Failure -- something that’s often viewed as a negative in other aspects of life (failure in school, work, marriage, etc.), yet in the world of muscle building, failure is heralded as something that’s important, nay essential, to maximizing your gains.
But, is that true, or is it another piece of the lore found in the annals of Bro Science?
Is Training to Failure Necessary?
From the research side of things, it appears it isn’t necessary to train to failure all the time to build muscle or strength.[1,2]
So, why do so many individuals (especially in the IFBB community) profess the importance and essentiality of training to failure?
Well, part of it has to do with the hardcore mentality that accompanies being a bodybuilder, but there’s also some merit in taking a set to failure. The deeper you get into a set, the more muscle fibers are recruited. By extension, taking a set to failure ensures that all muscle fibers are fully exhausted.
However, as we’ve seen in the research, hypertrophy and strength outcomes are basically the same whether you’re training to absolute failure or within a rep or two of failure.
All that being said, there’s not really a “best practices” answer when it comes to training to failure. It’s possible to make gains without training to failure, and it’s also possible (sometimes even necessary when you’re really advanced) to make gains with training to failure.
All that being said, there are some important takeaways or guidelines when it comes to training to failure:
Failure is the point at which you cannot perform the concentric portion of the movement (i.e. lifting the weight) with perfect form.
In other words, if you’re having to squirm, wiggle, writhe, and contort your body to get the weight up, you’ve reached failure.
There is no need to take every set in your workout to failure.
Going to failure induces considerable fatigue both in the muscle and the nervous system that is considerably greater than the benefits you’d derive in terms of muscle or strength gain.
Remember, there’s only so much abuse the body can take mentally and/or physically before it taps out. Simply put, performing every set to complete concentric failure is damn tiring, and no lifter will be able to repeatedly do that over the course of an entire workout.
- There’s also the consideration of injury. The closer and more frequently you approach actual failure the more you’re toeing the line of potential injury. As you approach failure, form breakdown can occur which can lead to considerable loads being placed on structures not meant to bear those loads (e.g. your lower back), which can lead to strains, pain, and injury.
Certain exercises are more appropriate for training to failure than others.
Heavy compound movements like back squats, deadlifts, and bench presses generally shouldn’t be taken to failure. You can train them to within a rep or two of failure, but it’s not recommended to take them to absolute concentric failure. Isolation exercises and/or machine/cable exercises can be taken to failure safely. (again, not every set must be taken to failure though).
If you do want to train to failure, do it intelligently. Save it for the last set of an exercise. For example, if you’re performing 4 sets of dumbbell bench, leave a rep or two in the tank for the first 3 sets, and then take the 4th and final set to failure.
- Regardless if you like to train to failure or not, building muscle requires hard work and pushing muscles to a high level of fatigue (which is typically 1-3 reps from failure)
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- Sampson JA, Groeller H. Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength? Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2016 Apr;26(4):375-83. doi: 10.1111/sms.12445. Epub 2015 Mar 24. PMID: 25809472.
- Vieira, Alexandra F.1; Umpierre, Daniel2,3,4; Teodoro, Juliana L.1; Lisboa, Salime C.1; Baroni, Bruno M.5; Izquierdo, Mikel6; Cadore, Eduardo L.1 Effects of Resistance Training Performed to Failure or Not to Failure on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Power Output, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 04, 2021 - Volume Publish Ahead of Print - Issue - doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003936