it in near perfect form.

Training guru x style says “don’t be a pussy, train heavy ,train hard, train often, train smart.” stop wasting time questioning everything and just fuckin’ train.

Oh, and don’t forget to eat!

Excellent post, Joel. Great definition and clarification.