Imagine a scenario where identical twins begin lifting together. Their programs are the same, and so are the exercises. They eat the same thing, rest the same amount, and generally have the same lifestyle.
Now, let’s say that one of them puts more effort into their training – they attack each set with more vigor and lift to failure (or close) more often.
Which one would you imagine is going to make quicker progress. Intuitively, you’re probably thinking that it’s going to be the brother who works harder. After all, we get out what we put in. In the case of training, more effort would lead to better results.
So, why is that we’ve come to ridicule training to failure so much, calling it counterproductive?
The fact is, this is a complex topic, and there are many different things to look at. We can’t give a black or white answer because there isn’t one.
What we can do is look at the bigger picture (both anecdotal and scientific evidence) and come up with the most accurate and unbiased answer.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a much better idea of what training to failure is, what the research suggests, what its benefits are, what some potential drawbacks are, and how you can use it to your advantage.
What is Training to Failure?
Training to failure is the process of lifting a given weight until you can no longer produce enough force to move it properly. In other words, once you have to start cutting the range of motion short or employ momentum to move the weight, you’ve reached muscular failure. Keep this in mind as we move forward because it’s going to impact everything else we cover today. Plus, many folks have the wrong idea as to what training to failure truly means.
Now, the muscle failure you experience at that point is relative to that specific weight. You can’t keep lifting this weight without taking a break first, but you can strip some of it off and keep going. This is a common technique called drop sets.
For example, say you’re bench pressing 275 pounds. You reach failure on the 8th rep, get up, remove a couple of 15-pound plates, lie back down, and keep going.
In other words, your muscles aren’t thoroughly exhausted, but their performance is significantly decreased for a while.
Training to Failure: The Newest Study (and What Older Studies Suggest)
Over the last few years, training to failure has been gaining more and more attention. We now have multiple well-designed studies that are looking into the issue, trying to come up with a definitive answer.
Now, before we examine the research, it’s worth pointing out that studying training to failure is difficult because you mostly have to rely on the subjects to report accurately. But as one 2017 paper pointed out, subjects tend to inaccurately estimate how much effort they are putting into their workouts (1).
In that particular study, the subjects were told to pick a weight they thought would be at or near their ten repetition maximum. Only 35 of all 160 subjects reached failure at the 10-12 repetition range. Everyone else did 13+ repetitions before reaching failure.
Now, the first paper on failure training comes from the Australian Institute of Sport (2). The subjects were twenty-six elite male soccer and basketball players between the ages of 16 and 18. All of them had at least six months of strength training behind them. They were split between two groups for the bench press test:
- Group 1 did four sets of 6 reps to failure.
- Group 2 did eight sets of 3 reps, but not to failure.
Both groups trained the bench press three times per week for six total weeks. After that, researchers tested both groups and found that the failure group managed to gain up to 5% more power and strength than the non-failure group.
The second study comes from the University of Tsukuba in Japan (3). In it, researchers studied the effects of metabolic stress on our hormones and muscle adaptations. But they also gave a bit of insight into the impact of failure training. Researchers had the subjects perform three exercises – lat pulldown, shoulder press, and bilateral knee extension. They split the twenty-six men into two groups:
- Group 1 performed 3 to 5 sets of 10 repetitions (to failure) on each exercise with a minute of rest between sets. Standard training protocol.
- Group 2 did the same amount of volume; only they took 30-second breaks in the middle of each set to dissipate some of the metabolic fatigue. Thanks to these brief rests, they didn’t reach failure.
So, both groups did the same amount of repetitions and sets, but group 1 managed to gain more muscle, more isometric strength, saw more significant increases in their 1-repetition maxes, and improved their muscular endurance more.
Finally, a paper from 2016 set out to pick apart the existing evidence and give us a definitive answer regarding failure training (4). Researchers leaned on the idea that failure training wasn’t necessary for beginners, but that it appeared to be beneficial for more advanced folks.
This idea holds a lot of water because beginners do indeed make significant progress with relatively easy training because they aren’t used to the stress of exercise. As we become more advanced, new growth comes much more slowly, and we need to push the boundaries harder and harder to keep improving.
Here is a direct quote:
On the other hand, repetitions to failure seem essential for increases in muscle strength and mass of similar magnitude to HI-RT when performing LI-RT. When it comes to trained individuals, evidence show greater increases in muscle strength after HI-RT performed to muscle failure compared to no failure.
John Meadows is a well known bodybuilder and bodybuilding coach. His opinions are very well respected in the bodybuilding industry. Check out his opinion on training to failure by watching the below video:
Is Training to Failure Good for Hypertrophy?
How does muscle growth occur? Do we ask politely? Do we wish for it to happen? Do we half-heartedly stumble around the gym to spark growth?
Or do we demand it?
Intuitively, we all know that muscle growth takes effort. We can’t expect to go through the motions and make good progress.
You see, your body doesn’t care about your aspirations to bench press three plates or rock a solid six-pack on the beach. It cares for one thing alone – to keep you alive. And it does everything in its power to do so.
The fact is, if you want to make positive changes (be it more muscle or strength), you need to force your body. Your training needs to be challenging enough to disrupt homeostasis and send a strong signal that there’s an external stressor.
If you can do that, over and over, you will slowly gain more muscle. But what is the role of failure training in that?
Training to failure is an eloquent way of forcing your body to improve and adapt. When you push yourself near your limit, you recruit the largest number of muscle fibers, cause more muscle damage and metabolic stress. If the weight is heavy enough, you also put your muscles under more mechanical tension.
All of these factors are critical for muscle growth.
On the other hand, if you don’t push yourself when training, your body doesn’t see a reason to adapt and improve. In other words, if you always train within your limits, your body is more than capable of handling the stress and thus doesn’t allocate any resources for new muscle tissue.
And as we saw in the studies from above, these logical assumptions are right in line with what we’ve seen in the literature – more effort and training to (or close to) muscular failure resulted in more muscle growth (3, 4).
Is 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:
Strength gain can happen independently of muscle growth – this is known as neuromuscular adaptation, and it’s why some folks with relatively little muscle can lift enormous weights.
But, at some point, we exhaust (for the lack of a better term) our neuromuscular capacity and need to grow our muscles more if we want to keep getting stronger. This is one reason why heavier powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters also tend to be stronger.
Now, we’ve seen that training to failure is very beneficial for muscle growth. And seeing how a larger muscle also has a higher strength potential, we can speculate that training to failure would lead to more strength gain over time.
The second factor for strength gain, neuromuscular adaptation, also seems to be directly influenced by failure training. The bigger the shock and the closer to failure we train, the stronger the stress-response is.
If you take a look at most strength programs, they employ different methods of training to failure. Two notable examples include AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets and overreaching blocks.
Now, it’s also worth pointing out a potential danger, especially if we try to abuse failure training – the issue of technique.
Compound movements like the squat, bench press, and deadlift are challenging to master. There are a lot of moving parts, and you need to pay careful attention to each one if you want to perform these lifts safely and effectively.
Failure training has you exhaust different muscle groups which can lead to a breakdown in technique and you trying to overcompensate. Of course, this is not set in stone. But you have to be mindful of the potential danger and avoid it at all cost.
Typical examples here include too much back rounding on the deadlift, allowing your butt to raise off the bench during pressing, and turning your squat into a modified Good Morning as your legs get tired.
One study from 2014 examined the effects of fatigue from high-repetition training on squat biomechanics (5). Researchers found that subjects began to lean forward more due to fatigue, which increases the risk of injury.
So, if your goals are purely strength gain and you don’t include much hypertrophy work at the gym, it’s a good idea to use failure training, but also have lighter and less challenging workouts where you use less weight, do fewer repetitions, and focus on proper technique.
Benefits of Training to Failure VS Volume Training
In the last few years, we’ve come to understand that there is a bell-shaped relation between volume and muscle growth. In other words, the number of sets we perform every workout is directly correlated with the progress we make. More work, better results.
Of course, there comes the point of diminishing returns where more work doesn’t lead to better results but instead increases the risk of overtraining. This was demonstrated in the study on modified German volume training (6).
In it, subjects were assigned to either ten sets of ten reps for compound exercises, or five sets of ten reps. Both groups followed a split routine three days a week. Researchers found that, past five sets, subjects didn’t see better results in terms of strength or muscle gain. In fact, it was quite the opposite:
To maximize hypertrophic training effects, it is recommended that 4-6 sets per exercise be performed, as it seems gains will plateau beyond this set range and may even regress due to overtraining.
In another very recent study, researchers split 37 volunteers into four groups who did 5, 10, 15, or 20 weekly sets for each muscle group (7).
All subjects showed significant improvements in 10-repetition max strength, as well as muscle gain after 12 and 24 weeks. But, the low-volume (five and ten-set groups) gained significantly more strength throughout the study.
So, we have some insight that more is not always better. And we’ve seen the effects of failure training and the benefits it carries. Set for set, putting more effort into our training appears to deliver better results (3, 4).
There are many reasons as to why that is, but two possible explanations here are focus and management of energy. More work leads to more fatigue. Over time, as fatigue accumulates, we are unable to recover well and rather than make better progress, we go backward.
It’s entirely possible that doing less total work, but putting more effort in leads to superior results. The research certainly supports this.
Second, focusing on fewer things (in our case, exercises) allows us to get better on each. Rather than do five or six movements for your back and barely making progress on any of them, doing a couple of exercises frees up energy and focus you can spend on them, master your technique, and ultimately get better results.
Training to failure also takes a lot less time than volume training. Rather than spend 60-90 minutes at the gym, you get to bang out fewer, more intense sets in half the time.
In the below video, Brad Schoenfeld and John Meadows discuss training to failure. Brad Schoenfeld is a competitive natural bodybuilder, scientist, and hypertrophy expert.
Should You be Training to Failure Every Set?
So far, it looks like training to failure is the best thing since sliced bread. With the incredible benefits it offers and the importance it has for strength and muscle gain, one wouldn’t be wrong to assume that we should train to failure as much as we can.
But here’s the thing: too much of a good thing can be harmful. As is the case with training volume (where too much leads to overtraining), it’s also true for failure training. Yes, it’s beneficial, and it has been shown to lead to better progress. But it’s a tool that should be used carefully.
Here are four reasons to avoid training to failure on every set.
The issue of ATP.
Remember that our goal with training is to stimulate, not annihilate. Continually pushing your muscles to their limits does the latter.
First of all, there’s the issue of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the primary energy currency for the body. ATP molecules allow us to perform physical tasks – running, lifting weights, etc.
In the case of challenging weight training, our muscle ATP reserves usually last for less than 30 seconds, depending on how heavy the weights are.
A moderately-challenging set exhausts more than half of our muscle ATP reserves, which then take up to several minutes to be resynthesized. But a set taken to muscle failure depletes your muscle ATP stores completely. It then takes longer for the ATP to be fully restored
In one study, researchers found that sets taken to failure exhaust our muscle ATP reserves, and speculate that the ATP deficit contributes to fatigue (which sounds logical) (8).
The issue of muscle protein breakdown and the onset of overtraining.
We’ve known for a long time that muscle and strength gain comes from a delicately-balanced training stimulus – not too little, but also not too much.
Taking some sets to failure helps us create a strong enough stimulus. But if we go all in and train to failure all the time, we risk causing too much muscle damage, increasing the rates of muscle protein breakdown, and becoming overtrained.
Some research supports this (9). In the researchers’ own words:
if incorporated into a programme, training to failure should be performed sparingly to limit the risks of injuries and overtraining.
Research has also found that constant training to failure reduces rates of muscle protein synthesis – a critical factor for the growth and development of muscle mass (8). Aside from the muscle damage, another possible reason as to why that is is probably the rapid glycogen depletion (10).
The accumulated fatigue can lead to technique breakdown and increase the risk of injury.
As we discussed above, fatigue impacts the biomechanics of different exercises (5). This is because different muscle groups involved in a movement become fatigued at different rates. And once a given muscle become too tired, others have to kick in more and compensate for the loss of force.
In the case of the squat, overfatigued quads would force your posterior chain to kick in more and compensate, which often leads to the Good morning squat. This can lead to poor technique, which dramatically increases the risk of injury.
In other cases, this means a reduction in the range of motion (quarter squats, anyone?), which defeats the purpose of training altogether. I mean, why bother at that point? You’re only ego lifting.
A set to failure here and there is excellent. But if you string up several of them in a row, especially on compound exercises, the accumulated fatigue would screw up your technique.
It’s very demanding on the mind and nervous system.
Training to failure all the time might sound great at first, and you may very well manage to do it while you’re still motivated and energetic. But a few workouts in, and you’ll probably find yourself dreading the next exercise.
Pushing yourself to your absolute limits can only work for so long. Sadly, it’s not a good long-term strategy.
The Bottom Line On Training to Failure
In its simplicity, it hides the complexity. Yes, it’s simple enough to take a set to failure, but we should keep the potential drawbacks in mind – technique breakdown and the risk of overtraining if we use it too much.
Like most other techniques, it should be seen as a tool we can strategically use to make better progress in the gym. Failure training also saves us time because it eliminates the need for doing incredible amounts of volume.
But like most techniques, it shouldn’t be abused because the many benefits can quickly turn to potential risks in the face of burning out, overtraining ourselves, and worse – getting injured.
As we’ve seen from the research, it works incredibly well, and many papers have been able to replicate its results. Set for set, those who put more effort into their training, reap better rewards.
We can also argue that if you never train to failure, you likely won’t be able to provide your body with a stimulus strong enough to force progress.
So, train hard, but also smart.