If you are new to weight training or just getting out of the beginner stages and looking into more advanced training techniques then one of the most popular topics (and hotly debated) is whether or not you should train to failure.
In weightlifting terms training to failure means that you cannot perform another rep of an exercise and many beginners will experience this because they don’t know what their training maxes are or what rep ranges they should be using.
In powerlifting and all out max rep will lead to muscular, nervous and skeletal fatigue and is extremely demanding on the human body which is why you won’t see people training with 100% intensity even though a YouTube video might suggest otherwise.
This example is also relevant to those training for muscular hypertrophy, whilst training for one all out set might not be how you approach failure, if you train a set of 12 reps to failure then this will have a similar impact as your body needs to work just as hard to recruit the muscle fibres required to reach failure.
Should you train to failure every set? Under no circumstances should you be training to failure every set in your workout. This style of training will be incredibly taxing on the human body and not only will it impact your performance in the gym but it will be incredibly hard to recover from in between workouts, negatively impacting your progress.
There are so many factors to consider when it comes to training to failure and I’ll lay out exactly why you should not be training to failure every working set. It’s always good to try out new techniques when looking to build muscle mass but the key is to do so with a smart approach and not base it on some ‘bro science’ that the random guy in your gym told you.
What Is Muscle Failure
When training to failure it’s important to first note that for the purpose of muscle hypertrophy it’s assumed that you want to know specifically about muscle failure. As mentioned training for your one rep max will cause a number of failure points though these won’t necessarily be with the intention of muscle growth.
Muscle failure is therefore a point when you cannot perform another rep for an exercise and the ideal hypertrophic range to base this on is 8-12 reps. Training with a weight that is too light will not recruit as many muscle fibres (especially the larger fast twitch muscle fibres which carry a greater capacity for growth) and is likely not the approach you are looking to take.
Therefore we are looking at muscle failure in the rep range of 8-12 reps and for most, a good assumption would be that you are sticking to 3-4 straight sets per exercise. These are basic assumptions but easier to relate to than an advanced program that factors in training weight percentages.
When it comes to training failure there are actually to types of failure that you need to be aware of.
The Two Types of Muscle Failure
Absolute failure – Absolute failure is the term most will be familiar with when thinking of failure, this is when you simply can’t perform another rep. Your muscle fibres are fatigued at that given weight and no matter what you can no longer move the weight.
Technical failure – Technical failure is when you cannot perform another rep with perfect form.
As you can see many will not differentiate between technical and absolute failure, especially as a beginner and this is because grinding out your rep is seen as pushing hard. Reaching absolute failure will typically involve poor form when done on compound movements that require multiple muscle groups.
For this reason absolute failure is not recommended for any multi joint compound movements like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press or any Olympic lift. The obvious reason for this is that as form breaks down your risk of injury dramatically increases.
Trying to fatigue your muscle fibres is not as important when it comes to training as injury prevention and longevity and for this reason you should only go to technical failure (if any sort of failure) on these sets.
It’s easier to go to absolute failure on smaller isolation exercises like a preacher curl for the biceps, this is because absolute failure and technical failure are closely related (it’s very difficult to use other muscles groups to cheat the weight up) and therefore the risk of injury or a breakdown in form is minimized.
Nervous System Fatigue
Once you train to absolute failure on a set then not only will your muscle fibres be fatigued but your central nervous system will also be fatigued. This is because weightlifting is not just focused around muscular contractions to lift the weight, your nervous system is also responsible for recruiting the necessary number and type of muscle fibres to complete the exercise.
This is where you see people getting hyped/amped up before a big lift in order to get the adrenaline pumping and have your CNS firing for a big lift. Some people will have different effects based on neurological pathways, some needed amping up for a big lift and need the adrenaline pumping whereas others are like the quiet before the storm and then suddenly switch on when required.
You see this most in competitive team sports, there are those that operate at a higher adrenaline level for maximal performance (these are the trash talkers and animated individuals) and others need adrenaline levels maintained (the hand on the shoulder, always needing praise kind).
In training terms, an all out set for the deadlift which uses multiple muscle groups will not only be taxing on the muscle groups worked but also the nervous system when it needs to recruit these muscle fibres (particularly the fast twitch high threshold muscle fibres).
Once you fatigue the nervous system then all subsequent exercises and sets after it will be negatively impacted as a result and your performance will suffer significantly. Therefore it’s not only important to consider the effects of taking a set to failure for the targeted muscle group but also the nervous system as well.
This is also crucial for recovery in between workouts however we will come on to that point a bit later on.
Why Should You Train to Muscle Failure
The reason for training to muscle failure is quite simple in theory, you recruit and fatigue your muscle fibres to the point of failure in order to stimulate muscle growth and hypertrophy.
The basics of building muscle is that you maximally contract your muscles against an external load (muscular tension) in order to cause metabolic stress. To do this you recruit muscle fibres to contract against the load and over time you need to increase the load or work capacity as the body adapts.
This is known as progressive overload and is one of the key training processes when it comes to building muscle. If produced a range of articles covering this concept for you to check out if you are new to training.
How to increase weight with progressive overload
Progressive overload vs time under tension for muscle growth
Therefore it’s not enough to maximally recruit muscle fibres, you also need to fatigue them and training to failure is one way to ensure that you do that.
Is Training to Failure Necessary for Muscle Growth
This is a widely debated topic and is unfortunately something I do not have the answer to, this is not due to a lack of knowledge or opinion but rather because there is not a proven answer yet. You will find arguments to say that a fully fatigued muscle fibre is the only way to cause muscle growth.
You will also find those that say you only need to stimulate the muscle fibres enough to activate protein synthesis which is the hormonal response required to start the muscle building process and is what puts you into an anabolic state.
There is no scientific evidence to date to say that training to failure is necessary for muscle growth however it’s important to note that many people build muscle with training to failure.
Whether or not training a muscle to failure is an optimal way to accelerate and maximize your growth potential is the real question that needs to be answered but when it comes to the basics of is training to failure necessary for muscle growth the answer is likely not.
I’m going to show you how you can incorporate training to failure into your workout as there is definitely evidence to show that with the lactic acid buildup triggering growth factors and muscle fibre fatigue that it can lead to muscle growth. (Source)
With that said I just need to point out that it’s not absolutely necessary and you can build muscle without it.
When Should You Train to Muscle Failure
As noted earlier, when training to failure you should only do so on low neurologically impacting exercises that require minimal technical ability. Your primary focus should of course be injury prevention and whilst this isn’t as glamorous as fancy training programs it should be the core foundation of which you build a routine.
Is It Safe to Train to Failure
It is only safe to train to failure if you are doing so in a controlled environment and by that I mean that you are limiting all factors that could lead to a breakdown in technique and risk injury.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record but training to failure is an advanced technique, if you are bench pressing and don’t have a spotter or safety bar in place and go to both technical and absolute failure with a heavy weight then your risk of injury skyrockets.
This is also true of the squat or deadlift whereby smaller stabilizing and secondary muscle groups might fatigue before your larger muscle groups which will again put you at risk of injury. Even going to technical failure on these movements would be advised against.
Building muscle is not about satisfying yours or someone else ego but should be about the smart selection of techniques that are available to us all. Therefore it is safe to train to failure but we’ll look into the ideal circumstances in which to do this.
The first point to note is that when training to failure you need to carefully choose the exercises you will use this for. Low skilled movements with a low neurological impact are ideal for this.
These include machine work (including the smith machine), isolation exercises with free weights and isolation exercises with cables.
The reason for this is that taking an exercise to failure for one of your larger movements early on in a set will impact the rest of your workout due to the neurological impacts that come with failure.
This was covered earlier however if you hit failure at 10 reps on your first set of bench pressing (assuming you have a spotter and do so safely) then your next set will not be able to match this due to the neurological demands of recruiting the muscle fibres required to hit failure at 10 reps.
When I first started training this happened to me all the time and I thought it was the process required to get stronger, what I didn’t realize was that I just couldn’t recruit muscle fibres optimally for the remaining sets due to CNS fatigue.
Therefore you want to be choosing exercises that have a low neurological demand, the example of a preacher curl is great because reaching muscle fibre fatigue and failure with this places significantly less demand on the CNS than all out sets for compound movements.
When Should You Hit Failure
Following on from this point and assuming you are not only looking to hit failure on demanding exercises that will impact the rest of your workout, you next need to consider when to hit failure.
Without going into too much detail you should restrict muscle failure to the final set of an exercise and preferably keep it towards the end of a routine.
If you follow a basic program that covers getting stronger in the heavy compound lifts then you will likely keep your isolation work to later on in a workout. If you hit muscle failure on your first set then you will raise cortisol levels and also see a decreased performance with subsequent sets.
If kept till last however, then it is a great way to work up to an all out set where you go to failure and fatigue the muscle fibres without having a negative impact on the rest of your workout.
You should only hit failure once or twice for a few select exercises of a period of a few weeks. This is because the demands required when you hit true failure are so high that it becomes very difficult to recover from.
It’s therefore a technique that needs to be used sparingly so as to not impact your other training sessions.
Should You Train to Failure Every Set
Hopefully I’ve covered this in enough detail to resoundingly say that you should not be training to failure every set. Below are just a few of the reasons that are against this style of training:
- Training to failure every set increases cortisol levels and inhibits the growth factor hormone IGF-1
- Training to failure every set will decrease the performance of subsequent sets. If you hit a set to failure at 12 reps on your first set then the second set you might only get 8 reps, the third set you get 6 reps and so on
- Training to failure every set increases the demands on the central nervous system meaning it will take longer to recover from each workout and your subsequent workout performance will be lower as a result
- Training to failure every set will be more catabolic than anabolic due to the demands on the CNS and increases in cortisol levels, these are not ideal combinations when it comes to building muscle.
- Training to failure every set on highly technical or neurologically demanding exercises will quickly lead to a breakdown in form and increase the risk of injury
I’m all for using more advanced training techniques to stimulate muscle growth however we are not perfect machines (despite what you might want to believe), an advanced technique should be done in moderation and used sparingly.
Training Beyond Failure
Something that I wanted to leave till last to cover is training beyond failure. If you are new to training you might be wondering how that is possible considering that I defined failure as an inability to perform one more rep.
What I didn’t mention however are the techniques that can be used to extend a set beyond failure using techniques like drop sets and extended eccentrics. These are the most advanced techniques and when you see someone new to the gym attempting to use drop sets then you know they’ve been watching too many Youtube videos.
This is because going beyond muscle failure means you are further recruiting and fatiguing muscle fibres not directly used in the set. Reaching muscle failure at a certain weight for 12 reps means that you have reached muscle failure at that weight, you can’t recruit any more muscle fibres to move it.
When you drop the weight however, then you can fatigue these muscle fibres further, especially the slow twitch fibres that are more endurance based. With this you will continue to fatigue muscle fibres for the chosen muscle.
Likewise when reaching muscle failure on the concentric part of the movement what you don’t realise is that you are actually stronger during the eccentric (lowering) portion of an exercise, therefore if you have a training partner that can help you with the concentric portion once you’ve reached failure you can then continue to do sets to eccentric failure.
The reason I had a cheeky poke at a beginner using these techniques is because training beyond failure is such an advanced technique that you will need additional rest days just to recover from this (something they don’t mention in the training videos).
These are for advanced trainers that cannot fully fatigue their muscle fibres with regular training because they have reached close to their maximum potential in terms of the weight they can use on a lift. Weight training is non linear meaning you will eventually reach a plateau in the weight that you can use.
This is where more advanced techniques come in to continue to push the body to new limits, if however you can’t bench press 225lbs for 8 reps then you have absolutely no right attempting these techniques. It’s a harsh reality but something that needs to be made clear.
When it comes to training to failure and in particular failure on every set consider the following points and you’ll continue to grow:
- Do not train to failure every set
- Do not train to failure on highly technical movements
- Train to failure on exercises that have a low neurological demand like isolation exercises with free weights and cable exercises
- Only train to failure on the last set of an exercise
- Only train to failure a few times over a two week period
- Allow extra rest days to recover from training to failure
- Do not use techniques to train beyond failure if you are not at an advanced training level
If you are looking to make changes to your physique by either losing body fat, building muscle or looking to maintain a lean physique then sign up to my weekly newsletter below. Each week I send out actionable tips to help you lose that extra 1lb of fat or build that extra 0.5lb of muscle mass on a weekly basis.
If you sign up now you’ll also receive my 28 day body recomp program completely Free. This ebook will be sent straight to your inbox and will provide an intense 28 day program aimed at helping you lose up to 8lbs of body fat whilst also building 2lb-4lb of lean muscle mass in just 4 weeks.
Don’t worry if you’re not ready for an intense program just yet, my weekly newsletter will give smaller tips that when implemented daily, will stack up over time and see you transform your body with seemingly minimal effort!