It remains unclear whether repetitions leading to failure (failure training) or not leading to failure (non-failure training) lead to superior muscular strength gains during resistance exercise. Failure training may provide the stimulus needed to enhance muscular strength development. However, it is argued that non-failure training leads to similar increases in muscular strength without the need for high levels of discomfort and physical effort, which are associated with failure training.
We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the effect of failure versus non-failure training on muscular strength.
Five electronic databases were searched using terms related to failure and non-failure training. Studies were deemed eligible for inclusion if they met the following criteria: (1) randomised and non-randomised studies; (2) resistance training intervention where repetitions were performed to failure; (3) a non-failure comparison group; (4) resistance training interventions with a total of ≥3 exercise sessions; and (5) muscular strength assessment pre- and post-training. Random-effects meta-analyses were performed to pool the results of the included studies and generate a weighted mean effect size (ES).
Eight studies were included in the meta-analysis (combined studies). Training volume was controlled in four studies (volume controlled), while the remaining four studies did not control for training volume (volume uncontrolled). Non-failure training resulted in a 0.6–1.3 % greater strength increase than failure training. A small pooled effect favouring non-failure training was found (ES = 0.34; p = 0.02). Significant small pooled effects on muscular strength were also found for non-failure versus failure training with compound exercises (ES = 0.37–0.38; p = 0.03) and trained participants (ES = 0.37; p = 0.049). A slightly larger pooled effect favouring non-failure training was observed when volume-uncontrolled studies were included (ES = 0.41; p = 0.047). No significant effect was found for the volume-controlled studies, although there was a trend favouring non-failure training. The methodological quality of the included studies in the review was found to be moderate. Exercise compliance was high for the studies where this was reported (n = 5), although limited information on adverse events was provided.
Overall, the results suggest that despite statistically significant effects on muscular strength being found for non-failure compared with failure training, the small percentage of improvement shown for non-failure training is unlikely to be meaningful. Therefore, it appears that similar increases in muscular strength can be achieved with failure and non-failure training. Furthermore, it seems unnecessary to perform failure training to maximise muscular strength; however, if incorporated into a programme, training to failure should be performed sparingly to limit the risks of injuries and overtraining.
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No sources of funding were used in the preparation of this review.
Conflict of interest
Tim Davies, Rhonda Orr, Mark Halaki and Daniel Hackett declare that they have no conflicts of interest that are relevant to the content of this review.
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Davies, T., Orr, R., Halaki, M. et al. Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 46, 487–502 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0451-3
- Motor Unit
- Resistance Training
- Resistance Exercise
- Muscular Strength
- Training Volume