When I filmed this video I wanted to show you a simple, everyday chest workout but I hit failure in my first set on incline bench press. So this was the perfect opportunity to talk about training to failure.
In this article and video I’m going to share why I believe you shouldn’t train to failure and how to know when to stop a set to avoid hitting failure.
How I define Training to Failure
People define this in many different ways. The most common definition is that momentary muscular failure it the point where no more repetitions can be performed.
I don’t completely agree with this definition.
By this definition every set I ever do in my workouts is taken to failure. Because I use Reverse Pyramid Training I never leave a full rep in the tank. I leave half a rep in the tank or maybe a grinder.
I would define failure as the point where you attempt to complete a rep but fail. I wanted to mention this so you’ll understand what I mean when talking about failure in this article.
A researcher named Willardson defined it like this:
Muscular failure occurs when all available motor units have fatigued to the point that sufficient force cannot be produced to move a given load beyond a critical joint angle or “sticking point”.
We could also talk about isometric failure and eccentric failure but these are rarely used in strength training so we’ll not cover them in this article.
Is Training to Failure Helpful?
My experience has led me to believe that training to failure does more harm than good.
I have noticed that training to failure makes you weaker in your subsequent sets. I don’t know exactly why this is but researchers think it’s probably a combination of neurological, mechanical, metabolic, and psychological factors.
When you hit failure in a lower rep range, the main inhibitors are neurological and mechanical. On the other hand when you hit failure in a higher rep range, the main inhibitors are metabolic. I know you can relate to that. Hitting failure in your 12th rep on lateral raises feels much different than hitting failure on the 4th in a shoulder press.
But regardless of inhibitors, if you go to failure in a set, you probably won’t be able to replicate it in the same workout.
This means that if you plan on doing multiple sets and multiple exercises for the same muscle group, you should avoid hitting failure early in the workout (or at all). The amount of volume you can do efficiently and your strength will be significantly reduced if you do.
Moreover, if you train to failure all the time, your strength will be very unpredictable. When you’ll have a good workout your max will be very high. You will amaze yourself with how strong you are when you push to the limit. But when you try to replicate that next week you will be barely moving the bar.
Leaving some strength in the tank each workout prevents you for believing that your good workouts are the norm. If you stop your set at the required reps or when you are not sure you’ll be able to get the next rep you’ll find that your strength progression is much more predictable. More on this in the article Why you can’t maintain your PRs
Now what does the research say about training to failure?
Luckily Alan Aragon wrote an article about this in his Research Review (March 2009) so I don’t have to go through the research. There are not many studies about the effects of training to failure, and those that do exist don’t apply well to us because almost all of them looked at untrained men and didn’t use free weights and compound movements.
Even so, these studies show that training close to failure is superior to sub-maximal training when volume is equated. What’s important to note in that phrase are the words “close to failure”. Sets that are taken 1-2 reps shy of failure also produce strength and muscle gains and they allow the lifter to perform more volume.
In my opinion each type of training is superior in certain situations and there is no reason to not use both. Ultimately what matters most is how your overall training program is set up. The Volume, Frequency and Intensity of your workouts play a huge role in determining how close to failure you should take your sets.
Intensity is the least forgiving when it comes to recovery so if you take all sets close to failure like I do, you need to do lower volume and use a lower frequency.
When should you stop your set?
Like we said previously, when you should stop your sets first of all comes down to how your training program is set up. Some training program might specifically ask you to stop 1-3 reps before failure so you can perform higher volumes. Others might have you do singles and doubles, or even past-failure techniques like rest-pause, supersets or dropsets.
But since you’re reading this on my site, I’ll address what you should do if you follow one of my routines or one of the Kinobody programs.
We mostly use Reverse Pyramid Training for our main exercises and RPT is very high intensity. You should take each set very close to failure, not leaving even one full rep in the tank. If you’re sure you can do another rep, take it.
If you’re below 50% sure that you can do another rep, stop the set there. It’s not worth doing a grinder either as that saps your strength for your other sets as well.
I don’t think I can explain how it feels to know if you can do another rep or not. You probably can learn that only through experience. Advanced lifters can always tell you very accurately how many reps they could have performed with a given weight. That’s why we have things like the RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) or RIR (Repetitions in Reserve) scales.
But if I had to name the main thing you look at it would be bar speed. If your last rep was very slow, chances are you won’t be able to perform another one. Better stop the set there otherwise you’ll end up like me in this video.
Questions? Feedback? Let me know in the comments !
The Program I use for building muscle
The program I follow right now is The Greek God Program. It uses very high intensity and low volume so it’s pretty unusual but it works ! Greg designed it specifically for the “model type physique”. You gain strength while staying lean and only training certain key lifts once every 4-5 days. Lifestyle oriented.
I’m now doing the MEGA workouts from the program. These are the more advanced routines. You still train with high frequency but you’re also doing slightly more volume which helps trigger more sarcoplasmic growth.