Is Muscular Failure Necessary for Hypertrophy?

The following article was written by user ‘Natural1’ of UK Muscle Forums

Introduction

This article is not in anyway an “anti-failure” message, however I will be looking at the subject of “training to failure” subjectively, and logically.

It’s the belief of some that taking a set to complete and utter momentary muscular failure (MMF) is a requirement to stimulate a muscle to hypertrophy. Some are of the opinion that at MMF there is some kind of “trigger” or “switch” that gets flipped which stimulates muscular hypertrophy.

Three types of muscular failure:

  • Concentric failure – This is when the muscle is no longer able to move the weight in the concentric (positive) portion of the lift.
  • Static failure – This is when the muscle is no longer able to hold the weight in a static (no movement) position.
  • Eccentric failure – This is absolute failure, the muscle is now so fatigued that it’s unable to even perform the eccentric (negative) portion of the lift. The muscle is now incapable of lowering the load under control.

For the most part when the term “failure” is used it’s usually referring to concentric failure. And it’s this type of failure that I willl be discussing in this article.

Is MMF necessary or even optimal for everyone to hypertrophy?

Muscle tissue doesn’t “know failure”. Muscle doesn’t know or understand “a set”

It’s only us that realize failure and plan out bio-mechanical work (muscle contractions) into organized structures called “sets and reps”

All muscle tissue is capable of is:

  • Generating force through bio-mechanical work
  • Tension induced micro trauma.
  • Work induced metabolic fatigue

It doesn’t matter if a lifter performs one set to MMF or multi sets not to failure, so long there is enough bio-mechanical work of the 2a – 2x muscle fiber types to cause enough micro trauma and metabolic fatigue for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, then there will be increase in both size and strength.

Failure in itself is merely a fatigue based event, not a stimulus for hypertrophy, it simply means that within that set you’ve reached the point of fatigue where the muscle is no longer able to generate force greater than that of the load on the bar.

Some argue that at the point of MMF, you’ve done all you can to stimulate adaption, this isn’t entirely accurate, lighten the load, rest/pause 20 seconds or allow someone to spot you, and you’ll get a few more reps. You could even go beyond concentric failure and hit static and/or eccentric failure. These techniques allows you to perform even more bio-mechanical work than simply stopping at MMF, so clearly MMF is not the point where you have done all you can possibly can within a single set.

When training to MMF and/or using set extending techniques like the ones mentioned above, you work your central nervous system (CNS) very hard. You’re are essentially “redlining” your CNS which for the inexperienced can often result in over-training, neural fatigue and some may find that progress comes to a quick and abrupt halt.

Regardless of what some believe there is no “magic switch” that triggers at MMF, and failure is merely an event due to fatigue and not in itself a stimulus for hypertrophy, therefore it makes sense for beginners and some intermediate lifters to induce more bio-mechanical work, fatigue and micro trauma through the use of a multiple set approach while staying 1-2 reps shy of failure. This will provide a high muscular work to CNS fatigue ratio.

Now I am in no way saying that MMF should always be avoided, far from it! For some, low volume to failure training works great. These are usually advanced lifters that have built up the CNS capacity to be able to generate great intensity and are able to recover, but even then such training is usually periodized and deloads used to allow accumulated fatigue to dissipate.

MMF does have it’s benefit. It’s a very effective tool for enhancing CNS output due to the fact that at MMF, similar to a 1 rep max, you are exerting maximum available force. So failure training enhances neural efficiency and strength. This is one of the reasons that very low volume/high intensity programs work so well for those with the ability to generate a lot of neural effort, these are usually advanced and experienced lifters.

The point here is that MMF in itself is not the stimulus or even a requirement for hypertrophy. So what is?

I’d like to repeat/highlight an important point:

So long there is enough bio-mechanical work of the 2a-2x muscle fiber types to cause enough micro trauma, and metabolic fatigue to produce sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, then there will be an increase in both size and strength provided that volume, intensity and frequency are effectively managed.

I specifically mention the 2a-2x fiber types as these are the muscle fiber types that we use to move moderate to heavy loads.

An increase in bio-mechanical work is achieved by either an increase in volume with the same load, an increase in load with the same volume, a combination of both, or even increasing work output per unit of time (work density). These equal THE answer for the stimulus of continued muscular hypertrophy – Simple and basic progression!

Some claim that intensity rather than workload is responsible for hypertrophy, this is inaccurate, the only reason that any program works be it high volume or low volume/high intensity is because there must be some workload, failure can be avoided and progression made, however no workload equals no progression.

Summary

  • Failure in itself is an event not a hypertrophy stimulus.
  • Muscle doesn’t know failure, MMF is simply a fatigued based termination to a set.
  • Failure increases neural strength and efficiency.
  • Keep progressing and increasing workload and/or work density.

There are many ways to manipulate bio-mechanical work using various set and rep schemes which will likely better suit beginners to intermediate lifters. Also, various set and rep schemes can have an influence on the type of hypertrophy that occurs. I shall write some information on this soon.

9 Responses

  1. Flo Joe

    Well Written article and I definitely agree with a lot of the points made… Hypertrophy can be achieved by stopping 1-2 reps short of failure, but going to failure at times can definitely induce muscle growth and increasing strength… So it’s not an either or, an advance lifter should be able to know when to push things to failure and when not to….

    Like

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