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  • Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

Training to Failure



Squat until you puke. Deadlift until your nose bleeds. Lunge until your knees give out.

If you don’t leave the gym in excruciating pain, don’t deposit some sort of bodily fluid on the gym floor, or require 911 assistance to make it home, then your workout wasn’t hard enough and you’ve successfully left potential gains behind.

This is the hardcore, all-or-nothing, workout mentality that has become popularized in mainstream fitness, particularly in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and crossfit. It’s intimidating at first glance but people love to adopt extreme, all-or-nothing, mindsets. If some is good, then more is always better! This mindset has been quite influential in popularizing the technique of training to failure, which involves taking a set and going as hard as you possibly can with it.


Logically, it makes sense that the harder you work at the something the more you get out of it. It’s easy to see the appeal behind training to failure. An all-out effort should be the best way to reap maximal results. While this logic may apply to many things in life, such as your career, relationships, and school, biological systems, like the human body, don’t quite follow the same rationale. Harder training isn’t always better training.


Many people believe that training to failure is a mandatory feature of a successful training program, a necessity for maximizing the effectiveness of your workouts. However, this rationale is based more on the hardcore mentality logic and less on objective scientific fact. From a more evidence-based perspective, the merits of training to failure are actually a bit more debatable. Do you really need to lunge until you collapse? Is it mandatory to bench press until you find yourself helplessly stranded beneath the bar?


The goal of this article is to define what training to failure is, discuss its potential benefits, point out its drawbacks, and summarize how to properly implement it within your training in order to achieve maximal results.


What is training to failure?


Training to failure has two meanings, it can refer to ‘form failure’ or ‘mechanical failure’. Form failure is when an exercise is performed to the point where you can no longer accomplish another successful repetition without the breakdown of proper form. Mechanical failure is when a set is performed to the point where the weight can no longer be moved physically. In other words, this is point when muscle has become so fatigued that it can no longer generate enough force to perform another concentric or lifting action.


Intensity of Effort


The effort that is exerted during resistance training is referred to as the intensity of effort. Commonly, intensity of effort is a measure of proximity to failure, with failure being the highest possible intensity of effort that can be exerted on a given exercise set. A popular way of measuring intensity of effort is by using an RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale based on the number of repetitions left in reserve at the end of a set. Typically, the scale ranges from 1-10, with an RPE of 10 corresponding to muscular failure, the point where no further repetitions could be completed. An RPE of 9 that one more rep could have been done, an RPE of 8 means that two more reps could have been done, an RPE of 7 means three more reps could have been done, and so on.


The question is, what intensity of effort is necessary in order to maximally benefit from your workouts? Does your intensity of effort have to be all-or-nothing?


Contradictory to common belief, it is well established that you can make great progress in strength, endurance, muscular development, and performance without ever reaching the point of muscular failure in your workouts. Depending on your specific training goal and the amount of weight being lifted, sets can be ‘effective’ at promoting adaptation even at RPEs as low as 5-7. That is, you can make progress and stimulate gains seven when stopping your sets three to five reps shy from muscular failure.


Failure training is by no means mandatory in order to benefit from exercise and to make training progress. However, although it isn’t a necessity, it’s still prudent to ask whether or not it can promote better gains when compared to training that isn’t taken to failure. After all, nobody is interested in making moderate progress, we all want to make the best progress possible. Is training to failure necessary to make workouts maximally effective?


Benefits of failure training


1) Muscle Fiber Recruitment

The biggest benefit of training to failure has to do with muscle fiber recruitment, or the amount of muscle that becomes activated during a given exercise set.


Each individual muscle, such as your biceps or your quadriceps, are composed of hundreds to millions of individual muscle fibers. If your goal is to maximize the size and strength of a given muscle, its critical to effectively activate and stimulate each component muscle fiber found within it. The more fibers that are stimulated, the more comprehensive your muscle growth will be and the higher your potential strength gain becomes.


When lifting a relatively light submaximal load, not all muscle fibers found within a given muscle are activated and contracted initially. This would be rather unnecessary, inefficient, and a waste of energy. Lifting your coffee cup to your mouth, for example, doesn’t require your entire bicep to contract with full force. This would lead to a rather aggressive sip of coffee. Lifting a small load, such as a coffee cup, may only require something like 20% of your bicep’s muscle fibers. The body, being incredibly efficient, only recruits and contracts the minimum amount of muscle that is necessary to lift a given load.


When muscle fibers are repeatedly activated and contracted with little rest, they can become fatigued. As fatigue occurs, a muscle fiber’s relative ability to produce force decreases. In order for a muscle to maintain a constant force production, as fatigue occurs, the body has to recruit additional fibers. Generally, as fatigue increases, muscle fiber activation increase. Even a relatively light weight, when lifted to the point of high enough fatigue, can facilitate a full recruitment of muscle. Muscular failure, in a more physiological sense, is the point where the body has recruited and fatigued all of its available muscle fibers.


Muscle fibers are recruited in an order from slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are smaller in size and have a much lower force production capability. Therefore, these fibers are usually the first ones to be recruited when beginning to lift a relatively light weight. Fast twitch muscle fibers, which are much larger and capable of producing much higher levels of force, are the last to be recruited, only being called upon when necessary. Coincidentally, fast-twitch muscle fibers are also the most important muscle fibers to train if your goal is to maximize muscle size and strength, as they have the highest potential for growth and the largest influence force production. If your missing out on fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment and stimulation, you’re missing out on a lot of potential growth and strength gains.


The primary benefit of training to failure is that it ensures you are getting a complete recruitment of muscle, including the fast-twitch fibers that are most critical. While failure training may ensure a full recruitment of muscle, it is not the only way to achieve it. Muscle fiber recruitment is not only dependent upon fatigue and intensity of effort but also on the magnitude of the load that is being lifted. When weights are heavy enough, a full recruitment of muscle can take place instantaneously, without having to go to failure and accumulate fatigue. Heavy weights require high levels of force production in order to lift them, which requires a recruitment and activation of all muscle fibers, even the highest threshold fast-twitch muscle fibers.


The load at which complete muscle fiber activation occurs is somewhat unclear, but it appears to be somewhere around 50-60% of an individual’s one repetition maximum (1RM) or about 50% of the weight that you could successfully do for one repetition. Even with loads equating to approximately 15RM, muscle activity seems to plateau between an RPE of 5-7, or five to three reps shy of failure.


Training to failure appears to be more important when you’re using lighter weights, anything below about 60% of your 1RM in a given exercise. To give you an idea of what 60% of your 1RM is, if your 1RM on the bench press is 200lbs, it means you only have to lift 120lbs to achieve full muscle fiber recruitment without reaching failure. Or if your 1RM barbell bicep curl is 80lbs, you only need to lift about 50lbs.


2) Metabolic Stress

Exercise induced metabolic stress is one of the primary mechanisms proposed in muscular growth and refers to the accumulation of metabolites resulting from energy production, including that of lactate, inorganic phosphate, and hydrogen ions. In bro terms, metabolic stress refers to the ‘pump’.


A potential benefit of training to failure is that it facilitates high levels of metabolic stress and thereby can potentiate gains in muscular size. Metabolic stress directly causes muscular fatigue and therefore leads to higher levels of muscle fiber recruitment, discussed in the last section. Higher levels of muscle fiber recruitment is the primary mechanism by which metabolic stress is proposed to cause muscle hypertrophy. However, it seems to mediates muscle growth through a number of alternative pathways as well.


Just like full muscle recruitment, failure training is not the only way to achieve high levels of metabolic stress. Metabolites will accumulate during any type of high intensity exercise lasing about 15 to 120 seconds in duration. Lifting relatively heavy weights, about 85% of 1RM and higher, or about 5 reps and less, usually doesn’t lead to significant metabolic stress. Significant amounts of metabolic stress can be reached with loads around 60-80% of 1RM, falling in the 8-15 rep range, without the use of going to failure. Metabolic stress can be even further potentiated by using relatively short rest intervals between sets, about 30-60 seconds in duration.


3) Strength Testing

A critical and often neglected part of a good training program is progress monitoring. It’s important to watch your performance and make sure that your actually progressing from your training.


Training to failure provides you with a great test of your strength with a given weight in a particular rep range. This helps to serve a direct measure of relative strength progress and a rough estimation as to whether or not you are gaining muscle. If you squatted 225lbs for 10 reps to failure last month and this month you did the same weight for 12 reps to failure, then you have successfully made progress and you must be doing something right.


Summary of Benefits


Collectively, the science demonstrates quite clearly that taking sets to failure promotes superior gains in both strength and hypertrophy in the short term as compared to lifting similar weights not taken to failure. Set-for-set, when using similar loads, training to failure is definitely superior, thanks to each of the mechanisms described above. However, these short-term benefits come with costs. It’s important to realize that the majority of research has only highlighted the superiority of failure training on a set-for-set, short term basis, not on a chronic long-term weekly, monthly, or yearly one. With that said, lets take a look at the downsides to failure training.


Costs of training to failure


When looking at your training, it’s important to see the big picture. You shouldn’t just focus on any one exercise, set, or workout. Rather, you need to look at the quality and effectiveness of your training as a whole, on a weekly and monthly basis. Failure training may help to provide a very effective short-term stimulus; however, it can some negative long-term implications.


Taking a set to failure may facilitate a lot of muscle fiber recruitment and promote high levels of metabolic stress, which provides a fantastic short-term growth stimulus, but how do sets to failure effect the rest of your training program? If you go to failure on the first set of an exercise, how will that effect the remaining sets? How will it affect your remaining exercises? What about tomorrow’s training session? This is the type of ‘big-picture’ thinking that you have to consider in order to maximize the effectiveness of your training. So lets now look at some of the long-term implications and potential drawbacks to failure training.


1) Fatigue accumulation and reduced training volume

The biggest disadvantage of failure training is that it is highly fatiguing. Taking sets to failure is very demanding on the body. It fatigues the nervous system, the muscle, and the body as a whole. The problem with fatigue is that accumulates much faster than it dissipates and it has a negative effect on exercise performance. The fatigue that you accumulate by taking a set to failure will take much longer to dissipate than 1-3 minutes between sets. If you start your chest workout by taking a set of bench press to mechanical failure, the fatigue that it will accumulate will definitely affect the rest of your workout. Not only will your subsequent sets of bench press be affected, but the rest of your following exercises as well.


There are a lot of variables that promote strength and muscle gain, intensity of effort being one, however, the most important variable is training volume. Training volume is the total amount of work done by a muscle, defined as the amount of weight x sets x reps performed on a weekly basis. The problem with training to failure is that can decrease overall training volume.


Let’s say you are planning to do three sets of bench press with 200lbs and you end up taking your first set to failure, successfully achieving 5 repetitions. Because of all the accumulated fatigue, you might only get 3 reps on your second set and 2 reps on your last, a total of 10 reps of bench press. If you didn’t go to failure on your first set you might have been able to get 4 reps on all three of your sets, equating to 12 total reps.

Arguably, the bench press workout in which you accumulated the most volume would be the most beneficial. In this scenario, it would be the workout where you didn’t go to failure, achieving 12 total reps versus only 10 in the failure routine. The weight lifted in this example is greater than 60% of your 1RM, meaning that muscle fiber recruitment most likely wasn’t significantly different in either case. Volume was the only difference here. Even if muscle fiber recruitment was slightly greater in the failure scenario, it still occurred at an expense to volume. The moral of the story is, don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. In other words, don’t prioritize training to failure if it reduces your total training volume.


2) Increased risk of overtraining and injury

A study by Izquierdo et al (1985) had two groups performing identical training in all aspects except for the fact that one group trained to failure while the other did not. At the end of the study, both groups made similar progress but the group training to failure demonstrated signs of being in an overtrained state. Similar studies have demonstrated that prolonged periods of consistent failure training can lead to reductions in resting testosterone and other anabolic hormones in physically active males. Training to failure on a consistent basis can lead to a chronic accumulation of fatigue, accompanied by an increased risk for injury, declined performance, poor recovery, psychological burnout, and weakened immune function.


In terms of safety, taking sets to failure is dangerous, especially on large compound exercises such as squats and bench press. When you get fatigued, exercise form breaks down, joint stability decreases, and you’re left in very vulnerable situations to pick up injuries. In the grand scheme of your training, an injury is the worst possible outcome. You have to weigh the costs and benefits of failure training. Does it provide a big enough benefit to outweigh the potential cost of injury? Obviously, anytime you step in the gym there is an inherent risk of injury, however, smart training should aim to minimize that risk. In grand scheme of training progress, injuries can really set you back.


Summary


Training to failure is simply a technique and it must fall within the context of an overall sound training program where proper volume, load, and progressive overload are applied. Training to failure should not be prioritized at the expense of these other variables. In justifying your use of failure training, the short-term benefits have to outweigh the potential long-term costs.


How to practically implement failure training


Training to failure can be a very advantageous tool as it provides a fantastic short-term growth stimulus and allows you to get a good test of your relative strength, helping you to monitor your training progress and asses the effectiveness of your program. However, it must be implemented in an intelligent fashion in order to be net beneficial. Utilized to frequently and unintelligently, it can actually have detrimental effects. Here are five tips on how to implement failure training most effectively:


1) Periodize or pre-plan failure training into your program

Schedule or pre-plan failure training during particular weeks. It is best to implement failure training during the last week of your training cycles, coming just before a planned deload or easy week. This allows you take advantage of its growth stimulus without it effecting subsequent weeks of training. The deload gives you plenty of time to recover and dissipate high levels of fatigue before returning to harder training.


2) Place failure training toward the end of your workouts

By placing failure training at the end of your workouts, you will allow yourself to accumulate sufficient training volume first, before you start to rack up high levels fatigue that can impact subsequent performance and overall volume.


3) Perform failure training only on the last set of your exercises


4) Save failure training for the last exercise that you plan to do with a particular muscle group


5) Only train to failure on isolation single-joint exercises

For safety reasons, its best to only train to failure on isolation movements such as bicep curls, lateral raises, or leg extension. Not only does this prevent against injury but going to failure on these smaller single joint exercises won’t accumulate as much full body systemic fatigue as larger movements like squats, deadlifts, or bench press.


Additional Training Recommendations


Intensity of Effort

Outside of smart, pre-planned failure training, the majority of your training should probably fall within the 6-9 RPE range, that is, the most of your sets should be taken to the point where you still have one to four repetitions left in reserve. This intensity of effort allows you to accumulate as much effective training volume as possible without facilitating large amounts of fatigue.


Load

Generally, if your goal is muscle strength and size, you should be using weights that equate to at least 60% of your 1RMs. Loads of this magnitude will help to recruit maximal amounts of muscle without having to take sets to failure. If you perform sets with lighter loads, less than 60% of your 1RM and in the rep range of about 15 or higher, it may be a good idea to take these sets to failure. This will help to ensure that full muscle fiber recruitment is achieved and sufficient growth stimulus is reached. Additionally, if muscular endurance is your primary goal, failure training may be bit more beneficial.

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