Submaximal training or training until failure: which option to choose?

Submaximal training or training until failure: which option to choose?

The margin is often small between too strong and insufficient stimulation. According to a given context, do we know when to stop?

By Pierre-Luc Dubé


Until recently, I was personally a fan of training to failure, which is to say, I liked to push the machine so that my last rep was really the last. Lately, I have nuanced my outlook after reading a few articles on the subject. One of the important parameters to manage while training is recovery. This is often the main factor limiting training adaptations and it is also a parameter minimized by our clients. Nevertheless, the initial capacities of the body will remain unchanged without sufficient stimulation, which is the optimal combination of the intensity generated in training and the fatigue it generates. The margin is often small between too strong and insufficient stimulation. Failure and submaximal training are two methods that have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the context in which they are used.

A study by Morán-Navarro et al. (2017) tested the effect of submaximal training compared to training to failure. Using a maximum 10 rep load, the researchers compared three different training protocols – 3×5 reps, 6×5 reps, and 3×10 reps of bench presses and squats. The results obtained show that the 5-repetition protocols exhibit a faster recovery rate than that of 3×10 repetitions, 24 to 48 hours after exercise in addition to limiting the decline in force production.

Similarly, González-Badillo et al. (2016) observed similar effects with respect to recovery speed and nervous system fatigue. However, they also showed that submaximal training induces a lower hormonal response in testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-related growth factors (IGF), cortisol, creatine kinase and prolactin. Reducing cortisol and creatine kinase is desirable since they are markers of stress and muscle damage, but this is not necessarily the case for testosterone, growth hormone, prolactin, and IGFs which are important for muscle adaptations.

The point of the article is not to sell either of these options, but rather to make people realize that, depending on the context, it can be beneficial to adjust the intensity of training. If recovery is sufficient between sessions, training to failure can be a great option for clients. However, in the case of, for example, athletes with close competitions, submaximal training will help limit metabolic and/or nervous fatigue.

Benefits of submaximal training:

Benefits of training to failure:


  1. González-Badillo JJ, Rodríguez-Rosell D, Sánchez-Medina L, Ribas J, López-López C, Mora-Custodio R, Yañez-García JM, Pareja-Blanco F. Short-term Recovery Following Resistance Exercise Leading or not to Failure. Int J Sports Med. 2016 37(4):295-304.
  2. Morán-Navarro R, Pérez CE, Mora-Rodríguez R, de la Cruz-Sánchez E, González-Badillo JJ, Sánchez-Medina L, Pallarés JG. Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 117(12):2387-2399.

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