Ah this question has been around for quite some time. When you workout is going to absolute failure on the last rep necessary for maximum growth or not? There are two sides to this argument both with very valid points. But scientifically nothing has been proven either way about which is better.
But let’s look at arguments on both sides of the fence before we make a decision….
Going to Failure
Arthur Jones was an early proponent of doing a set to absolute failure. He was the originator of the system Mike Mentzer later popularized with his amazing physique. Logically this ideology makes perfect sense. Your goal is to stress the muscle beyond what it has previously achieved and by doing so force it to grow. So in the gym you take an exercise and push your muscles as far as they can go in a single set.
As the set starts the reps are easy but slowly the muscle fatigues until it is exhausted. Just about everyone who works out hard in the gym has done this at one point or another. While the group of disciples that only do 1 perfect set are much smaller, they have made tremendous gains as well.
Not Going to Failure
There are plenty of examples of people who have built a large amount of muscle without going to failure. However most of these examples occur outside of the gym. People who do heavy construction are classic examples. They might lift, carry, or move large amounts of weight over an entire day. Or perhaps they do some serious repetitive work day after day. Personally I tore apart cement with a sledge hammer for a few weeks and gained size to my entire shoulder girdle that my previous gym work hadn’t.
Sprinters are another example of gaining size without going to failure. In a sense they do go to failure but it is a different type as they push themselves for the fastest time possible over a short burst. In essence they are attempting for incredible contractions of the muscle to propel the body as fast as possible. But each stride tries to achieve the maximum push, not just the final few strides.
So Which is Better?
Neither and both. That is the great thing about the human body; it adapts to things so well that both methods truly do work. A sprinter ends up with bigger and stronger muscles because the short burst forces so many muscles fibers to respond that they grow bigger and stronger. The same goes for speed skaters or even cyclists that need bursts of power. It is forcing your muscles to complete very hard work over a short period of time. The same goes for breaking concrete with a sledge hammer. I could only sustain swinging the hammer for X repetitions and only for so long each day before my muscles gave out.
Going to failure in the gym does seem a bit more regimented and efficient from a time standpoint. You are clearly going to spend less time going to absolute failure with leg extensions in the gym then you are running wind sprints. But then again, if you aren’t truly going all out then the results from the sprinter will be better.
The bottom line is that both methods can work if the person who is doing them puts out the effort and intensity to make them work. Sprinters have a serious goal of getting faster for a competition which results in a great deal of effort every single workout (if they end up successful). I am sure plenty of people who ran track in high school never developed massive quads because they didn’t put the same effort into it as Usain Bolt. By the same token I was swinging that sledge hammer to get paid and that kept me working hard. Mike Mentzer was incredibly successful because of the effort and intensity he put into those brief workouts to absolute failure. So the only real conclusion we can draw is that effort and intensity is far more important to your gains than the exact methodology that is used.