Athletes that do two months of weight training, without sticking it out to the last rep in their sets, make just as much progress as the athletes that do all their reps. At least, this is true for the members of the Spanish national Basque ball team, who took part in an experiment set up by sports scientists at the Studies, Research and Sport Medicine Center in Navarra.
The researchers got their subjects to train twice a week in a gym for 11 weeks. Each training session lasted about three-quarters of an hour. The athletes trained their main muscle groups, doing bench-press, shoulder-press, lat pull-downs, squats, leg-extensions, leg-curls and crunches. In addition the athletes ran for half an hour every week, and did their regular training sessions.
Fourteen Basque ball players trained to failure [RF], doing as many reps as they could in their sets. Fifteen other test subjects trained, but not so fanatically [NRF].
The subjects trained using weights for which they could just manage 8-10 reps. The RF group made sure they did all the reps; the NRF group only did 5 reps with the same weights.
From week 11 to 16 both groups followed an identical programme. They trained using 85-90 percent of the weight at which they could just manage 1 rep [their 1RM], and did 2-4 reps.
The figure below shows how many kilograms the test subjects could lift for just one rep of a bench press. In the second you figure you can see how many reps the athletes managed in one set when they did bench presses at 75 percent of their 1RM.
T0 = before the programme started; T1 = after 6 weeks; T2 = after 11 weeks; T3 = after 16 weeks.
There was no difference in effectiveness between the RF and the NRF schedules.
The researchers also measured the hormone levels in the athletes’ blood. They detected no differences between the two groups – the testosterone, cortisol and IGF-1 levels reacted in the same way in the RF and the NRF groups. The athletes in the RF group did produce more IGFBP-3, the ‘good’ binding protein for IGF-1. The IGF-1 in the blood becomes more active the more there is of it attached to IGFBP-3 and the less to IGFBP-1.
Coaches and strength athletes regard to-failure strength training as an effective way to ensure progress, as long as you use it sensibly. This study does nothing to alter that, although it does show that you can also become stronger even if you don’t train to failure.
An interesting detail: both groups developed hardly any muscle mass. The RF group gained less than 4 ounces of lean body mass, the NRF group about 2 ounces. That’s very little for a period of 16 weeks’ training. You might wonder whether the athletes in both groups, who also did their daily Basque ball training routines, weren’t over-trained. Or perhaps they just weren’t interested in strength training.
Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains
The purpose of this study was to examine the efficacy of 11 wk of resistance training to failure vs. nonfailure, followed by an identical 5-wk peaking period of maximal strength and power training for both groups as well as to examine the underlying physiological changes in basal circulating anabolic and catabolic hormones. Forty-two physically active men were matched and then randomly assigned to either a training to failure (RF; n = 14), nonfailure (NRF; n = 15), or control groups (C; n = 13). Muscular and power testing and blood draws to determine basal hormonal concentrations were conducted before the initiation of training (T0), after 6 wk of training (T1), after 11 wk of training (T2), and after 16 wk of training (T3). Both RF and NRF resulted in similar gains in 1-repetition maximum bench press (23 and 23%) and parallel squat (22 and 23%), muscle power output of the arm (27 and 28%) and leg extensor muscles (26 and 29%), and maximal number of repetitions performed during parallel squat (66 and 69%). RF group experienced larger gains in the maximal number of repetitions performed during the bench press. The peaking phase (T2 to T3) after NRF resulted in larger gains in muscle power output of the lower extremities, whereas after RF it resulted in larger gains in the maximal number of repetitions performed during the bench press. Strength training leading to RF resulted in reductions in resting concentrations of IGF-1 and elevations in IGFBP-3, whereas NRF resulted in reduced resting cortisol concentrations and an elevation in resting serum total testosterone concentration. This investigation demonstrated a potential beneficial stimulus of NRF for improving strength and power, especially during the subsequent peaking training period, whereas performing sets to failure resulted in greater gains in local muscular endurance. Elevation in IGFBP-3 after resistance training may have been compensatory to accommodate the reduction in IGF-1 to preserve IGF availability.