When I first started lifting weights, I tried to take every set to failure. I didn’t know any better because no one told me any different. And, if I looked at how Arnold lifted and the culture of bodybuilding, complete failure appeared to be the goal of training sessions.
But, what if I told you that pushing your muscles to the point that they can’t lift a weight isn’t the point?
Whether you’re trying to add muscle mass, improve a few muscle groups, or are just using resistance training to improve your overall health, the idea of seeking failure is misunderstood and misapplied, and a big reason why many people don’t see amazing results from their workouts.
There’s a big difference between breaking a muscle down so it can grow, and demolishing it to the point that it’s harder to recover.
Muscle growth is directly connected to muscle fatigue. But, if you want to build stronger muscle fibers or add muscle mass, failure is best used sparingly.
In fact, in most cases, the best approach for both short- and long-term growth is about finding a way to push yourself hard, add reps, sets, and weights, without hitting that point where your muscles stop working. (And that’s separate from injuries, which are much more likely when training to failure.)
Think back to the first time you ever lifted weights. What did you do?
You probably walked up to a dumbbell rack, picked up the heaviest weight you could hold, and performed some exercise movement — heck, any exercise movement — to the best of your ability. Rep after rep after rep. And you did so until you could no longer move the weight.
Then you rested, probably until you felt fresh again, and repeated the process. Sometimes, a little naivety and simplicity is a good thing.
But, that simplicity is also why so many people are frustrated by what they do in the gym. Beyond the exercises you perform and the frequency and volume of your workouts, most people don’t know how hard to push on any given set.
They don’t know how to build muscle. And they don’t know how to build strength. What they do know how to do is perform exercises listed in their training session.
There’s an important distinction. The results you see from your time spent in the gym is a combination of many factors. For muscle growth, it’s a matter of muscular tension, metabolic stress, and muscular damage. There are many ways to manipulate those variables, but most people assume that pushing every set to the last rep where your muscles are aching is what needs to be done.
It’s the reason why “training to failure” is one of the most highly debated topics in the fitness industry and, truth be told, it’s extremely misunderstood.
I’ve spent enough time studying the topic to know that there’s no simple answer. Some people swear that taking every set to failure is the secret to success while others insist it’s a recipe for guaranteed injury and “overtraining.”
The answer, as most things in life, depends entirely on the individual as well as their needs, goals, and preferences.
If you’re going to commit to training sessions, you might as well make sure you’re personalizing those workouts as much as possible.
So, before you take another set to muscle failure, here’s what you need to consider.
Research on training to failure is, unfortunately, scarce. Increasing muscle hypertrophy is often necessary for physique competitors and strength athletes to improve performance. Since training to failure “may activate a greater number of motor units” and potentially enhance muscle hypertrophy, training to failure is often warranted among these individuals.
Willardson et al. is perhaps the highest quality review of the literature pertaining to failure-based training. After examining the data, the authors concluded that training to failure is a valid method to use in order to enhance muscle hypertrophy, facilitate maximal strength gains, and break through plateaus.
However, it’s important to note that Willardson also stated “training to failure should not be performed repeatedly over long periods, due to the high potential for overtraining and overuse injuries. Therefore, the training status and the goals of the lifter should guide the decision-making process on this issue.”
Linnamo et al. found that training to failure resulted in a significantly greater increase in the secretion of growth hormone compared to non-failure based training. While this finding in no way, shape, or form proves that training to failure is better than other methods, it may lend credence to the success so many athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts have had with failure-based training.
There are other studies, but what really what matters is, how does this apply to you?
Training intensity is perhaps the single most important factor in deciding whether or not training to failure is effective or even appropriate. Training intensity refers to the percentage of weight being lifted in relation to an individual’s 1-repetition maximum (1-RM).
In my opinion, training to failure at intensities at, or above 90 percent of your 1-RM should be avoided.
Training to failure with such heavy weights will do very little (if anything) to enhance muscle hypertrophy and may actually hamper strength gains. If you’re going to hit absolute or complete failure, you don’t want to do it with the maximum amount of weight you can push, press, deadlift, or squat.
Furthermore, training to failure with near maximal weights will almost inevitably result in a breakdown of technique, drastically increasing the likelihood of injury. Don’t get it twisted: weightlifting is a lifetime activity, but you need to be smart about the risks you take.
Generally speaking, training to failure should be reserved for training percentages ranging from 50 percent to 85 percent of your 1-rep max.
While I rarely prescribe training to failure at either of these end-ranges, I believe that they are appropriate guidelines to follow for a majority of intermediate and advanced trainees.
Keep in mind, though, training to failure at 50 percent of your 1-RM can take an inordinate amount of time to complete and may not be well suited for those with time restrictions. On the other hand, 85 percent of your 1-RM is still heavy weight and the use of a spotter is strongly encouraged.
There are three major categories signifying the current “level” of a given trainee. I call this “the trainee continuum” and they are: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
For example, beginner trainees must, first and foremost, work on developing proper form and technique in compound movements such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, and chin-up.
Consequently, training beginners to absolute failure would likely do more harm than good as maintaining proper form becomes exceedingly difficult in a fatigued state.
In other words, if you’re a beginner and haven’t been training for, at least, 2 years consistently, then you’re likely best off not pushing to muscle failure, even when you’re below 90 percent of your 1-RM.
What to do instead? You can try the “reps in reserve” (or RIR) method. RIR is great for beginners and also incredibly effective for advanced lifters.
Instead of pushing towards complete failure, you want to push to a different level of fatigue. For example, you’ll set a goal rep range (say, 8 reps) and make sure you have 2 reps in reserve (2 RIR). This way, you’re able to work towards a level of intensity that challenges your muscles, but you’re purposely leaving a number of reps in the tank.
It can take trial-and-error to figure out how many reps you truly have in reserve, but — when you do — it’s a great way to add reps, weight, and more sets, while mastering form, fatigue, and recovery.
If you’re not a beginner, intermediate and advanced trainees can push to failure more often. If you’re following the 90-percent rule, and sticking between 60 to 85 percent of your 1-rep max, you can train to failure between 2-4 times per week.
How do you know how often you should push? Glad you asked because that will depend on your goal and the exercises you perform.
An individual’s desired goal will dictate numerous components of their program, not least of which includes whether or not they should train to muscular failure.
Take, for example, the differences between powerlifters and bodybuilders. Powerlifters are focused on maximal strength development (including training their nervous system to handle more weight). Consequently, they train at relatively high intensities of their 1-RM. Additionally, powerlifter’s place a distinct emphasis on full-body, compound movements, which require a great deal of skill to maintain proper form.
Because of these different approaches and the types of exercises performed, bodybuilders are able to train to failure more frequently than powerlifters.
It’s important to note, however, that many elite powerlifters also train to failure on a regular basis. In fact, as a world record powerlifter myself, I regularly utilize failure-based training within my programs. That being said, I rarely train to failure in big, compound movements and almost exclusively use intensities between 60 percent to 80 percent of my 1-RM.
The more skill required for a lift, the less frequently it should be performed to failure. Conversely, the less skill required to perform a lift the more acceptable it becomes to train to failure.
Finally, single-joint exercises, including bicep curls, triceps extensions, and calf raises, are the least complex of movements and are far more appropriate to train to failure.
Failure occurs when an individual is unable to complete another full repetition. This tends to happen due to the onset of fatigue.
Fatigue, however, is a truly subjective term and is nearly impossible to quantify. Based on pain tolerance, willpower, and other psychological factors, what constitutes muscular failure for one individual may only be slight discomfort to someone else. As such, it’s difficult to know whether a given individual is training to true muscular failure or simply cutting the set short.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that while some individuals derive pleasure from training to failure, others do not and attempting to force them may, in fact, deter them from strength training. Understanding the psychology of your clients (or yourself) and how they respond to training is of the utmost importance to long-term program adherence.
While it’d be easy to make a blanket statement about training to failure, ultimately it depends on your answers to the questions above. Failure-based training is a valuable tool in your training arsenal when applied correctly. If it fits your goals, needs, and preferences then use it wisely and with caution
 Aragon, Alan. “Training to Failure.” Alan Aragon Research Review. Alan Aragon, Mar 2009. Web. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.
 Schoenfeld, Brad. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24.10 (2010): 2857-2873. Web. 10 Mar. 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20847704>.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.
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