“No pain, no gain!”
“If you’re not puking, you’re not working hard enough!”
“Go until you can’t do one more rep!”
That’s how we should train, right? Well no, at least not in untrained lifters, according to a new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effects of resistance training (RT) at high- and low-intensities performed to muscle failure or volitional interruption on muscle strength, cross-sectional area (CSA), pennation angle (PA) and muscle activation. Thirty-two untrained men participated in the study. Each leg was allocated in one of four unilateral RT protocols: RT to failure at high (HIRT-F) and low (LIRT-F) intensities, and RT to volitional interruption (repetitions performed to the point in which participants voluntarily interrupted the exercise) at high (HIRT-V) and low (LIRT-V) intensities. Muscle strength (1-RM), CSA, PA and muscle activation by amplitude of the electromyography (EMG) signal were assessed before (Pre), after 6 (6W) and 12 (12W) weeks. 1-RM increased similarly after 6W (range: 15.8 - 18.9%, ES: 0.41- 0.58) and 12W (range: 25.6 - 33.6%, ES: 0.64 - 0.98) for all protocols. All protocols were similarly effective in increasing CSA after 6W (range: 3.0 - 4.6%, ES: 0.10 - 0.24) and 12W (range: 6.1 - 7.5%, ES: 0.22 - 0.26). PA increased after 6W (~3.5) and 12W (~9%; main time effect, P < 0.0001), with no differences between protocols. EMG values were significantly higher for the high-intensity protocols at all times (main intensity effect, P < 0.0001). In conclusion, both high- and low-intensity RT performed to volitional interruption are equally effective in increasing muscle mass, strength and PA when compared to RT performed to muscle failure.
Ok, so why is this important? How often do you hear from somebody you know who has recently started a workout program, and all they rave about is how tough it is. “My trainer made me do so many squats that I could barely walk for a week afterwards!”
Although D.O.M.S. (delayed onset muscle soreness) is an inflammatory response to something your body is not used to, it doesn’t always mean that you are necessarily improving. The go beyond that, doing something like squats or push-ups until you can no longer do one more rep shouldn’t necessarily be your end goal either.
What the aforementioned study is telling us, is that in untrained individuals, training to failure isn’t necessarily more effective in improving your strength or muscular size. This is quite important to remember for those just starting out in a workout program because the belief is that you must completely destroy yourself in order to improve.
I would argue that movement mechanics and safety outweigh the importance of how hard you work in the beginning. Take note that I still think intensity and effort need to be high in order to start to develop good habits, however, effective coaching where an athlete or participant is scaled and pushed according to their fitness and skill level should be the primary focus.
I run the CrossFit Orangeville Beginner Bootcamp with this very mentality. Sure, the first few sessions involve soreness (read above: D.O.M.S) and some minimal muscular failure, however, the primary focus is on moving well first, and then we begin to scale up the intensity and effort as the strength and fitness level of the participants begins to climb.
It should be noted that this study was conducted on untrained individuals. We have seen research that shows the vast differences between training intensity and volume in trained individuals. Some people seem to be able to handle more or less overall training volume based on a number of variables and circumstances.
Having said that, for untrained folks, this study tells us that just “getting your feet wet” and ramping up intensity later is probably the best option. Not only that, but I see it time and time again when new trainees start too intense, push their bodies to the limit in the beginning, and end up either injured or too sore to move. The far better option would be to push enough (with proper coaching) and staying consistent over time rather than trying to accomplish everything in a workout or two.