I’ll bet you’ve heard of training to failure. It’s popular in the always do more attitude that’s seeped into the strength and fitness communities. This style of training usually makes the mind wander to images of Arnold and other classic bodybuilders. They grunt loudly in dusty gyms and fall on the floor after doing so many reps. Nearly everyone associates this with good blue-collar work. Adding more, working harder, and supposedly exhausting the muscle to build it up.
There’s more to a method of training to failure than randomly doing a bunch of reps in an exercise you didn’t plan. Doing one set to failure is, in fact, a well-researched method of increasing general capacities for strength along with a technique for hypertrophy according to exercise science and sports science references.
There’s more than one way to view this, and there are methods that give guidelines not only for bodybuilding but also for strength capacity. The training methods need to be understood if they’re going to be a tool for progress rather than an interruption.
To the Books, Robin!
When I wasn’t watching 1960s Batman re-runs as a college strength coach, I used to try to read books on exercise physiology and athletic development. College strength coaches and barbell sports specialists used to have long-winded discussions of sports science textbooks.
Maybe they still do, and I don’t pay attention anymore. Some of these textbooks are from Russian scientists and coaches that translated them into English. As a result of the translations, many of the manuals have confusing language. The books written in the states contain theoretical ideas that are complex and difficult to apply to daily training.
The good reverends of strength will say you should still read these books. You don’t have to read them. Modern coaches have accurately condensed the ideas in these classic references into articles, books, and YouTube educational videos that are more practical.
One such idea that I’ve used with consistent, positive results is called the reptons effort method from the father of many strength theories, Vladimir Zatriorsky. The reptons effort is one of the three proven ways to increase strength.
Using the idea accurately in practice is essential and means to lift a submaximal weight for as many reps as possible in one given set. The study of it states that during the last couple of reps before the muscle fails, the body is trained to develop the maximum force possible in a fatigued state.
For muscle growth, you need the correct amount of mechanical stress (think of this as total time the muscle is working) along with other metabolic factors. But doing sets to failure and doing multiple straight sets with weights close but not above your capacity to repeatedly perform, has been shown to yield almost equal outcomes.
The real benefit of reps to failure is believed to be as a catalyst for increased muscular contribution. As you fatigue, you stimulate the motor units consisting of muscle fibers and the nerves that cause them to contract.
When you contract a muscle to lift a load, you don’t use the entire musculature. If you were to use submaximal weights and perform moderate rep ranges, those motor units would never be activated. Forcing them to come online, so to speak, is the benefit of pushing to capacity.
People Are Different
If you’re thinking of training in any of the method’s variations, you have to start by figuring out how an appropriate submaximal weight looks. Coaches will recommend percentage ranges use guidelines based on observing what Olympic-level athletes endure.
I used to think that the percentages of 1RM that you’d assign to these sets to failure in the main compound lift mattered, but it did nothing but show my inexperience.
With experience, you see just how different groups of people can be. Some can do far more reps at a higher percentage of their max than you’d believe by reading the guidelines in sports science books. And this is true even in intermediate to advanced lifters who have a consistent technique and reliable maxes that don’t drastically change from month to month.
How many repetitions someone can do in a given set and how close to their max the weight can be is influenced by:
- Total training age
- Athletic background
- The muscle fiber type that they inherited
- The variety of activities they did most as children and young adults
Women can generally handle higher volumes at higher percentages of their max. Someone who ran cross-country competitively in high-school will often, in college, perform more reps at 80% of their max than someone who played football. These results need to be tested and evaluated on a population by population basis and even further on an individual basis.
Use Feel and Judgement Wisely
Haphazardly loading a barbell and doing one set until you fall in exhaustion shouldn’t be the plan for the majority of lifters. It’s not a method but a way to tire yourself out unproductively and possibly even dangerously. But, some methods self-regulate and still cause the same physiological changes. We’ll go through a few.
- Technical Max Sets Based Off Main Sets: Getting the weight correct will be by trial and error, but it is a more accurate method than using something on a rated scale. For this, you would do one set of max reps based on the weight that you used for your top set after your planned work sets are complete. Whether the day called for you to work up to a heavy set of 5 for the day, or you did straight sets of 5 reps at 80% of an actual 1 rep max makes little difference. With either, you are basing your set to failure off your level of readiness for that day.
- Rest-Pause Sets: This training approach was taken from bodybuilding first. I learned how it could also be modified and used for strength development from top powerlifting coach, Josh Bryant. If your goal is to use training to failure for muscle growth or increased strength capacity, it is a wiser, strategic method than doing reps until you crap out.
For this, you’d pick a lift and:
- Do one set 2-3 reps short of failure, using your judgment to determine when you feel as if you could only do 2-3 reps more if you tried.
- Rest for twenty seconds.
- Then do a set with the same weight 1-2 reps short of failure.
- Rest twenty seconds.
- Do one last set to failure.
Like any method based on feeling and judging how hard something is or estimating how much more you could have done, this can be relatively inaccurate and arbitrary. I’ve observed that when using these guidelines, people will be more likely to underestimate the first two sets than overestimate. Usually, this will keep them from overreaching too quickly and mitigate possible injuries that can come along with training to failure.
But because there are consecutive sets close to this point of failure with little rest, it will elicit similar physiological processes associated with training to absolute failure. When the lifter gets to the last set where they are to work to actual failure, they will be tired mentally and physically. They won’t be likely to push themselves to a point where they may injure themselves.
Build Muscle or Strength?
The methods I’ve described work if your primary goal is to build muscle or strength. Whether you use a compound barbell lift or a more isolated exercise with a dumbbell is somewhat irrelevant to the efficacy of those methods. It’s your choice based on your focus on training. But we should discuss what movements should be ruled out.
We’ll review a couple of lifts and exercises that are beneficial and others that are somewhat inappropriate to give you an idea of what to include for both strength increase and hypertrophy. It won’t be an exhaustive list, but it’ll give you an idea of what to think.
- A back squat would be at the top of my list for lifts to push to failure. With the risks of pushing a back squat to the max, the breakdown of technique is still easier to notice and feel. Because of this, you will end your set sooner than other lifts where the line between good and bad technique is harder to gauge. You will be less likely to move dangerously through the movement with too much fatigue when doing high rep sets. Most people with sense will stop squatting if they feel so bent over they can kiss their feet.
- The front squat is a better self-regulating option. The moment the primary postural muscles fatigue, mainly the thoracic extensors or mid-back, it becomes almost impossible to continue to do more repetitions. The bar would fall off the front of the shoulders before you would reach a point where you could get injured from doing too many reps.
- The bench press can also be used provided you have a spotter. After lifters are taught and become competent in a safe and reliable technique, they can detect any deviation from that technique and know it’s time to stop. As long as the shoulders stay locked in a safe position, though, with the support of the bench, you can continue to push until actual muscular failure.
Examples of lifts that are not good options to train to failure include the deadlift and overhead press. In the case of the deadlift, the local muscular endurance of the back as a whole will fatigue far quicker than the legs.
This will put you in a position with a higher risk of injury as you complete your most fatigued reps. The deadlift is far too demanding of a lift in terms of static strength positioning and strength recruitment to make training it to failure a workable approach.
The overhead press has somewhat similar problems. Without a bench to support the shoulder girdle and reduce the demands of the spine and trunk, as with the bench press, the supporting and postural muscles fatigue too quickly and to such a degree that pushing to failure can become precarious.
When training to failure with bodybuilding in mind, sorting out what exercises have the most significant benefit is equally as crucial as figuring it out for strength development. But the risk of frequently doing sets to failure for bodybuilding training is overuse injuries.
It’s unlikely you’d sustain a traumatic injury from bodybuilding work. However, it is likely you’d develop nagging injuries caused by the damage of repetitive work. Most bodybuilding exercises for specifically building muscle are single-joint, or multi-joint focused on particular areas or body parts.
Bodybuilding training implies high volumes and adding more sets to failure may create or exacerbate an already aggravated joint or muscle. There are particular exercises I avoid because of overuse injuries and others that have proven beneficial to train to failure that doesn’t often lead to overuse injuries.
The best exercises I’ve found for the lower-body include hip thrusts. The glutes and entire hip musculature build up in a way that promotes spinal health. Because of the controlled flexion and extension of the hips supported by the bench and ground, it can be worked hard with little chance of aggravating any one area or body part.
Other great exercises are Bulgarian split squats and belt squats. You can get a lot of great work for the legs with minimal stress on the lower back with these.
Exercises I’ve found to be aggravating to the joints when pushed too hard include walking lunges, RDLs, and back extensions. The walking lunges become too stressful on knees and the RDLs or back extensions too stressful on the lower back when pushed to failure when added to an existing training routine.
Any dumbbell pressing exercises, such as the bench press or overhead, where the bench supports the back are great to train with these methods. Dumbells allow for a free-range-full-degree of motion for the entire shoulder girdle, unlike a fixed barbell.
Very high rep-sets can be therapeutic for the shoulders. Dumbell rows and lat pull-downs are also two low-risk exercises that can be used to train these set to failure methods adequately.
Exercises like dips and skull crushers should be steered clear of because of their tendency to aggravate the elbows.
We’ve already laid out all of the approaches and considerations in choosing exercises for training to failure, but now we need to clarify for whom this would and wouldn’t be appropriate.
In short, a beginner shouldn’t be doing reps until failure. Many are confused about how to look at the development of training and long-term progression.
The assumption that doing higher rep sets as a beginner is better because the weights you’d use are lighter is just wrong. You should have lots of practice with the movement, but not necessarily by increasing the reps per set. You could instead:
- Keep the rep count moderate and increase the number or set each time you practice or the frequency you practice each week.
- With moderate rep sets, you can focus on the quality of movement for each rep rather than practicing poor patterns with high rep sets. The postural and assisting muscle groups lack the endurance to support technique.
- This plan also allows you to increase weight steadily, consistently, and progressively over time and for a much longer while putting off plateaus in progress.
Pushing volume like this will set a higher ceiling for a novice lifter to eventually reach as they mature. It’s clear to see an early intermediate lifter who pushes too hard too soon with methods that test boundaries too often like training to failure.
Working with the right amount of volume and intensity as you begin strength training will set a more solid foundation than trying to build to your peak as fast as possible. The peak may come faster if you push it, but it will not be as high.
A lifter should first have a consistent, reliable 1RM before using these methods for compound lifts. Before at least a year of regular, focused training, a lifter’s max changes so quickly during training cycles that basing a weight off of this value becomes very inaccurate. Using more extreme methods can exacerbate this problem of unreliability.
A method like rest-pause is only valid if the rep count is within a reasonable range, and this will depend on the weight that is on the bar. If the lifter is doing forty reps on the first set, it will lose its desired effect.
Consistency in Max Is Critical
Even after the lifter has been training for over a year, consistency in max is even more critical. If you look at many high-intermediate and advanced lifters, you see that their maxes don’t vary drastically throughout the year. Rarely will a max lift vary from them either up or down by twenty kilos.
If the lifter has dedicated considerable time to training but has wildly varied their maxes, I’d advise them to build consistency with straightforward training first.
A consistent and reliable technique is the last point of concern before training to failure. The lifter should be able to indicate changes in technique breakdown. If their technique isn’t solid, and their movements aren’t intuitive while doing conventional rep counts, it will be an issue when training to failure.
Most training protocols work, at least for a while. But more intense methods should be saved for when they’re truly needed and when others are no longer useful, or at least sufficient enough.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.