If you were to get all your training advice from social media, it’d be easy to assume that anyone not going absolutely balls to the wall on every single set, and forcing out extra reps like their life depended on it was missing out on muscle growth and strength gains.
This couldn’t be further from the truth however.
While training to failure DOES have a place somewhere in your program, chances are you’re using failure too often.
Could training too hard be screwing with your strength?
TRAINING TO FAILURE: AN ORIGIN
The concept of trainign to failure gathered most of its momentum during the 1970s, when Arthur Jones came out with his Nautilus trainign principles.
Jone’s premise was that you only needed one working set per muscle group to gain size and strength. This set would be taken to the point where you couldn’t perform another single rep, and often had partner-assisted reps, partial reps, static holds and slow negatives added to it as well.
Bodybuilders such as Mike Mentzer (and to a degree Dorian Yates) helped this method hit the mainstream, and would often promote the idea of one set to failure as being the best way to build mass.
TYPE OF FAILURE
Before going much further, it’s important to differentiate between absolute failure and technical failure.
Technical failure is the point at which your form starts to break down.
Absolute failure is when you can’t perform another semi-respectable rep, or when you actually fail.
Let’s say you’re squatting with a weight that’s around 80% of your 1-rep max.
Reps 1-5 would probably be pretty much okay. At rep 6 or 7, it’s likely you’d hit technical failure, as you might start dive-bombing reps, cutting them short, allowing your knees to cave, or good morning-ing the weight up.
You’d probably be able to get 2-4 more reps like this though, before your form got so bad it no longer resembled a squat, or you physically couldn’t get out of the hole.
BENEFITS OF FAILURE
Let’s face it – no one ever got big by training easy.
Going to failure increases metabolic stress and metabolyte production, both of which play a role in muscle hypertrophy.
You get greater increases in lactate production when training past the point of fatigue, and this, along with other factors such as elevated hormone production, cell swelling and muscle damage all contribute to muscle growth, according to Brad Schoenfeld. (1)
Plus, you look much cooler on YouTube by making your last rep of biceps curls look as painful as giving birth.
THE COSTS OF FAILING
The number one downside to always training to failure is how this can cause you to ingrain poor technique.
While there’s bound to be some degree of form breakdown when you’re going heavy or pushing yourself, too much can be bad news. The more poor reps you perform, the more your body gets used to performing reps like these, and so you learn bad technique without even realising it.
There’s also a huge stress placed on your CNS when you go to failure.
A study from Izquierdo and colleagues in the Journal of Applied Physiology compared training to failure and not training to failure, and found that the group performing their sets to failure experienced increases in the stress hormone cortisol, and lower release of the anabolic hormone IGF-1. (2)
You may also experience AMP (adenosine monophosphate) which is a sign that your cells are under stress and lacking energy. (3)
Another concern is the greater potential for injury.
While getting injured is a risk we all take whenever we set foot in the gym and pick up a weight, that risk is greatly exacerbated when training to failure. This again is due to the potential form breakdown.
The phrase “over-training” is thrown around a lot, and while true over-training is extremely rare (due to the fact it’s caused by a multitude of factors including lack of sleep, poor nutrition, injury, external stresses, and so on) the potential for over-reaching and experiencing burn out is increased with training to failure. Additionally, you’ll probably hit a strength plateau a lot stronger.
SO WE SHOULD TAKE IT EASY?
Not at all.
Training should be hard and challenging, and there’s a time and a place for going all out. But there’s also a time for easing it back.
And you can definitely get stronger without training to failure. A 2015 study from the Journal of Human Kinetics found that tennis players had far greater increases in strength and performance following a strength training routine that didn’t have them training to failure compared to one that did. (4)
Look at powerlifters too; those guys train hard, but they very rarely fail reps, and they’re not afraid to take some weight off the bar if they feel their form’s suffering.
WHEN IT’S OKAY TO FAIL
Let’s finish with some practical recommendations:
1. Most of your training should be around an RPE 8-9, meaning you have 1-2 reps left in the tank each set.
2. Periodise your training so that you have phases where you completely avoid training to failure, and phases where you use it more often.
3. Bodybuilders can train to failure more often than powerlifters.
4. Stick to mainly isolation moves when working to failure.
5. Have a training partner keep an eye on your form – if you start “air humping” the bar up on a set of curls, it’s probably time to call it quits.
6. Never go to failure on squat or deadlift using more than 90% of your 1-rep max in the gym – save that for the platform.
7. Keep sets to failure to a minimum when dieting.
8. If training to failure is affecting your overall training volume, cut back on it.