Should You Include Training to Failure Into Your Routine?

Concentric failure occurs when muscles have reached the maximum level of fatigue and can no longer perform the necessary movement to complete the set.

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Should you train to failure?

This is a complex topic, with many different things to look at. We can’t give a black-or-white answer because there isn’t one.

What we can do is look at the bigger picture (both anecdotal and scientific evidence) and come up with the most accurate and unbiased answer.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a much better idea of what training to failure is and be in a position to decide if it’s something you’d like to try or not.

What is training to failure?

Training to failure is lifting a given weight until you can no longer produce enough force to move it properly. In other words, once you have to cut the range of motion short or employ momentum to move the weight, you’ve reached muscular failure.

The muscle failure you experience at that point is relative to that specific weight. You can’t keep lifting this weight without taking a break first, but you can strip some of it off and keep going. This is a common technique called drop sets.

For example, say you’re bench pressing 275 pounds. You reach failure on the 8th rep, get up, remove a couple of 15-pound plates, lie back down, and keep going.

In other words, your muscles aren’t thoroughly exhausted, but their performance significantly decreases.

Is training to failure good for hypertrophy? 

Training to failure is an eloquent way of forcing your body to improve and adapt. When you push yourself near your limit, you recruit the most significant number of muscle fibers, causing more muscle damage and metabolic stress. If the weight is heavy enough, you also put your muscles under more mechanical tension.

All of these factors are critical for muscle growth.

On the other hand, if you always train within your limits, your body doesn’t allocate any resources for new muscle tissue.

Benefits of Training to Failure VS Volume Training

The number of sets we perform every workout is directly correlated with the progress we make. More work, better results.

Of course,  there comes the point of diminishing returns where more work doesn’t lead to better results but instead increases the risk of overtraining. This was demonstrated in the study on modified German volume training wherein the  researchers concluded:

It is recommended that 4-6 sets per exercise be performed to maximize hypertrophic training effects, as it seems gains will plateau beyond this set range and may even regress due to overtraining.

More work leads to more fatigue. Over time, as fatigue accumulates, we cannot recover well, and rather than make better progress, we go backward.

It’s entirely possible that doing less total work but putting more effort in leads to superior results. The research certainly supports this.

Second, focusing on fewer things (in our case, exercises) allows us to get better at each. Rather than doing five or six movements for your back and barely making progress on any of them, doing a couple of exercises frees up energy and focus you can spend on them, master your technique, and ultimately get better results.

Training to failure also takes a lot less time than volume training.

Should I train to failure for every set?

Too much of a good thing can be harmful. As with training volume (where too many leads to overtraining), it’s also true for failure training. Yes, it’s beneficial and has been shown to lead to better progress. But it’s a tool that should be used carefully.

Here are four reasons to avoid training to failure on every set.

1. The issue of ATP

The goal is to stimulate, not annihilate. Continually pushing your muscles to their limits does the latter.

First, there’s the issue of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the primary energy currency for the body. ATP molecules allow us to perform physical tasks – running, lifting weights, etc.

In the case of challenging weight training, our muscle ATP reserves usually last for less than 30 seconds, depending on how heavy the weights are.

A moderately-challenging set exhausts more than half of our muscle ATP reserves, which take up to several minutes to resynthesize. But a set taken to muscle failure depletes your muscle ATP stores completely. It then takes longer for the ATP to be fully restored.

2. The issue of muscle protein breakdown and the onset of overtraining

Taking some sets to failure helps us create a strong enough stimulus. But if we go all in and train to failure all the time, we risk causing too much muscle damage, increasing the rates of muscle protein breakdown, and becoming overtrained.

Some research supports this:

“…if incorporated into a program, training to failure should be performed sparingly to limit the risks of injuries and overtraining.”

Research has also found that constant training to failure reduces muscle protein synthesis rates – a critical factor for the growth and development of muscle mass. Aside from the muscle damage, another possible reason is probably the rapid glycogen depletion.

3. The accumulated fatigue can lead to technique breakdown and increase the risk of injury

Once a given muscle becomes too tired, others have to kick in more and compensate for the loss of force.

In the case of the squat, overfatigued quads would force your posterior chain to kick in more and compensate, which often leads to a movement that starts to resemble the Good morning squat. This can lead to poor technique, dramatically increasing the risk of injury.

In other cases, this means a reduction in the range of motion, defeating the purpose of training altogether. A set to failure here and there is excellent. But if you string up several of them in a row, especially on compound exercises, the accumulated fatigue would screw up your technique.

4. The demand on the mind and nervous system

Training to failure all the time might sound great at first, and you may manage to do it while you’re still motivated and energetic. But a few workouts are in, and you’ll probably dread the next exercise. Dread isn’t a good source of motivation unless your desired outcome is to avoid something.

Pushing yourself to your absolute limits can only work for so long. Sadly, it’s not a good long-term strategy.

Training To Failure- Is it for you? 

Haphazardly loading a barbell and doing one set until you fall into exhaustion shouldn’t be the plan for most lifters. It’s not a method but a way to tire yourself out unproductively and possibly even dangerously. But, some methods self-regulate and still cause the same physiological changes. We’ll go through a few.

  • Technical Max Sets Based Off Main Sets: Getting the weight correct will be done by trial and error, but it is more accurate than using something on a rated scale. For this, you would do one set of max reps based on the weight you used for your top set after completing your planned work sets. Whether the day called for you to work up to a heavy set of 5 for the day or you did straight sets of 5 reps at 80% of an actual one-rep max makes little difference. With either, you are basing your set to failure off your level of readiness for that day.
  • Rest-Pause Sets: This training approach was taken from bodybuilding first. I learned how it could also be modified and used for strength development from top powerlifting coach Josh Bryant. If your goal is to use training to failure for muscle growth or increased strength capacity, it is a wiser, strategic method than doing reps until you crap out.

For this, you’d pick a lift and:

  • Do one set of 2-3 reps short of failure, using your judgment to determine when you feel as if you could only do 2-3 reps more if you tried.
  • Stop and rest for 20 seconds.
  • Then do a set with the same weight 1-2 reps short of failure.
  • Rest twenty seconds.
  • Do one last set to failure.

This method is based on judging how hard something is or estimating how much more you could have done, which can be inaccurate and arbitrary.

When using these guidelines, people will more likely underestimate the first two sets than overestimate them. This will usually stop them from going too far too fast and reduce the chance of injuries that can come from training until they can’t do anymore.

But because there are consecutive sets close to this point of failure with little rest, it will elicit similar physiological processes associated with training to absolute failure

When the lifter gets to the last set where they are to work to actual failure, they will be tired mentally and physically. They won’t likely push themselves to a point where they may injure themselves.

The Reptons Effort Method

The father of many strength theories, Vladimir Zatriorsky, developed the Reptons’ effort method. It is one of the three proven ways to increase strength.

Using the idea accurately in practice is essential and means lifting a submaximal weight for as many reps as possible in one given set. The study states that during the last couple of reps, the body is trained to develop the maximum force potential in a fatigued state before the muscle fails.

For muscle growth, you need the correct amount of mechanical stress (think of this as the total time the muscle is working) and other metabolic factors

The real benefit of reps to failure is believed to be a catalyst for increased muscular contribution. As you fatigue, you stimulate the motor units consisting of muscle fibers and the nerves that cause them to contract.

When you contract a muscle to lift a load, you don’t use the entire musculature. Those motor units would never be activated if you were to use submaximal weights and perform moderate rep ranges. Forcing them to come online, so to speak, is the benefit of pushing to capacity.

Preconditions

A beginner shouldn’t be doing reps until failure. It is assumed that beginners should do higher reps with lighter weights. However, this is incorrect.

You should not necessarily increase the reps per set in order to get lots of practice with the movement. You could instead:

  • Keep the rep count moderate and increase the number or set each time you practice or the frequency you practice each week.
  • With moderate rep sets, you can focus on the quality of movement for each rep rather than practicing poor patterns with high rep sets. The postural and assisting muscle groups lack the endurance to support the technique.
  • This plan also allows you to increase weight steadily, consistently, and progressively over time and for a much longer while putting off plateaus in progress.

Working with the right amount of volume and intensity as you begin strength training will set a more solid foundation than trying to build to your peak as fast as possible. The peak may come faster if you push it, but it will not be as high.

Before using any of the following methods for compound lifts, a lifter should have a consistent, reliable 1RM. A lifter’s max generally changes quite a bit during training cycles, making it challenging to base weights on this value. Making use of more severe methods can intensify this issue of unreliability.

A method like rest-pause is only valid if the rep count is within a reasonable range, which will depend on the weight on the bar. If the lifter is doing forty reps on the first set, it will lose its desired effect.

Consistency in Max Is Critical

Consistency is critical, even for experienced lifters. Many high-intermediate and advanced lifters have similar maxes throughout the year and don’t see significant variations. A max lift is not likely to differ from them by more than twenty pounds.

If the lifter has dedicated considerable time to training but has wildly varied their maxes, I’d advise them to build consistency with straightforward training first.

Before training to failure, it is essential to have a consistent and reliable technique. The lifter should be able to tell when their technique is breaking down.

If the lifter’s technique is not sound and their movements are not natural when performing conventional reps, it will be a problem when attempting to train to failure.

Most training protocols work, at least for a while. More intense methods should be used only when necessary and when other methods are no longer helpful or sufficient.