Training to failure means going until you can no longer continue. Your strength drops below that needed for a task. When to stop and what remains good enough form to continue differs depending on your perspective.
Training to failure depends on subjective feelings. As such, it has no standard. The concept still has merit though even if hard to define.
Training to failure usually means going until you fail to complete another rep. This means stopping when you reach the limits of your strength for a given weight. If bench pressing 200 pounds, you would reach failure when you can no longer lift, hold, or lower that weight.
If you do one set that is intense and to failure, then you have triggered the muscle growth.
– Dorian Yates
The idea of going to failure defines High Intensity Training (HIT). Most in fitness dislike this system, therefore you rarely hear about the advantages of doing so. This is a shame because the concept holds great value.
Training to failure only serves as a tool. We want to work hard enough to overload the body but go no further. This allows you to improve yet recover.
Training to failure is not needed, but still carries these advantages.
- Recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers.
As you maintain the force needed to move a weight, muscle fibers activate. They remain active until force drops. Muscle fibers work in a ramp-like pattern.
Demands that require a low intensity rely on slow-twitch muscle fibers. These have more endurance versus strength. If they cannot meet the demands or become fatigued, intermediate muscle fibers come into play. These have a balance of endurance and strength. Finally when these fibers fail, fast-twitch muscle fibers join the fray. The growth of these fibers has the greatest effect on strength and size. After all fibers recruit, the body uses rate coding. This has the nervous system command the fibers to contract rapidly.
As long as you use a fairly heavy weight, the fast-twitch muscle fibers eventually have to work. Both high and low reps can bring them into action. Effort matters most, since fiber recruitment depends on your current needs. If you have the intention to lift a heavy weight fast, despite it moving slow due to the weight or your fatigue, you activate the strongest fibers. Training to failure makes sure that you have recruited all of the muscle fibers possible.
A poor effort, even more so with light weights, will not bring in the fast-twitch fibers.
- May optimize hormones.
Training hard releases hormones. These elevate during intense exercise. They allow for more force production, energy availability, and psychological benefits. When working hard, your body will release endorphins to aid performance. Testosterone and growth hormone increase, which may lead to better long-term growth.
Hormones are complex though. More volume also seems to improve hormones. Too much volume though will overtrain most people. We do not understand fully how hormones affect our training.
Rely instead on increasing your weights over time.
- Provides a limitation.
Strength and endurance are inherently different. Doing more work does not mean more strength and size. You must work harder in the same or less time. This means heavier weights. Working the slow-twitch muscle fibers and building up by-products of fatigue do not promote gains in size and strength.
Many bodybuilding methods increase the burn. This causes lactic acid to buildup in the muscles. This may affect hormones but has no clear link to muscle growth. Post-workout soreness and other subjective feelings from exercise increase as well. These do not lead to more tension though. More work has nothing to do with more weight.
Do not test the limit of your capacity to continue at a low level. Intensifiers can lead to too much stress. These include negatives, drop sets, forced reps, and other techniques. These allow you to go beyond the fatigue you would reach normally within a single set.
Work can extend almost forever, as long as you have the energy to go on. Instead, test your limit to perform at the highest level. If you can bench press 200 pounds, do as many reps as possible with that weight then stop. Most trainees hold back their effort and do less reps than they could, then believe they make up for it with more sets, exercises, etc. Volume means more endurance, which has a poor connection to growth. Doing more work after reaching failure is irrelevant to your strength. Develop your endurance by doing intervals instead.
Intensity is the most important factor. Intensity relies on both effort and a minimum load. Every variable should allow for a high intensity. Duration, frequency, volume, and every other factor MUST allow increases in intensity. For most, this means training harder, but briefly and less often. You need to focus on adding more weight to your lifts above all else. Going to failure emphasizes this goal.
- Gives you a measurement.
If you truly work as hard as possible, you can measure progress. This allows you to know accurately how things have come along. Periodization and other systems hold back your effort. This gives unclear feedback on your results. Knowing your rate of improvement allows you to better tweak your program. Training to failure gives you a clear picture of your current ability.
The fitness industry tends to jump on ideas. The mainstream then ridicules anything outside of it. Most then fail to think critically about many issues. Many experts quickly decided against the value of training to failure. Much of this disdain comes from looking down upon High Intensity Training in general. Although the criticism for some HIT principles seem true, the arguments against training to failure have flaws.
- It promotes overtraining.
Some argue that training to failure burns you out. The extreme effort damages the muscles. It can form scar tissue. It wears out the central nervous system. Oxygen deprivation may occur. It may cut off circulation. These statements are way overblown.
Consider that failure only occurs with a given weight. If you would slightly reduce it, you could continue to do more reps. It would seem that failure does not mean any sort of special damage.
Instead, avoid doing too much. Failure actually provides a limit to prevent overtraining. Otherwise you just keep adding sets. If you train to failure with many sets, you will certainly overtrain. Training to failure works best with only a single set.
- It encourages poor form.
As you approach failure, you may alter your position in a way that takes away from the working muscles. This also may harm your joints. This point makes sense. You must stay disciplined to keep good form. Beginners are most vulnerable.
Fatigue actually reduces your potential force during a set. The first rep can be the most dangerous. You can perform it most explosively since you feel fresh. As fatigue develops for a set, your lower strength limits you from performing a rep dangerously. This prevents jerking, heaving, or yanking the weight.
I suggest positive failure. This means you still have static and negative strength. This allows you to control the weight even when pushing your limits. Working hard in itself does not cause poor form. A lack of discipline causes poor form. Correct any bad tendencies before blaming training to failure.
- Training to failure teaches you to fail.
Some state that no other activities in nature have failure as the goal. Keep in mind though that our goal remains to spur growth, not to lift weights. Sprinting or doing any athletic motion with decreasing speed as you wear out represents failure. Any coach or athlete knows that to improve your sprinting that you must practice all-out sprints. This means that a form of failure occurs during any intense activity eventually.
Once again, you only fail at a given weight. You do not completely reach your physical limit. Exhausting yourself totally would look very different. Consider the utter fatigue that marathoners feel. They may collapse on their last steps. Reaching this breaking point can definitely harm you.
Loss of function does not occur when lifting weights. Consider failing to get another rep on the bench press. Even after this, you can still move your arms. You can function normally. You only temporarily lose the ability to perform at your highest level.
- It is subjective.
This is true. This alone though does not mean training to failure has no value. It does not take away from the advantages.
- It feels too stressful mentally.
Training should allow progress. It does not have to feel fun or pleasing. While you should not ignore the effects of any method on your mindset, it remains your choice how to perceive training to failure. Training to failure does not sound as bad when it means faster, better, and more measurable results.
Training to Failure with the Right Perspective
Intensity of effort is almost the entire answer in itself; lacking the proper intensity of effort, little or nothing in the way of results will be produced by any amount of exercise – At least not in the way of muscular size or strength increases.
– Arthur Jones
You do not need training to failure to make gains. It has important advantages though. The only valid point against it comes from the likelihood to cheat on form.
Good form differs on each exercise. If you do something that puts your joints at risk, then you must correct this before training to failure. A good exercise makes cheating hard to do anyway.
I suggest training to failure. Stop at positive failure though. Make sure you do so safely by adhering to good form for each exercise.