Lift to failure, or not to failure?
That is indeed the question and the debates rage on in every fitness forum on an almost daily basis. What is optimal for building muscle mass? Doing as many reps as you possibly can in each set (going to failure) or skipping that final rep or two? People want a clear answer to this question .. but its not that simple! Just like you cant say that low reps is for strength and high reps is for mass, you cant make any simple minded, definitive statements about going to failure. You can quote research to ‘prove’ anything you want and this subject is no exception – so I wont bother quoting conflicting research :)
Lifting to failure proponents
People who claim that you should always lift to failure say that the strength and mass gains come from that last rep where you are really tearing the muscles apart. They feel that the entire set is just a warmup to prepare you for that last quivering rep where you cause all kinds of micro-tears in your muscle that lead to growth. Progressive overload and “No pain, no gain” are the mantras of the failure advocates.
Avoid lifting to failure proponents
Those who think you get maximum muscle mass gain by avoiding going to failure reason that by skipping that last rep allows you to do a lot more sets in a workout. Their view is that to maximize muscular gains you have to maximize workout volume and to do this, you have to avoid going to failure.
For maximum muscle growth
You do both! Why choose when you can get the muscle mass building benefits of both techniques? How can you simultaneously lift to failure and not lift to failure? Great question! Its called a “drop set’ and bodybuilders have been using this technique since the beginning of time! With drop sets, you get to go to failure to get the gains of ripping your muscles apart on the last reps but you get the muscle mass benefits of maximizing training volume! You choose a weight that puts you in the rep target range for your workout and then do as many reps as you possibly can, force that last rep, then lower the weight 10-30% and crank out 8 more reps!
Listen to your body. Keep your eyes open for signs of overtraining, and if you see them, back off and change your routine. You probably do not want to be doing drop sets 52 weeks a year, but then, when it comes to working out, you dont want to do *anything* 52 weeks a year. You want to do some low rep, heavy weight weeks. You want to do some light weight, high reps weeks.
Going to failure can be dangerous, especially with exercises like squats or deadlifts. Doing these exercises to failure is probably asking for trouble. I would also limit going to failure to exercises that have safety catch bars, especially if you do not have a *very* attentive spotter.