Training to failure is what the majority of real lifters would call “standard procedure”, meaning without it the workout would be deemed null and void. Although in my heart of hearts I would tend to echo this, it is perhaps a little too ‘Spartanesque’ for your average gym goer and definitely not the gospel in the eyes of the traditional strength coach. The fact of the matter is, training to failure is a complex subject and should be approached with caution and planning to maximise benefit and minimize risk of injury.
The purpose of training to failure
Training to failure will allow the lifter to accomplish both muscular strength and size. In order to achieve failure the lifter has two options:
Maximal Effort Method – the use of a maximal resistance
Repeated Effort Method – the repeated repetition of a sub maximal resistance in a fatigued state.
Maximal Effort Method will recruit the highest threshold muscle fibres, which are the most susceptible to strength and size development. In addition, it will place the highest demands on the CNS system, which also has a direct impact on the development of strength. The Repeated Effort Method has the greatest influence on muscle metabolism and as a result will have a bigger impact on muscular hypertrophy than the Maximal Effort method. Lifting to failure in both modalities will allow the lifter to improve both his muscular strength and size to his highest potential. Another point to add is that without the inclusion of failure during a workout, one ultimately loses the ability to progressively overload the muscle, In time, this can in fact lead to a reduction in strength. While reaching failure is important in terms of progress and development, it is not as simple as just pumping out reps until you can lift no more.
The primary disadvantage to training to failure is the potential for injury, or overtraining. When observing your average novice lifter you will note he/she often does not possess the correct motor skills to sustain good form with either maximal effort or repeated effort (fatigued state). In fact, the very nature of training to failure has an inverse relationship with training volume and poor selection of set and repetition volume can lead to overtraining in both a novice and advanced lifter. A prime example of this can be seen in your classic straight set system; Its chest day and our subject is due to hit 3 sets of 8 on a flat bench. Having used his standard 3 set warm up, he is ready to go and aims for an all time high of 8@80kg. Should he complete all 8, or worse yet fall short at 7, he will have reached muscular failure right off the bat and you can bet your last pound or kg that the quality in both form and volume of his subsequent sets will be significantly diminished. The chances are that he will be struggling to achieve even 75% of the target reps in the following sets. Training to failure must be used at the right point in the training regimen otherwise there will be a downward curve in performance as the workout progresses.
Certain methods of training and general principles within them are incorporated to ensure that training to failure is used appropriately. Frequency of its use is of paramount importance and will depend on the overall goal of the lifter. If strength is the desired outcome, a lifter will limit the number of times he achieves total failure due to the need for correct preparation in warm up sets. For example if trying to achieve a personal best 1-3Rm on the squat, a true failure set would most likely only be executed on the final set of the series. However if muscular growth and size is the key objective, popular methods of low volume training, such as Mike Mentzer’s HIT and Dorian Yates Heavy Duty, will call for a failure set on multiple movements throughout the workout. Both types of training systems can be performed consistently, but a form of de-loading is advisable to avoid overtraining, particularly when focusing on maximal resistance for the sole purpose of strength gains.
Training to failure does have certain limitations on rest length after the set and of course the actual workout. If using a sub maximal method of training for perhaps fat loss or hypertrophy, certain splits can be applied with no need for extended rest, such as circuit training or perhaps forms of GBC. However, if using a conventional bodybuilding split requiring a greater volume per muscle group or a specialisation program for one particular muscle, a standard 48-72 hour rest method should be applied as a minimum. Reaching failure will result in greater MF damage and thus the recovery period will need to be adjusted accordingly.
The selection of the appropriate weight for this technique will be directly related to the lifters 1RM on any particular method. If the goal were to induce purely strength, the lifter would require loads in the region of 85-100%. The use of %RM at the highest end of the continuum would of course be reserved for those final sets of a workout. If muscular hypertrophy is the desired training response, then the lifter should work with loads in the range of 60-85%, and perhaps beyond if using more specialist techniques such as forced reps and negatives, etc. When dealing with hypertrophy, it is actually not uncommon for some lifters use weights well under 60%RM towards the end of their set purely due to the extreme fatigue experienced some advanced methods such as drop sets and rest pause technique.
Failure in this arena does not share the same negative connotations it has in most other subjects. In weight training, failure is a desired response and although should not be applied in all scenarios, it is an integral part of the training process. Knowing when and where to use it is a skill one will acquire both from study and practice. Finally, the safe practice of training in a pair or under supervision of a trained professional is advisable for anyone training to failure. Any training method requiring the lifter to go beyond their current physical capacity needs to be performed in a safe environment to ensure that the lift can be approached without hesitation or fear.
This article was written by Mike Porter, Director, Definitive Physique