Working out until you reach failure is a popular technique among people who always want to do more.

One set done to the point of failure has been shown through research to be a good way to increase general strength, as well as a specific technique for increasing muscle size.

There are different ways to look at this, and there are ways that provide guidelines not only for bodybuilding but also for strength capacity.

Training to failure

Training to failure is a technique where you lift a weight until you can’t lift it anymore.

This means that you can no longer move the weight using only your muscles, and you have to resort to using momentum or cutting your range of motion.

This is important to remember as we continue because it will influence everything else we discuss today. Also, a lot of people have the wrong idea about what it means to train to failure.

At the point of muscle failure, the weight you are lifting is relative to your specific strength. You will need to take a break before continuing to lift that weight, but you can reduce the weight and continue. This is a common technique called drop sets.

People are different

If you want to train using any of the method’s variations, you need to figure out what an appropriate submaximal weight looks like. Coaches will recommend using percentage ranges based on guidelines from observing what Olympic-level athletes endure.

As you gain experience, you realize that different groups of people can vary greatly in their abilities. For example, some people can do more repetitions at a higher percentage of their maximum than what would be expected based on sports science guidelines.

Intermediate to advanced lifters who have a consistent technique can rely on their maxes not changing much from month to month.

How many repetitions someone can do in a given set and how close to their max the weight can be is influenced by:

  • Gender
  • Total training age
  • Athletic background
  • The muscle fiber type that they inherited
  • The variety of activities they did most as children and young adults

Women are often able to handle higher volumes of work at higher percentages of their maximum capacity than men. Someone who ran cross-country competitively in high-school will often be able to perform more repetitions at 80% of their maximum capacity than someone who played football in high-school.

The results of this research need to be further tested on a population-by-population and even individual basis.

Use feel and judgement wisely

It’s generally not a good idea to load a barbell haphazardly and do a single set until you’re too exhausted to continue.

It is not an effective way to use up energy, and it may even be dangerous. But there are some methods that produce the same physical response without being harmful. Let’s go over a few of them.

  • Technical Max Sets Based Off Main Sets: Getting the weight correct will be by trial and error, but it is a more accurate method than using something on a rated scale. For this, you would do one set of max reps based on the weight that you used for your top set after your planned work sets are complete. 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 1 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 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 of estimation is based on feelings and determining how hard something is, which can be inaccurate and subjective.

When using these guidelines, people tend to underestimate the first two sets, which helps to prevent injuries that can occur from training to failure.

Although this point of failure is closely followed by a series of sets with little rest, it will still cause the body to go through similar physiological processes as if absolute failure had been reached.

When the lifter is almost done with their last set and is about to reach their limit, they will be tired both physically and mentally. They are less likely to push themselves to a point where they may get injured.

Build muscle or strength

  • back squat would be at the top of my list for lifts to push to failure. With the risks of pushing a back squat to the max, the breakdown of technique is still easier to notice and feel. Because of this, you will end your set sooner than other lifts where the line between good and bad technique is harder to gauge. You will be less likely to move dangerously through the movement with too much fatigue when doing high rep sets. Most people with sense will stop squatting if they feel so bent over they can kiss their feet.
  • The front squat is a better self-regulating option. The moment the primary postural muscles fatigue, mainly the thoracic extensors or mid-back, it becomes almost impossible to continue to do more repetitions. The bar would fall off the front of the shoulders before you would reach a point where you could get injured from doing too many reps.
  • The bench press can also be used provided you have a spotter. After lifters are taught and become competent in a safe and reliable technique, they can detect any deviation from that technique and know it’s time to stop. As long as the shoulders stay locked in a safe position, though, with the support of the bench, you can continue to push until actual muscular failure.

Training to failure for good hypertrophy

How does muscle growth occur? Does it occur through politely asking, wishing, or half-heartedly stumbling around the gym?

Or do we demand it?

We all know that it takes effort to build muscle. We can’t just go through the motions and expect to make progress.

Your body doesn’t care about your goals to bench press three plates or to have a six-pack. All it cares about is keeping you alive.

If you want to make positive changes, you need to make your training challenging enough to send a strong signal to your body that there is an external stressor.

If you train your muscles by making them fail, you will slowly gain more muscle.

This combination forces your body to find ways to recover and adapt. Training to failure is a great way to make your body improve and adapt. When you push yourself past your limit, you get more muscle fibers working, cause more muscle damage, and create more metabolic stress. This combination causes your body to find ways to recover and adapt.

If the weight is heavy enough, it will also put your muscles under more mechanical tension.

All of these factors are critical for muscle growth.

If you don’t push yourself when training, you won’t improve. Your body only adapts and gets stronger if it is constantly challenged.

Training to failure good for gaining strength

Similarly to muscle growth, we need to push ourselves if we want to gain strength. Now, it’s worth exploring training to failure and its relation to strength on a couple of fronts:

  • The benefits;
  • The potential dangers;

Before covering the benefits, a brief primer:

Neuromuscular adaptation refers to the brain and nervous system becoming more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers, which can lead to increased strength even in the absence of muscle growth. This is why some people with relatively little muscle can lift very heavy weights.

We need to keep growing our muscles if we want to keep getting stronger because we exhaust our neuromuscular capacity. This is one reason why heavier powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters also tend to be stronger.

We have seen that training until you can’t do any more reps is very effective for building muscle. A muscle that is larger also has more potential strength, so we can guess that training until you can’t do any more reps would lead to more strength gain over time.

Neuromuscular adaptation, or the body’s ability to grow stronger in response to stress, also appears to be directly affected by training that includes failures. The greater the shock of the failure and the closer to failure we train, the stronger the body’s stress response will be.

Programs that train to failure employ different methods, such as AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets and overreaching blocks.

It can be extremely easy, especially when you’re working on things that you know aren’t your strengths, to start breaking down technically. There is a danger of abusing failure training by breaking down technique. This is more likely to happen when working on things that aren’t strengths.

The squat, bench press, and deadlift are challenging to master because there are a lot of moving parts. You need to pay careful attention to each one if you want to perform these lifts safely and effectively.

If you train your muscles to failure, you run the risk of exhausting different muscle groups and breaking down your technique. Overcompensating for this can lead to even more problems.

You have to be very careful to avoid the potential danger.

Reasons to avoid training to failure on every set

The issue of ATP

Our goal with training is to stimulate muscle growth, not to exhaust them. Pushing your muscles to their limits constantly will only lead to exhaustion.

– and it gets produced through a process of glycolysis, which is the breaking down of glucose. The body’s primary energy source is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP molecules enable the body to perform physical tasks such as running and lifting weights. ATP is produced through the process of glycolysis, which is the breaking down of glucose.

When weight training is challenging, our muscles’ ATP reserves usually last for less than 30 seconds, depending on how heavy the weights are.

A set that is moderately challenging will exhaust more than half of the muscle’s ATP reserves, which can take up to several minutes to be resynthesized. However, a set that is taken to muscle failure will deplete the muscle’s ATP stores completely.

ATP takes longer to be restored to its full state.

In one study, researchers found that sets taken to failure exhaust our muscle ATP reserves. They speculate that the ATP deficit contributes to fatigue, which makes sense.

The issue of muscle protein breakdown and the onset of overtraining

If we want to create a strong enough stimulus, we should take some sets to failure. However, if we train to failure all the time, we might cause too much muscle damage, increase the rates of muscle protein breakdown, and become overtrained.

In other words, research has found that if you keep pushing yourself to your limits during training, you will reduce the rate at which your muscles develop.

Aside from the muscle damage, there is probably another reason why that is. The rapid depletion of glycogen may be the reason.

. If you don’t take breaks to rest, the fatigue will build up and you’ll start to make mistakes. This puts you at risk of getting hurt.

as discussed above, different exercises are impacted by fatigue biomechanically.

The reason for this is that different muscle groups tire at different rates. When one muscle group gets fatigued, other muscles have to work harder to make up for the loss in force.

If your quads are too tired from squatting, your posterior chain will have to work harder to compensate, which often leads to the Good morning squat. This can lead to poor technique and a dramatically increased risk of injury.

Other times, this can mean a reduction in the range of motion. For example, if someone is only doing quarter squats, they are not getting the full benefit of the exercise. In other words, they are only doing it for the ego boost, not because it is actually effective.

Doing a set to failure every now and then is great. However, if you do several sets in a row, especially on compound exercises, the accumulated fatigue will cause your technique to suffer.

It’s very demanding on the mind and nervous system

If you train to failure all the time, it will be difficult to keep up your motivation.

You can only push yourself to your absolute limits for a short amount of time before it starts to have negative effects.


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About Rhoda ...

Rhoda is an award-winning dietitian, mature age model, and CEO of Sayvana Women.  

She is the creator of the Elegant Eating Solution, an affordable program that helps women avoid weight regain and feel great about themselves, without restrictive eating.

Elegant Eating is based on the science of protein leverage and follows the unique R.E.M.A.P approach to successful aging.

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