Although the training to failure concept has been discussed several times in past issues of Applied Metabolics, a new study defines just when training to failure is best used to promote gains in muscular size.. The notion of training to complete muscular failure isn't new but probably has been common since bodybuilding began. But it wasn't recognized as a valid training concept until it was popularized in a series of articles written by Arthur Jones and published in Ironman magazine in the early 1970s. Jones was an iconoclastic and eccentric entrepreneur who invented a new type of exercise machine that he called Nautilus machines because of the shape of the cam device on each machine. This cam was designed to provide a full range of variable resistance to the trained muscle since Jones noted that with free weight exercises there was always a point where little or no resistance was placed on the working muscles. This constant resistance throughout the exercise movement allegedly trained the muscle harder and more completely than could be achieved by any style of training that involved barbells, dumbbells, or conventional training machines. But Jones also decreed that to get the best results from his machines, you had to complete each set to total and complete muscular failure. Only in that manner could you fatigue every muscle fiber in the muscle you trained.
At the time of the introduction of the Nautilus machines and system of training, which officially occurred at the 1970 Mr.America contest held in Culver City, California, most bodybuilders trained using a high volume style of training, in which the total sets for each muscle group ranged from 15 to 30 sets. Doing that many sets precluded training to failure, so no bodybuilders ever trained that way. But Jones noted that the usual rate of progress made by most bodybuilders was agonizingly slow, with the exception of beginners, who made progress no matter how they trained. He likened the typical high volume training style to an unpaid form of manual labor and made seemingly hyperbolic statements such as that training with more intensity, but lower training volume could produce a faster rate of muscle and strength gains in a 30-minute workout, three times a week than could training two hours or more, six days a week as was the usual practice of most bodybuilders at the time.
Indeed, I was one of those bodybuilders who were engaging in self-induced "manual labor." In the early 70s, I made it a practice never to delete an exercise from my training routine, but merely to add it to my existing workout routine. As such, I averaged anywhere from 50 to 70 sets per muscle group! By any standard, that was gross overtraining. But in my mind at the time, I thought that the more exercise you did, the more the muscles would respond. There wasn't much muscle science . . .