01 Aug Training to Failure: Yes or No?
There seems to be two camps in the fitness industry:
- Every set must be balls to the walls, hell for leather.
- Every set must be stopped with plenty of reps in the tank, nowhere near failure.
If you want the best results, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
You need to train hard, but you also need to train smart if you want stay healthy and make progress over a long period of time.
Types of Failure
When we talk about training to failure, there are two types:
- Mechanical failure. This is when you can no longer physically move the weight, your form goes to sh*t and the weight starts falling back on you. You never want to do this.
- Technical Failure. This is the point at which another rep with perfect form would be impossible. This is acceptable, and has its place. But even then I feel it’s often abused a little too much for my liking.
Instead, my general rule of thumb is that most people should stop the majority of their sets with 1-2 perfect reps in the tank.
When your form starts breaking down and each rep becomes a full on grind, you’ve gone too far.
Ideally, you want to stop before this and keep all reps crisp and clean. This way you don’t teach your body bad form, and you keep the stimulation where it needs to be: on the muscles, not the joints.
Knowing you can do one more solid rep is always a good feeling, and builds confidence during a training cycle; increasing the likelihood of setting PRs by the end of it.
If you want a standard to base your sets off – the last rep of every set should look like the first, albeit a little slower.
What Exercises Should You Train To Failure With?
The first consideration in deciding whether to train to failure or not is exercise selection.
Exercises I advise AGAINST going to failure on:
- Anything in the 1-5 rep range
Even when your goal is body composition, you can still benefit from some heavy stimulus in the week. I generally like to split training weeks into ‘heavy’ sessions in the 3-8 rep range, and lighter sessions in the 8-20 rep range.
When you’re in the lower end of the rep brackets, I don’t think you should train to failure. Not regularly at least. The risk-reward is too high with injury, and the systemic load on the body can be too high.
When you look at all the best powerlifters and strength athletes over time, and the most comprehensive programs out there, you’ll see they all recommend training at 90%.
Matt Wenning, one of the strongest guys out there (has squatted 800lbs every year since 2003) with incredible longevity in the sport of powerlifting has said training at 9/10 is a big factor in keeping him injury free and healthy year round. Many other old time powerlifting greats are amongst the same opinion.
- Big barbell lifts you’re still learning
When you’re new to a lift, you want to learn the movement pattern and attain technical mastery as soon as possible.
If you’re going to failure on it in this learning phase, it’s highly likely your form will start slipping quickly. Until you’ve nailed your form, stop shy of failure and only execute perfect reps.
- Anything that heavily involves the lower back
Exercises like bent over rows and deadlifts can get risky when you start pushing them to failure. These are exercises you always want to finish with technical mastery. I’ve seen more hurt backs (and experienced it many times myself) on deadlifts and rows than any other exercise to know that stopping a rep shy is a wise choice.
It also takes a lot to recover from a heavy deadlift session. If you take it to failure as well, don’t be surprised if your whole week’s training ends up being terrible.
Exercises that you CAN go to failure on:
- Dumbbell and bodyweight exercises you’re doing for 8 reps or more
These are generally less stressful on the body, and won’t impede recovery or expose you to too much injury risk when taken to failure. I’d probably keep it to your last set only though.
- Single joint exercises like leg extensions, leg curls, biceps curls
Because you’ll typically be training these for a few sets in higher rep ranges of 8 to 20, they might actually respond more favourably when taken to failure – just to ensure all motor units get knocked off and you’re recruiting all muscle fibres. The stress on the CNS and body in general is minimal, so you’ll be fine.
- Barbell presses of which you’ve mastered technique on, and done for 8 reps or more
Like with dumbbells and bodyweight exercises, I’d keep these to the last set only. When you do reach technical failure, it’s critical you maintain correct form and avoid moving the body around to complete the rep. That’s when the injuries happen!
But isn’t training to failure necessary for size and strength?
Yes, studies have shown it can lead to better gains in some cases, but I think it’s looking at training through a straw.
Let’s say you’re doing 3 sets of 8 on the squat. If you perform the first set to failure, your subsequent sets are going to take a hit. I’d hazard a guess to say it’d be 8 reps, followed by 6 and then maybe 4 or 5.
However, if you picked a slightly lighter weight that allowed you to reach 8 reps with 1-2 reps shy, you’d be able to accumulate more total work into the session and may only reach failure on the last set. This gives you the best of both worlds.
To demonstrate this, have a look at the table below:
|Workout Type||Load||Reps Achieved||Total Load Lifted|
|All sets to failure||100kg||8,6,5||1900kg|
|Only last set to failure||95kg||8,8,7||2185kg|
Remember, not every set needs to be balls to the walls. Working at 90% of your best and accumulating a little more total work will be more beneficial for long-term size, strength and ultimately body composition gains. Which is what we’re all after, right?
Training to Failure and Workout ‘Hangover’
Another implication of training to failure too much is the ‘hangover’ it can create. This is a good example of taking a broad view to your training, and understanding it’s not just about the single session alone.
Anyone who’s done multiple sets (or even one all out set) to failure in a high-loading movement like a squat or deadlift will know of the feeling of being hit by a truck the next morning.
This is what’s known as a ‘workout hangover’, and it’s your body’s way of telling you that you probably took it a little too far the day before.
One of the ways to reduce this is to avoid training ‘on the nerve’ – a term Christian Thibaudeau has used to describe requiring a lot of psyche to ‘get up’ for a set.
I know it’s fun to get out the smelling salts, start banging your head against the wall, and doing whatever other crazy rituals you may have seen before a big set. But the truth of the matter is when done too often, it will start to fry your body, both physically and mentally.
You want focus and concentration before your sets, not crazy psyche where all you’re really doing is creating more systemic recovery needs, increased unnecessary cortisol and stress on the adrenal glands.
It’s similar to abusing stimulants and pre-workouts. Besides aggressive dieting phases, I don’t think it’s worth using stims for training. It’ll only mask your fatigue and make you blind to your body’s own recovery capability.
For more information on this, strength coach Paul Carter has written in detail different ways to avoid this here.
Individuality of Training to Failure
The real answer to whether you should / can train to failure is essentially that everyone’s tolerance to failure training is different.
For the majority of clients I’ve trained, the answer is somewhere in the middle. If you want to train to failure, I would save it for the last set of that particular exercise, and on no more than 3-5 total sets per workout.
This is probably the best way to approach failure training for the average, serious trainee.
If you find your recovery is sub-par, you’re exhausted, your libido has diminished (a very good indicator for recovery), and your progression on exercises isn’t where it should be, I would skip failure sets altogether, and use it sparingly.
Using Phases of Training to Failure to Learn Your Body
All this being said, I strongly believe everyone should run a block of training to failure on every set.
This isn’t to be done to intentionally mess you up, but to teach you what failure is, how hard you can push, and what it feels like to push too far.
I feel this is an important rite of passage every serious trainee must go through to be able to learn how to train smart.
If you’ve never trained really hard, how do you know what smart is?
The three most intense periods of training of my life were all during low volume, super high intensity training phases. All three times I had training partners that were up for it too, and upping the ante each set.
And during each phase I remember being constantly exhausted, mentally drained and burnt out after 6-8 weeks. But it taught me a lot about training, and how to strategically incorporate failure training to get the best of both worlds in the long run.
Incorporating Training to Failure Strategically
I love low volume, high-intensity programs. I love the focus progressing on one or two sets for a few exercises per body part to all out failure bring to a workout.
Because it suits my personality and mind-set, it’s something I try to keep in my training year round. Instead of making it the sole focus of the program though, I’ve found a slightly more moderate volume approach, where the intensity is a little lower works better. Both for long-term progress and staying healthy.
That is, unless you’ve got joints of steel and a super robust immune system that nothing breaks you down. In which case, failure training will be great for you!
For the average trainees like us though, what I like to do is build up to failure sets over the course of a training cycle.
Generally speaking, I like to work in 6 to 8 week blocks of training. When I start a new program, I stay well away from failure and work with submaximal loads with a focus on getting more work in, and perfecting technique.
As the weeks go by, I’ll begin pushing the sets so that the majority of sets will fall one rep shy of failure, possibly pushing the last sets of exercises to failure. In the last week before a deload (which I’ll be covering in depth in a future article), I’ll make it a failure week.
To be clear, this is technical failure, not mechanical. In this week, I’ll aim to break repetition PRs across a number of lifts.
|4||105kg 2 sets, 102.5kg 2 sets||7,6,8,7|
|7||105kg, 100kg||Max Reps, Rest 5 mins, Max Reps|
Of course, the progression week to week may not be so clear-cut, it’s just an example. But you can see how intensity gradually ramps up to a peak where you can take 1-2 sets and really go balls to the walls with it. Knowing you have a deload the week after means not only will you push harder, but you know the stimulus: recovery equation will be balanced to allow growth to occur.
This is something I’ve learnt from powerlifting, where in the pursuit of strength, their motto is ‘build, build, build, test’. For body composition gains, you just tweak the repetition brackets to better suit muscle growth.
This occasional and planned ‘test’ week also serves as a good way to measure progress of your program and see where you stand on your key indicator lifts; as well as tickling any high intensity, low volume itch you may have.
If you were to ask me whether I’d want a client who likes to train too hard but burns out regularly, or a client who trains too cautiously and never push themselves, I’d take the former everyday.
The people who make the best progress on any program are those who train the hardest on it. If that means they go to failure too often and need reigning back every so often, then so be it.
But what if we could teach these clients how to train hard but also smart? And how to utilise failure principles within a strategic plan where they get the best of both worlds, and get even better results?
That’s the client I want!