Layne Norton, Ph.D., is a powerlifting champion who routinely dives into the latest scientific research regarding nutrition, training, and recovery. When sharing his reviews of scientific literature, he breaks down the findings in simpler terms for his 320,000 YouTube subscribers.
In his most recent educational video, published on June 7, 2023, Norton reviewed a study about training to failure and how it affects strength and hypertrophy. Listen to Layne’s analysis of the findings below:
Layne Norton’s Breakdown of the Research
Dr. Norton described how the researchers laid out the data using a meta-regression model, which essentially allowed them to map out the future of the data. This offered a projected curve to model the relationship between training to failure and how it affects strength and hypertrophy markers.
How Training to Failure Effects Strength
Starting with the strength data, Norton says there seems to be no correlation between how close subjects trained to failure and their strength. While this may seem counterintuitive, it still makes sense to lift heavy even without training to failure, as strength gains happen through the use of heavier loads.
Performing more sets with lower rep ranges can be better for strength gains than training to failure due to less intra-set fatigue and loss of repetition velocity and intensity. Norton sums it up by saying, “If you’re training close to failure…to build strength, your best bet is to do that at heavy loads….If you’re using lighter weights, you’re probably better off [lowering] the number of reps per set and just doing more sets.”
How Training to Failure Effects Hypertrophy
As for hypertrophy, it’s been a long-standing belief that one needs to train close to failure to see the best results. According to the study, Dr. Norton lays out that while it’s best to train to failure, some of the data had to be estimated due to typical gaps within a meta-analysis.
While it’s important to get close to failure or train to failure, Norton suggests it isn’t ideal to do this for every set on every exercise. Training to failure is extremely fatiguing, and Dr. Norton argues it could negatively affect subsequent workouts due to insufficient recovery.
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Dr. Norton uses leg extensions and leg curls as examples of preferable movements to train to failure. These exercises aren’t as fatiguing as compound movements (e.g., deadlifts and squats). However, Norton would still want to get close to failure on compound movements but reserve this tactic for the final working set so as not to deter subsequent sets in the workout.
The research data suggests that since compound movements allow for a greater overall load, similar benefits of training to failure can be achieved without “training quite to failure.”
Layne Norton’s Advice for Training to Failure
Dr. Norton explains what training to failure means via an anecdote of when he squatted 530 pounds for nine reps. When he was done, he was unable to load the barbell back onto the squat rack. Then, Norton fell to the floor for 10 minutes and couldn’t move his legs.
According to Norton, “failure” is beyond being uncomfortable. “When they looked in a study, they asked people to tell the researchers how far from failure they were, but then the researchers then made them go to absolute failure…people were off by about five [reps],” says Norton. “They might’ve gotten to, like, the ninth rep and said, ‘I have one more left,’ and then when [the scientists] pushed [the subjects] to failure, they did 15.”
Norton recommends the following to go to absolute failure for each exercise to see what it feels like (with proper safety measures in place, of course):
- Saving absolute failure or close-to-failure sets for the final set of each exercise
- Avoiding absolute failure on compound movements
- Going to absolute failure for all sets of isolation exercises
In the end, the results are fairly clear to Norton: Most people don’t train hard enough and could get more benefits from their workouts.
Featured image: @biolayne on Instagram