Training to failure
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
In weeks four and nine of the X-frame gaining phase, we deliberately train to failure. Here I describe what failure is and why we should train to failure occasionally.
What is failure (in weightlifting)?
In bodybuilding and weightlifting, “failure” should describe the moment at which a target muscle or muscles can do no more work.
Many people never reach this point however due to, for example:
A lack of cardiorespiratory fitness where their lungs give out before their muscles do
A lack of pain tolerance where their head gives out before their muscles do
Poor exercise selection and/or technique where their movements or form are not conducive to taking the target muscle/s to exhaustion.
Do we need to train to failure?
If you want to get big you’ve got to train to failure, right?
Almost. You’ve got to train towards failure.
In the studies and meta-analyses I’ve found conducted since 2004, there is an indication in trained and untrained individuals of significant effects on cross-sectional muscle size and strength in those who train to failure as those who trained to three reps shy of failure typically on machine-based movements.
Indeed, a 2016 meta-analysis from the University of Sydney suggested that:
it appears that similar increases in muscular strength can be achieved with failure and non-failure training. Furthermore, it seems unnecessary to perform failure training to maximise muscular strength; however, if incorporated into a programme, training to failure should be performed sparingly to limit the risks of injuries and overtraining.
Checkout @coachjackmann for my 48-second take on what you've read so far
How do we train to failure?
As mentioned above, training to failure means getting to a point where the target muscle/s are spent, so that no matter how hard you try, with decent to perfect form, you can't perform another rep.
Inverting the reasons above for why many people never reach failure, the following is how I (would recommend you) train to failure:
program exercises that hit the muscles you want to work at a resistance (weight) you can manage for at least six reps going up to 30
add one more rep to last week's total each week until you complete the suggested rep range or, if you've completed the rep range, add weight
increase your cardiorespiratory fitness – through, for example, brisk walking or swimming.
The closer you get to failure, the more muscle fibres should be firing but, to maximise the likelihood of this, you may need to swap strength work for (more targeted) hypertrophy work. For example, if you're looking to grow your quads, swapping heavy sets of one to five high-bar squats for moderate weight sets of low foot leg presses for six to 12 reps or even more could give even more of your quadriceps' muscle fibres more of a chance to kick-in.
The problem with failure training
Of itself, taking your sets between failure and three reps shy of failure won’t make you bigger and stronger. Acutely, it’ll make you weaker. How well you recover will influence where your numbers go next.
Knowing that training to failure is physically demanding, takes longer to recover from, carries a greater injury risk and (so) demands great technique built up from weeks of practice, I only train to failure across every movement in a workout once every four to five weeks. Next week, I’ll rest by taking my sessions down from five to two. I’ll get out of the gym, spend time with friends and family and, I expect, from experience and reading, to come back better for it.
In summary, in theory, if you’re looking to build muscle and strength, you don’t need to train to failure, ever. In practice, however, I put it to you that if you don’t ever train to failure, you won’t ever know what failure is well enough to know exactly what three reps in the tank looks like: if you don't try to go all the way, you might never learn how far you can go.
In any event, however close to failure you (try to) go, set your weights up properly, grab a spotter and, as auld Steph would say, “let’s practice safe sets, people!”