Buff man doing leg press to volitional fatigue for huge gains.

Perform Sets To Volitional Fatigue For Big Results

For muscle growth, you must train to volitional fatigue frequently, but not all the time. You may be stuck not getting stronger. Lifting to failure could be your key to success.

What is Volitional Fatigue?

Volitional means you did it on purpose or through the act of will, i.e., “volition.” You will recognize muscle fatigue by lifting to failure. Simply, you will know that your muscles have fatigued when you can no longer lift anymore. Lifting to volitional fatigue is lifting to failure, where you can’t lift another rep of that weight without cheating. Although, there are many ways to lift to failure if you are looking for more check out our Advanced Lifting Techniques.

How Does Muscle Growth Occur?

Muscle growth doesn’t occur in the gym, but what you do in the gym is the first step to getting stronger. During resistance training, you damage your muscle fibers and burn adenosine triphosphate (ATP). After your muscle has used up all the ATP stores, it can make more energy through three systems: ATP PCR, Glycolysis, Oxidative. To gain muscle strength, you need to train your Type II muscle fibers. For more information on the types of muscle fiber, read this article.

After exercise, your body must repair the damage created in your muscles during the resistance training. Subsequently, your body builds muscle when it repairs the muscle fibers. Specifically, your body replaces damaged muscle fibers by fusing more muscle fibers at a cellular level. Although, you must have enough of the fundamental building blocks for new muscle tissue. For example, you can’t build a house without raw materials. Similarly, you can’t build muscle without protein.

You may be wondering why lifting to failure, or volitional fatigue is so important then. Admittedly when you lift, you are tearing your muscle fibers. However, when you lift to failure, you are recruiting more and more muscle fibers until you have no more stored energy left. For that reason, you have now created the maximum amount of damage to all the muscle fibers that you targeted. On the contrary, if you didn’t lift to volitional fatigue, you have muscle fibers that were never fully utilized.

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Methods To Reach Volitional Fatigue

There are multiple methods to reach volitional fatigue while lifting. Although, there are only three main variables that you can change and still lift to failure. Those variables are weight, speed, and repetitions (reps). Most lifters only vary the weight and reps, but speed can also help you get to failure faster. First, let’s look at the conventional methods of changing the weight and reps.

Heavy Weight Low Reps

Low reps can mean different things to different types of lifters. For powerlifters, low reps are 1-3 reps. But for bodybuilders, low reps are anything less than 6. Both of these rep rangers are beneficial for getting stronger and for building mass. The important thing here is to lift to failure or near failure, in that you can’t do the last rep without help or cheating. The reason both powerlifters and bodybuilders lift high weight low reps is to get stronger. Specifically, bodybuilders should change up the sets rep routine from mass gain focus to strength gain focus periodically to continue to achieve gains.

Medium Weight Medium Reps

Medium weight and reps is the standard protocol that most bodybuilders use, even though they might consider it as lifting heavy. Currently, most bodybuilders lift weights in the 8-12 rep range consistently. Although, you are not maximizing your muscle breakdown if you are not lifting to volitional fatigue at least the last rep. Specifically, you can achieve the same results in less time if you lift only one set to failure (1).

Light Weight High Reps

With lightweight, high rep protocols, you can have muscle hypertrophy. Although you can also be building muscle endurance. Consequently, building muscle endurance may break down some of your Type II muscle fibers to develop your Type I fibers. Nevertheless, there is a way to do lightweight and high reps to build strength, and that is with speed. Lifting for speed takes more power and recruits more muscle fiber. Consequently, you can lift to volitional fatigue and build strength by doing as many reps as you can in 60 seconds.

How Fast To Perform Each Rep

There is an endless number of speeds to lift, but we are going to look at three main speeds. First is as fast as you can with control, second is normal speed, and third and final is slow.

Lifting Fast For Strength

There is a strength known as speed strength. The basic of speed-strength is that you use more force to move a weight than the force of the weight from gravity. Despite this seeming intuitive, the strength gains come from how much more force you use to move the weight than the weight produces. To illustrate, if you can use 250 lbs of force to move 125 lbs, you are producing twice the force as necessary to move the bar. In order to produce more force, you must recruit and use more muscles. Understandably if you push with more force, the bar will move faster, and you can recruit and build strength with lighter weight lifting faster. Although you don’t want to bounce the weight or have bad form, you want to move the weight smoothly with more force.

Lifting At Your Natural (Normal) Speed

When you concentrate on performing the movement correctly and focus on the muscles that are contracting, you are lifting at your natural speed. Specifically, lifting at your natural speed should feel comfortable to you. As such, it shouldn’t be too fast or too slow. You can lift most of the time at this speed and get good results. Yet, there are benefits for lifting both faster and slower than your natural speed.

Lifting Slow For Mass

Lifting slowly in the 4-6 seconds per contraction and extension of the muscle can have huge benefits to your protein synthesis cycles post-workout and building mass (2). Going slowly in this manner is commonly referred to as increasing the time under tension. Because you may be lifting the same amount of weight, but doing the lift slowly requires your muscles to burn more energy. There is an upper end to time under tension, and that is about 8 seconds per contraction and extension. Slow reps with a duration of ~10 seconds or greater is an inferior method for reaching hypertrophy and developing muscle growth (3).

Rep Counting vs Time Under Tension: Which is Best for Muscle Growth?

How Frequently To Lift To Volitional Fatigue?

The frequency that you work to volitional fatigue is dependent on your goals and your program. If you are lifting each body part only once a week, then you can go to failure every time you lift and for a while, will continue to see gains. However, if you are training a muscle group more than once a week, you should probably not lift to failure every session. Most importantly, if you are not lifting to volitional fatigue at all, it is a great way to speed up your progression and increase the intensity of your workout. Check out this article for more ways to increase the intensity of your training.

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