Is training your muscles to failure a good thing?
Is it right or wrong?
Will it get you results, or will it destroy your body?
These are just some questions that gym goers ask when approaching Training to Failure. Lifting weights to failure is a strength training technique that, contrary to its name, has nothing to do with failure.
While this strength training strategy may assist some people in building muscle faster, it is not suitable for everyone.
Lifting in this manner is not suitable for beginners since it entails performing a continuous number of repetitions until you are physically unable to finish another rep with proper technique.
Is it Safe to lift to failure?
Like most answers to fitness questions the answer to this one is – “it depends”.
It depends entirely on the individual as well as their needs, goals, and preferences.
However saying “it depends” doesn’t clarify the situation. You need to go into your workouts and know what to do. So consider this your guide to knowing when and if training to muscle failure should be incorporated into your training program.
What is Training to Failure?
There are numerous types of muscle failure, but the one most commonly referred to and what we’re referencing here is Concentric Failure
The definition of concentric failure is:
“The point at which whatever part of your body you’re working out literally gives out (or fails) and you physically can’t complete another repetition with good form.”
Let’s use a bench press as an example.
Failure would be the point when, after lowering the bar to your chest, you are unable to press it back to the starting position.
Research comparing training to muscle failure vs. not training to muscle failure is limited, but there is some.
A lot of the research is anecdotal and is what strength coaches, bodybuilders, and other experienced fitness professionals intuitively know.
But some quality research does exist, and the majority of what I found about failure-based training came from Willardson et al. Here’s what it concluded:
Training muscles to failure builds muscle and strength – if not done frequently.
They decided that training to muscle failure is a sound method to use in order to stimulate muscle hypertrophy, facilitate maximal strength gains, and break through strength plateaus.
However, it was also determined that training to muscle failure shouldn’t be done repeatedly for long periods of time due to the likelihood of overuse and overtraining.
Bench Press; Photo by Bruno Bueno
How does this apply to you?
I think that is a good place to start for today’s article. Because your goals and your training style will determine if and when you should push to failure.
To make that decision, here are 4 questions to ask yourself:
1) What is the Intensity of your training?
Intensity is probably the most important factor when deciding if you should train to failure. Your intensity will determine if it is effective or appropriate for you.
Intensity refers to the percentage of your 1-rep max weight that you are lifting.
If you are lifting 90% of your 1-RM or above, you should not be regularly training to failure in my opinion and based on the research from the journal cited above.
That means you should stop the set with weight that heavy before you get to failure.
That is not to say you shouldn’t train to failure, but it should be reserved for weight ranges that are 70-85% of your 1-RM.
If your 1-RM on a bench press is 100 pounds, 90 pounds is 90% of that. It is optimal to avoid regularly training to failure with 90 pounds or above in that case.
Keep in mind that your 1-RM is not a weight you fail at, because you are able to complete the lift.
But you can only do 1 rep, not more than that. That weight is not to be underestimated.
On top of the risk of injury being high, training to muscle failure with such heavy weights for you will do very little (if anything) to stimulate muscle hypertrophy and can even work against strength gains.
Training to failure with more than 90% of your 1-RM weight also inevitably breaks down the use of proper technique.
That being said, training to failure should be reserved for weight ranges that are 70-85% of your 1-RM.
In the case of the bench press and your 1-RM being 100 pounds, pushing to failure with weights between 70-85 pounds will be most optimal for your hypertrophy and for your strength gains.
And as far as how often you should be training to failure: it depends on what exercise you are doing.
If youd like to dive into understanding a bit more about Exercise Intensity, please watch the video below:
2) What exercise are you doing?
A general rule to follow when determining if training to failure is a good idea is that the more skill required for a lift, the less frequently it should be performed to failure.
And the less skill that is required, the more frequently you can take it to failure.
Multi-joint movements like bench presses, back squats, deadlifts, chin ups, and lunges require more skill. More muscles work at a time and they are more taxing on the central nervous system.
They are suitable to take to failure sometimes and with extreme caution.
To give you an example…if you are following a 6-week structured strength training program, take those multi-joint exercises to failure for 1 to 2 sets in that 6-week period. The rest of the time, leave one to two reps in reserve.
When you do take them to failure, make sure that you have a spotter or necessary safety equipment in place.
On the other hand, single-joint, isolation exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and hamstring curls are far less complex and are much more appropriate to take to failure regularly.
If you’re looking for more information on the role of single-joint, isolation movements in your training program, head here to read an article I wrote discussing it in depth.
Aside from deload weeks (weeks of intentional lower volume and lower intensity), isolation movements can be trained to failure or close to failure for all working sets.
So the frequency in which you train to failure depends on the exercise you are doing.
3) What is your goal?
An individual’s goals plays a big factor in the components of their program and whether or not they should train to failure.
For example, let’s look at a powerlifter vs a bodybuilder.
A powerlifter is focused on maximal strength and will train at higher intensities that are closer to their 1-RM.
A powerlifter will also perform more full body, compound movements that require a great deal of skill and mental energy.
I said above that when training close to your 1-RM and performing compound movements, you should train to failure less frequently. That is still the case.
Bodybuilders, conversely, are focused on improved muscle hypertrophy and train at lower ends of their 1-RM because building strength is not always the way to enhance hypertrophy.
Bodybuilders also tend to emphasize more single-joint, isolation movements that require less skill to complete correctly.
For the lay-person who is neither, they would lean more towards hypertrophy if their goal is primarily to improve their physique and not tax their central nervous system as much.
Because bodybuilders are performing more hypertrophy-related, single-joint exercises, they will train to failure more often than a powerlifter.
It is safer to perform these hypertrophy-based exercises to failure and much more beneficial for the desired goal. Hypertrophy is enhanced by fatiguing the muscle and pushing to failure.
Whereas strength is a neurological adaptation and repeating the strength-based exercises at intensities between 70 to 85% of your 1-RM is a suitable way to gain strength. Not to say powerlifters never train to failure, it’s just not as frequent as bodybuilders for the reasons stated above.
This means that for an average gym-goer who wants to improve their physique, you should be training to failure in your isolation exercises. Even if you don’t plan to step on stage.
4) Does mindset play a role?
Simple answer: yes.
Failure occurs when you are unable to perform another repetition. This tends to occur because of muscle fatigue.
But a lot of factors contribute to fatigue, and it is quite relative to the individual.
Fatigue is based on pain tolerance, willpower, and many other psychological factors.
What constitutes failure for one individual might be just slight discomfort to another.
As a result, it is difficult to know if a given individual is training to true failure, or simply cutting a set short.
On top of that, some individuals (like myself) find pleasure in training to failure, and others do not.
For the person who doesn’t find pleasure in it, being told to train to failure could deter them from strength training which is never the desired result.
For that reason, whether or not you train to failure does depend on the individual.
Because something is always better than nothing.
And if forcing an individual to train to failure negatively impacts program adherence, it should be avoided.
You can still see progress and get healthier from not training to failure, even if it is optimal in some cases.
Once again, it is dependent on the individual and their personal goals and capabilities.
- Training to failure should primarily be done on single-joint, isolation exercises.
- The weight used to train to failure should be 70-85% of your 1-RM for the exercise being performed.
- An individual with goals to enhance hypertrophy will train to failure more often than an individual with goals to build strength.
- An individual’s mindset plays a key role in whether or not they can and will train to failure.
Here’s a great video that dives into the science of Effective Reps. Jeff Nippard does an amazing job of breaking in down.