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I’m sure you’ve heard it somewhere – that you need to train to failure in order to progress. But what does it mean to train to failure, what purpose does it serve, and is it always the way to go? All that and more will be covered here, so let’s dive in!
When we talk about training to failure, we are specifically referring to the repetition of a particular exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure. In science speak, that is the point at which the neuromuscular system can no longer produce enough force to overcome a specific workload. In non-science speak, it’s when your muscle is 100% spent, and there is no way you can complete even a single repetition of that exercise.
The purpose of training to failure is to achieve maximum hypertrophy, a.k.a. Maximum muscle growth. When performed correctly and strategically (more on that later), going to failure increases: growth factor production, lactic acid production, and nervous system response. As your muscles reach fatigue, secondary and tertiary muscle fibers pitch in on the load, creating a situation conducive for significant size and strength gains.
One thing to keep in mind when training to failure is that it will cause nervous system fatigue, which means any set or exercise of that body part performed after you reach failure will be at a reduced capacity. For that reason, training to failure is advised only on the last set of a given exercise. Personally, I’d recommend you limit 1 to 2 exercises to go to failure on, per body part, per workout, to ensure you don’t do more harm than good (more on that later). If you are working a classic 2-body part split in your workout – let’s say back and biceps – then you’ll be performing the last set of 1 back exercise and 1 bicep exercise to failure. That’s going to failure on each body part once. If you are up to it, you can try it on 2 different exercises per bodypart trained, but I’d be mindful of how your body feels, and stop if at any point things just don’t feel right.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it isn’t advisable to train to failure on compound lifts, or those lifts that recruit multiple body parts (like the deadlift). This is because you aren’t hitting failure on all of the muscles worked in these compound lifts, and the multiple muscles recruited for each move may be ruined for further work in other, isolated exercises.
We have covered forced reps and drop-sets before, but let’s take a moment to refresh our memories, in the context of training to failure. Essentially advanced ways of training PAST failure, forced reps involve completing reps after failure with the aid of a partner, and drop sets involve going past failure at lower weights. Both will increase metabolic stress, lactic acid production, and muscle fiber recruitment – but they will also cause far more stress than standard training to failure.
While training to failure will definitely lead to solid gains, it can also lead to central nervous system overload, and injury. Here’s why you shouldn’t train to failure more than once or twice each workout, and not with every single workout, either:
While it isn’t totally completely necessary to the process, training to failure does have its merits for muscle gains, when used in moderation.