While I generally think heavy lifting while avoiding failure is the best way to train, every once in a while I like to perform low weight high reps training to failure. This is primarily used for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which results in muscle mass gains. Done strategically, training to failure can actually generate a nice “shrink-wrap effect” as well. However, over the long term, I think low weight high reps training is best left to bodybuilders.
Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy vs. Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way. Low weight high reps training to failure results in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy while high weight low reps training avoiding failure results in myofibrillar hypertrophy. So what’s the difference? Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is characterized by bigger muscles. However, that volume is in the form of sarcoplasmic fluid. Fluids can’t contract so while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy results in muscles with more volume, it doesn’t result in getting stronger.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is characterized by tighter, denser muscles. This does help in gaining overall strength and definition. Overall, the best way to describe the difference between sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy is to compare a bodybuilder to a power lifter. A bodybuilder performs low weight high reps training to failure in order to maximize muscle volume. A power lifter performs high weight lows reps training while avoiding failure to maximize strength which ultimately results in tighter, more compact muscles.
Training to Failure
The easiest thing to say about training to failure is that if you want to look like a bodybuilder, train to failure and if you want to look like a power lifter, don’t train to failure. The story doesn’t end there though. First, take a look at some of the pros and cons of training to failure.
- Add muscle mass: in my opinion, there’s no better way to add muscle mass than through low weight high reps training to failure. That’s why it’s popular with bodybuilders
- “The Pump”: this is the sensation that your muscles experience for a couple hours after training. For example, when I train to failure, I gain over an inch on my chest when I measure before vs. immediately after the workout.
- Challenging: when you train to failure, you have to mentally and physically challenge yourself to complete the maximum number of reps. It feels pretty good to push yourself to the limit.
- Teaching your muscles to fail: unfortunately if you train your muscles to fail, then neurologically they learn to fail and will continue to fail. This prevents large increases in strength.
- Exhausting: after a workout, my muscles are absolutely drained. This can impact your ability to perform simple everyday tasks.
- Light injury: if you push too hard when training to failure, you could risk pulling or tearing a muscle. Such risks are common though no matter what type of training you perform.
- Severe injury: if you push too hard and your muscles end up completely failing, you risk dropping a weight on yourself. Make sure to take proper safety precautions especially when performing exercises like bench press and squats.
Shrink Wrap Effect
So what’s the best way to implement training to failure? In my opinion, it’s to take advantage of all the good characteristics above meaning that you want to do a low weight high reps workout to quickly gain muscle mass. This is the basis behind both phase 1 and the bonus phase of Visual Impact Muscle Building. The bonus phase is particularly interesting because it comes after an extended period of high weight low reps training while avoiding failure.
Low Weight High Reps Routine
There are a lot of different approaches you can take with a low weight high reps workout. If you generally perform heavy weight strength training, one reality you have to live with is the fact that you will be lifting significantly lighter weights. It feels like a bruise to your ego in some ways but don’t worry, you can go back to heavy lifting again soon. To maximize fatigue, I perform pushing exercises one day and pulling exercises another day. The pushing exercises work chest, triceps and shoulders while the pulling exercises focus on back and biceps.
The goal is to perform 10-15 reps per exercise. You can structure pyramids where you increase the weight while decreasing reps as outlined in Visual Impact or you can simply try to do a few sets of the same weight. Right now I simply start with a weight I can lift 12 times. When I can lift it more than 15 times, I increase it. Independent of reps, the real key is making sure your muscles fail. That means keeping rest periods short at 45-60 seconds. Again, you’ll feel a nice pump after your workout and look noticeably bigger for 1-2 hours.
In general, I’d recommend performing low weight high reps training to failure for 1-2 months at a time before cycling back to heavy weight strength training. This type of training provides a great way to quickly add some muscle mass although I’d argue that the density achieved from heavy weight training is preferable. Since I’ve been doing heavy weight training the past several months, now is the perfect opportunity to switch things up with a low weight high reps routine.