- The main reason people train to failure is they think that it will cause more muscle activation, which will increase muscle and strength gains.
- The truth is training to failure isn’t more effective than not training to failure, and it can encourage poor technique, increase the risk of injury, and prevent you from using as much volume or intensity as you should to optimize muscle and strength gains.
- I recommend you take most of your sets to one or two reps shy of failure most of the time, only going to absolute failure on your isolation exercises every couple of weeks.
If you’ve been slinging iron for any amount of time, you’ve seen the “ONE MORE REP” type many times.
These days, it’s usually a 20-something year-old in a stringer and sporting a Waffen-SS haircut, oompa loompa tan, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of lip gloss too (yep, I’ve seen in).
You’ll also often see such specimens obsessively training to failure, ending set after set with the weights on the floor or their bodies.
We might think they look ridiculous, but maybe the joke’s on us?
Maybe training to muscle failure—the point where you can no longer move the weight—is the key to gains?
On the one hand, many bodybuilders, experts, and “gurus” claim it’s at least beneficial, and some say it’s essential for maximizing muscle and strength gain.
How true is this?
Well, in this article, you’re going to learn what the scientific literature has to say about training to failure, including its effectiveness, safety, and implementation.
In most studies, training to failure is defined as doing as many reps as you can until you can’t move the weight and have to end the set. This is also referred to as absolute failure.
Note this isn’t just pushing until it gets really hard or uncomfortable—it means that no matter what you do, the weight simply isn’t going to move any further.
Here’s what it looks like (failing on the sixth rep):
Although many people claim to often train to failure, most don’t reach this point regularly. Instead, they stop at the point where the weight starts to move very slowly.
This isn’t absolute failure.
Absolute failure is the point where you couldn’t move the weight another inch even if your life depended on it.
Another important term to understand is technical failure, which refers to the point where you can no longer move the weight with proper form.
In other words, you may have the juice to squeeze out another rep or two if you had to, but not without compromising your technique.
For example, let’s say that you’re able to squat 315 for 3 reps if you went to absolute failure (the fourth rep simply couldn’t happen under any circumstances). That would give you a true rep-max on your squat.
If, however, your form begins to break down on the third rep—you start to waver from side to side, your hips start to rise faster than your shoulders, and so forth—that’s your point of technical failure.
Thus, training to absolute failure would get you three reps and training to technical failure would get you two.
In general, most of your training should be to technical failure, not absolute failure. You’ll learn why in a moment.
Summary: Training to absolute failure is doing as many reps as you can until you physically can’t move the weight, and technical failure is doing as many reps as you can until you can’t do another rep with proper form.
The logic of training to failure usually goes like this:
The whole point of lifting weights is to contract large amounts of muscle tissue as intensely as possible. Those repeated contractions spark a series of genetic, physical, and hormonal changes inside the body that lead to muscle growth, and over time, this process makes you more and more jacked.
As your muscles get stronger, however, you have to force them to contract harder and harder if you want to continue gaining size and strength. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s the primary mechanical driver of muscle growth.
The most effective way to progressively overload your muscles is adding weight to the bar (getting stronger), but you can also do more reps or sets over time.
This is where training to absolute failure enters the picture.
By taking a set to absolute failure, you ensure you’re activating (contracting) as much muscle tissue as you possibly can. This sends a maximally powerful message to your muscles to grow.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Summary: The main reason people train to failure is they think that it will cause more muscle activation, which will increase muscle and strength gains.
There’s no question that taking sets to absolute failure is better for muscle and strength gain than breezing through your workouts.
The gymgoer who regularly pushes themselves as hard as they can is always going to gain more muscle and strength than the person who spends most of their time diddling around with bands, Bosu balls, and baby weights.
The real question, though, is how does a challenging, well-designed workout routine that does include training to absolute failure compare to one that doesn’t?
This isn’t an easy question to answer, because many studies that seem to be on failure don’t properly ensure the subjects actually reached failure. In other cases, the programs are designed in such a way that reaching true muscular failure is nearly impossible.
For example, a recent study conducted by researchers at the Amazon University purported to have subjects do multiple sets of high-rep squats to absolute failure with only 60 to 90 seconds rest between each set.
If you’ve ever done squats before, you know it’s more or less impossible to take multiple sets to failure when squatting with little to no rest.
Another common problem with studies that could be insightful on this matter is they rarely match the volume (number of sets) between the groups training to absolute failure and not.
Often times, the lifters training to failure do more sets than those not. Thus, it’s not a proper apples-to-apples comparison.
That said, there are a handful of studies where the researchers did ensure the participants went to absolute failure and the volume was matched, so let’s look at those.
One such study was conducted by scientists at Federal University of São Carlos. They split 32 untrained 23-year old men into two groups:
- Group one was forced to complete all of their sets until absolute muscular failure.
- Group two was told to complete all of their sets until volitional fatigue (when the reps became very uncomfortable). This generally corresponds with about 1 to 3 reps shy of failure for most people.
Thus, one group was training to absolute failure, and the other was taking their sets a few reps shy of failure.
Both groups performed three sets of leg extensions at 80% of their one-rep max twice a week for 12 weeks, with two minutes rest between sets.
The scientists kept careful records of how many sets and reps everyone performed to ensure both groups did the same amount of volume.
They also carefully monitored the workouts to guarantee group one took their sets to absolute failure and measured the participants’ one-rep max and leg muscle mass before and after the study.
Group one showed higher levels of muscle activation, but both groups gained almost exactly the same amount of strength and muscle.
Why didn’t the additional muscle activation result in more muscle or strength gain?
The researchers weren’t sure, but one plausible explanation is that the subjects were all untrained lifters.
Thanks to various physiological factors often referred to as “newbie gains,” people new to resistance training are hyper-responsive to its effects and don’t require an extraordinary amount of stimulus to maximize muscle and strength gain.
Once this ceiling for muscle growth and strength gain is reached, adding further stimulus in the way of more muscle activation, intensity, volume, frequency, or anything else isn’t going to further boost progress.
In other words, your body’s muscle-building machinery can only work so quickly, and when you’re new to lifting, it’s much easier to prod it into overdrive than when you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter.
Therefore, in the case of the study just referenced, although the group of lifters who took every set to absolute muscle failure activated more muscle tissue than those who didn’t, it’s likely the latter group activated enough to produce the majority of the potential muscle-building response.
Another study on the matter worth reviewing was conducted by scientists at the University of Brasilia with young untrained women. In this case, training biceps curls to failure didn’t produce more muscle growth than a few reps shy of failure.
So, at this point it’s fair to say that beginners have little reason to train to failure. What about more experienced lifters, though?
It would stand to reason that more intense training would most benefit people with more training experience, and that’s what a team of scientists from East Tennessee State University explored in a recent study.
The researchers divided 15 trained 27-year old lifters into two groups:
- Group one trained to absolute failure on the last set of every exercise.
- Group two trained based on a percentage of their one-rep max which had them finish each set a few reps shy of failure.
Both groups trained with heavy weights three days per week, doing 3 sets of 8-to-12 or 4-to-6 reps (it varied through the course of the study) on four different exercises. They also did one day of explosive training and two days of sprints per week. (It’s not made clear in the study, but these people were most likely football players).
The researchers measured everyone’s strength and muscle mass before and after the study.
Group one performed worse than group two on almost every measure. The differences were only statistically significant when it came to strength on a handful of exercises, but group one still saw almost no improvement on any metric, whereas group two saw improvement on almost every metric.
Everyone in group one also reported that the workouts required more effort and caused more feelings of overtraining.
Why did this happen?
1. Sets taken to failure aren’t more “anabolic” than sets taken close to failure.
In many ways, muscle cells are like little engines. They can only produce so much force–they only have so much natural “horsepower”–and can only do so much work until “redlining.”
In other words, it can only move so much weight and do so many repetitions of a movement before quitting.
When you push a muscle cell close to its limits, it triggers a cascade of signals that lead to more muscle endurance, strength, and (often) size.
In this way, the last few reps of each set influence muscle-building more than the first few, but pushing to the point of absolute failure doesn’t provide much of an additional boost compared with ending sets a couple reps shy of it.
That is, by shoving the pedal to the metal, you may get slightly more power of your muscles, but you’ll also increase the risk of breakdown (injury and symptoms related to overtraining).
2. Taking sets to failure beats up the body more than ending sets with a couple reps still in the tank.
Research shows training to failure causes disproportionately more fatigue, soreness, and wear and tear than training to near-failure.
The more often you train to failure, then, the harder it can become to optimize your volume (sets or reps per week) and intensity (load) for maximum muscle and strength gain. You simply won’t have it in you to train hard enough week in, week out.
In time, this can hinder progress and even lead to a plateau.
Another downside to training to failure is it often causes your technique to break down.
One of the reasons this occurs is we gradually lose the ability to accurately feel what we’re doing with our bodies as our muscles get more and more fatigued. We think we’re keeping our form in, but we’re not.
This is especially true in the case of certain exercises like the deadlift, squat, and military press, which are very hard to do properly when pushed to the point of absolute failure. Your last couple of reps often get sloppy, and it doesn’t take much to tweak a muscle or joint.
So, while compromising form every now and then to get a PR is fine, you don’t want to get into the habit of training with poor technique. The more you do this, the harder it gets to do exercises correctly, and especially when you’re using heavy weights.
This is a particularly common mistake among people new to lifting. By regularly training to failure, they ingrain flawed movement patterns that are difficult to correct down the road. Or they simply get injured one the weights start getting heavy.
One final study on training to failure I want to share with you is a meta-analysis conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney.
The researchers found eight studies that compared people training to failure and people not training to failure. Half of the studies also ensured that both groups performed the same amount of volume, which allows for clearer analysis of results.
After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that training to failure produced no meaningful difference in strength versus not training to failure. They didn’t look at muscle growth, but chances are good the results would have been similarly unimpressive.
As the authors concluded, “. . . it seems unnecessary to perform failure training to maximise muscular strength.”
I’ve never found a significant benefit of regularly training to absolute failure versus training to technical failure, which is usually one to three reps shy of absolute failure.
Now, one argument in favor of training to failure is that many freakishly big and strong powerlifters, bodybuilders, and fitness models swear by it.
In fact, many of them seem to train to failure in one or more sets in just about every workout—and oftentimes on compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift—and never seem to run into problems of overtraining.
Well, not to sound cynical, but “steroids gives.”
Once drugs enter the picture, everything changes. When used properly, steroids allow you to train harder than you ever could naturally.
Even a relatively lightweight dose of testosterone drastically increases muscle protein synthesis rates and post-workout recovery, and many people take moderate or high doses along with a cocktail of other drugs like trenbolone, nandrolone, winstrol, SARMs, and others.
What’s more, many drug users also ingest and inject chemicals specifically for enhancing recovery and preserving joint health (like growth hormone).
So, if you see someone who’s a) jacked, b) consistently training to failure, c) consistently making progress, and d) rarely running into issues related to injuries, overtraining, or burnout, they’re probably on steroids.
Summary: Training to failure isn’t more effective than not training to failure, and it can encourage poor technique, increase the risk of injury, and prevent you from using as much volume or intensity as you should to optimize muscle and strength gains.
You now know there are a number of reasons not to train to failure, and you can do just fine without it.
That doesn’t mean it has no place in any and all weightlifting programs, however.
To understand why, let’s review the three main benefits of training to failure:
1. It ensures you’re pushing yourself in your workouts.
Many people tend to get complacent in their workouts. Although they may say they’re ending sets with just a couple reps left in the tank, more often than not, they could probably get another 4 or 5 or more if they really screwed up their courage.
By training to absolute failure, they’re forced to give it their all, which helps them recalibrate their actual capabilities.
2. It helps you assess your progress.
You’ll never really know how strong you are (and can get) unless you push yourself to or close to failure now and then.
This is why it’s worth doing a couple times per year on key lifts to see where you stand.
3. It’s not equally detrimental with all exercises.
Training to failure with compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift takes a toll on the body, but what about isolation exercises the biceps curl, triceps pressdown, or pullup?
Not so much.
You can train to failure on these exercises fairly often without any negative consequences.
This won’t necessarily help you gain muscle or strength faster than leaving a couple reps in the tank at the end of each set, but occasionally pushing to absolute failure will help you keep your perception of effort dialed in, which will benefit the rest of your training.
So, although most people train to failure too often and on the wrong exercises, if you go about it properly, you can profitably include it in your workout routine.
1. Don’t train to absolute failure.
Simply put, the marginal rewards for training to absolute failure don’t justify the considerable risks.
And as you’ve learned, in some cases, training to absolute failure can actually produce worse results over time.
This is why I don’t intentionally train to absolute failure, even when testing rep-maxes. Instead, I take these sets to technical failure.
Otherwise, I generally avoid even technical failure on most exercises, but not always. Which brings me to the next point . . .
2. Don’t train to technical failure more than once every couple of weeks.
This ensures you’re not accidentally cutting into your performance on your bigger lifts, which are more important for your whole-body size and strength.
Personally, I like to do some training to technical failure in the middle and ends of my training blocks (which end with a proper deload).
3. Don’t train to technical failure on more than two to three sets per workout.
Limit it to a couple sets per workout. I like to save technical failure sets for my very last exercise of the workout.
4. Rarely train to technical failure on the squat, bench or military press, or deadlift.
Most of your training on these exercises should be done to a point just shy of technical failure, which is usually 2 to 3 reps from absolute failure.
You should only reach technical failure when you’re testing a rep-max—which you shouldn’t be doing often. In terms of effort, this would be a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, or the feeling that you couldn’t get another rep (0 reps left in the tank).
If you’re new to weightlifting, you’ll have to develop a sense of this. An easy way to learn is familiarizing yourself with the RPE scale, which you can learn about in this article:
This means, then, that most of your technical failure sets should be performed with safer, simpler isolation exercises.
Summary: Don’t take compound lifts to absolute failure—save it for your isolation exercises—and don’t take sets to failure more than once every couple of weeks.
There are two types of muscle failure:
- Absolute failure, which is doing as many reps as you can until you physically can’t move the weight.
- Technical failure, which is doing as many reps as you can until you can’t do another with proper form.
The main reason people train to absolute failure is they think it’ll cause more muscle activation and thereby boost muscle and strength gain.
This is mostly false.
Studies in both trained and untrained lifters have repeatedly shown training to absolute failure doesn’t help you gain more muscle or strength than taking sets to a couple reps shy of it.
In fact, training to failure too often may actually get in the way of progress by decreasing how much volume and intensity you can handle and increasing the risk of overtraining, injury, and form breakdowns.
That said, training to absolute failure does have a few positives:
- It ensures you’re pushing yourself in your workouts.
- It helps you assess your progress.
- It’s not equally detrimental with all exercises.
And thus, it does have a place in a well-designed weightlifting program.
Here’s how I do it:
- I don’t train to absolute failure, only to technical failure.
- I don’t train to technical failure more than once every couple of weeks.
- I don’t train to technical failure on more than two to three sets per workout.
- I don’t train to technical failure on the squat, bench or military press, or deadlift.
If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll enjoy the limited benefits training to failure can provide and avoid its rather large pitfalls.
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