top of page

Frequency, Intensity and Volume – Do you need to train to failure?

Training to failure and its necessity in training has become a hotly debated topic and something I see vehemently argued about online constantly between different training “experts".

However, before we get into that let’s quickly go over some of the big constraints and variables we typically have in training. Those being Frequency, Volume, Exercise Selection, and Intensity or in this case, Proximity to Failure.

Frequency is pretty straightforward as it’s simply how often you train a certain body part. Training your chest 5 times per week for example would be (very) high frequency whereas training once a week would be low frequency.

Volume equates to the total tonnage of weight shifted during a workout. You can sum it up as Sets x Reps x Weight, so squatting 100kg for 3 sets of 12 would equal 3600kg of volume. Volume used to be considered the key driver of hypertrophy, but that has been debunked, and rightly so. Volume without any intensity parameters means absolutely nothing and it’s one big reason why I still think German Volume Training (10x10) sucks!

Exercise selection is exactly how it sounds, choosing the “right” exercises. Choosing suitable exercises can play a huge role in maximising hypertrophy while limiting fatigue.

Intensity is usually noted as % of 1RM. So, 90% would be fairly high intensity whereas 30% would be pretty low intensity. However, I’m going to change Intensity to proximity to failure (Reps in reserve).

So, now you’re clued up on what each term means we can get into if training to failure is ideal for you and if not, what split would suit you. If we look at the effective reps theory it’ll quickly become clear that doing a set to true technical failure will stimulate the most growth. The effective reps theory stating that only the last 5 reps in a set taken to failure provide enough stimulus to promote growth. So if you took your 10 rep max for a set of 5, you probably wouldn’t stimulate any growth. You’d just be wasting your time. If you did 6 reps you’d generate 1 stimulating reps. If you did 10 reps you’d accumulate 5 stimulating reps from that one set. Another way to look at this would be to say a set taken to failure, or 0RIR would give you 5 stimulating reps. So if you’re doing sets with 2RIR you’d need to do around 3 sets to generate the same number of stimulating reps (5 vs 6). So, if nothing else, training to failure can simply save you time.

A typical argument I see online is that training within 2 reps to failure (2RIR) will produce as much growth as training to 0RIR. How? If we use the example above then how is that possible unless we do multiple sets? Also, anyone who has trained to absolute failure knows it cannot in any way be compared to training with 2 reps left in the tank. And, while the data may suggest you can make similar gains from doing either I just can’t see you getting the same stimulus from a personal perspective. If we go back to intensity or proximity to failure it’s been shown that 10-20 effective sets per week is ideal for hypertrophy. Also, we’ve found that training with loads as low as 30% 1RM upwards can be used for hypertrophy, given the same proximity to failure. This usually means we can create the demand for hypertrophic adaptations with anywhere from 5-30 reps per set. This is why Volume, without these additional parameters is a useless metric. The volume of effective reps/sets is important, but overall tonnage shifted is meaningless.

Exercise selection, as previously mentioned can have a huge impact on the Stimulus to Fatigue ratio of an exercise or overall session. Stimulus to Fatigue essentially means how much growth you might get from an exercise compared to how much it might fatigue you. For example, both a Hack Squat and a Leg Extension train the quadriceps, but a Hack Squat taken to or near failure will absolutely be more taxing than a Leg Extension taken to or near failure. The argument isn’t simply single joint vs multi joint movements, however. A Barbell Bench Press will likely induce more fatigue than a Machine Chest Press, and a chest press might actually stimulate more pectoral growth. Single joint movements do tend to be less fatiguing though.

So, to answer the question: Do you need to train to failure?

The short answer is no, but the long answer is it depends.

Currently, my training revolves around 1-2 sets per exercise taken to failure or within 1-2 RIR. Bigger, “riskier” movements like Romanian Deadlifts, SSB Squats, MacDonald Bar Bench and the like aren’t usually done to true failure due to the potential risk if I ever fucked the lift up. Most single joint movements or machine-based exercises are done to failure, however.

To ensure I’m not responsible for some noob reading this then going balls to the wall on training to failure and hurting themselves let me just say that I do think training to failure is both an advanced method of training, and also highly unnecessary. I simply enjoy training this way…and of course, I believe it works, obviously.

You can get big and strong from doing heavy work, followed by lighter work. You can get big and strong from training to failure. You can get big and strong without ever training to failure. It all comes down to effort and progressive overload. Progressive overload is the key principle of making gains. If you strive to be 1% better each time you enter the gym, you’ll make waves upon waves of progress.

With that being said let’s go over the most common types of workout splits; Full Body, Push Pull, Upper Lower and Bodypart or Bro Split. Each type of split offers its own pros and cons, and will be viable for certain individuals. Most Coaches usually prescribe full body splits to new lifters, and they absolutely won’t be (intentionally) training to failure. This is because new lifters are initially hammering in motor patterns, building muscular and neural strength alongside GPP and can handle the higher frequency of training, Additionally, beginners are relatively weak so sessions aren’t as physically demanding. Moving from that we’ve got Push Pull and Upper Lower splits. These are often done four times per week, hitting each muscle group twice per week. Finally, we have Bodypart Splits. These are almost infamous for being bodybuilder-esque or how bodybuilers train. These splits call for each muscle group to be hit (directly) once per week.

Now, if you assess each split, you’ll notice that certain variables and parameters need to be adjusted in order to accommodate others, and by that, I mean frequency, volume, intensity (proximity to failure) and exercise selection need to be manipulated in order to try and maximise growth while limiting fatigue.

You’ll notice that if one variable goes up, the others need to either go down or level out. For example, with the Full Body split we’re essentially hitting the same muscles 3x (potentially 4x) per week, so the frequency is high and as such the intensity is fairly low and the volume kind of levels out. When we compare that to the Bro Split you’ll see that the frequency in whence we train each muscle group is roughly once per week (there will be some splash over between certain muscles) and therefore pretty low. However, the either the volume or intensity will be high in this case.

Essentially we need to think that all three variables (frequency, intensity, volume) cannot all be high. If they are then you’re going to run into problems very quickly. Sure, they could all be low but then how the fuck are you going to make any gains? So, you need to choose or find a split that allows you to manage and manipulate these variables to suit you…and of course, to make progress.

Remember though, you absolutely do not have to train to muscular failure to make progress. Sets within 2RIR will enable you to make consistent, good progress and likely won’t beat you up as much. So long as you’re adhering to the basic principles of hypertrophy and progressively overloading using sufficient mechanical tension through a full range of motion (usually) you will 100% make gains.

If training to failure is something that’s sparked your interest, however, don’t go all in next time you’re in the gym. Instead, go to failure on the last set of an exercise every few weeks to gauge where you’re at. E.g. if you’re wanting to train within 2 reps of failure (2RIR) and you’ve been doing sets of 8 but you get 10 on your AMRAP you’re solid! If you get 12 or something higher then you can consider upping the weight.

I prescribe AMRAPS to clients. I prescribe training to failure to some of them. I prescribe training with reps in reserve. I prescribe full body splits. I also prescribe upper lowers and bro splits. Man, sometimes I’ll even prescribe splits based on certain competitive events (think Strongman). I’ll advocate max effort work to some guys. I’ll avoid it and do nothing but submaximal effort work for some. The point I’m making here is that good training is good training and furthermore I personally believe the training or the splits you do should be reflective of your character. I said right at the start that some people simply cannot push themselves to train to failure, and there’s no shame in that! Some people embody that mindset. Also, stop thinking of your training in terms of weeks. A week is a man-made construct. The body doesn’t work in weeks, so don’t think you must cram everything into one week, or that you can’t take an extra rest day if you feel beat to shit. Train how you like, with whatever split you like, because the overall determining factor of what’ll mostly affect the outcome of your training is effort.

We could take two dedicated novice lifters that are just nailing their training and nutrition and put them on a higher frequency split and one on a lower frequency split for 5 years. Do you know which one would make the best gains? No. There’d be no important differences in size or strength (other than possible genetic differences).

Find how you enjoy training, put in the fucking work, reap the rewards!

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page