The ins and outs of training to failure for showstopping gains.
Failure is your friend. Failure to understand failure, however, is another story — especially in terms of taking sets to failure in your workouts. There’s a way to do it right and there’s a way to do it wrong, and we’re willing to wager that most of you are all too familiar with the latter. If you’re part of this failingto- fail-properly group, however, you’re in luck.
On the following pages, we define training to failure once and for all — and show you, with some help from our experts, how, why and when to break out this time-tested technique for adding mass and building the physique you’re after.
Here’s what happens when you train to failure (the
point at which your exercise form breaks down).
1 Intramuscular adenosine triphosphate begins
to decline. Energy within cells is transported
via ATP, so an ATP deficit will contribute greatly
to muscular fatigue.
2 Creatine phosphate concentrations deplete
quickly at the beginning of a set, and since
creatine powers the production of ATP, the
energy stores in muscles can’t be replenished.
3 Acid levels begin to build up in muscles. This
interferes with muscular contraction, and it
also further hinders the production of ATP.
Most of the studies involving training
to failure have examined the technique’s
effect on strength levels. The
process by which failure stimulates
growth, however, can be easily extrapolated
from a simple examination of how
muscle is built.
■ When actin-myosin cross-bridges (the machinery in muscles that causes them to contract) can’t be formed as muscles need them — they need ATP for this — the tension in the muscle fibers causes “tears” at the sites where the cross-bridges would have formed.
■ These tears, and the subsequent rebuilding of the muscle, stimulate the
growth process in muscles.
■ Training to failure causes more of
this microtrauma to muscle fibers in a
shorter period of time; so, working
muscles to failure theoretically stimulates
more growth than stopping a set
short of failure would.
■ Research also shows that GH levels
are much higher after workouts taken
to failure than in other forms of training.
This is due to the buildup of
fatigue-stimulated chemicals in muscle,
such as lactic acid, and is also critical
for stimulating muscle growth.
When you train to failure on a regular basis, it’s bound to mess with your
recovery, and the consequences can be severe. Each rep that hits failure
— and each cheat set you take beyond failure — sets you back more and
more in terms of how much recovery time you’ll need after that particular
workout. With that said, why would anyone want to train to failure?
■ IFBB Pro League athlete Stan Efferding goes to failure sporadically
throughout his training year, usually at the end of his high-volume hypertrophy
workouts. “I’m trying to get more blood to my muscles at the end of
an exercise and stretch out the fascia [the protective sheath that coats muscle
fibers],” he says. “My goal when training this way is to push as much
weight as I possibly can in an hour.”
■ Training to failure builds mental toughness that can’t be achieved when
you’re always training short of your limits. “Failure helps me discover what
my limits are,” Efferding says. “With a program of progressive resistance,
training to failure enables me to get to my limits, then push past them.”
■ IFBB pro Derik Farnsworth utilizes failure to fully fatigue his fast-twitch
muscle fibers, the ones most conducive to promoting effective growth. “I
do it for overload,” he says. “I think the last set of an exercise should really
knock me out, so training to failure helps me go all out, be economical with
my workouts and not waste any sets.”
“I train to failure, because it gives the muscle a harder, more dense and
well-developed look,” says IFBB pro Chris Cormier. “It brings out deep
fibers that may otherwise be dormant.”
HOW TO FAIL
Next time you’re in the gym, take a look
around and see how many people train
to failure on every single set. According
to our experts, consistently working failure
into your program this way is a recipe
for disaster. Applying the principle correctly,
however, can stimulate gains
beyond anything you’ve ever thought
possible. Here’s what they suggest: train
to failure on a movement only once every
three weeks and take time to mentally
recover in between workouts during
which you go to failure in multiple movements.
“The psychological part of this is
why you have to keep your volume low,”
says Dave Tate, legendary powerlifter
and owner and CEO of Elite Fitness
Systems. “That’s why, with programs like
Doggcrapp and high-intensity training,
the volume is so low. It’s also why, with
programs like FST-7 [fascia stretch training],
which have much higher volume
levels, most sets won’t go to failure.”
BEWARE OF FATIGUE “Too much of
anything will give you problems,” says
Cormier. “I give myself a period where
I’m pressing the issue, and then I’ll back
off for a period of time to recuperate.”
FIND THE RANGE Train to failure only
on sets within the 8- to 20-rep range.
“Going to failure with anything less than
this is not the best way to train for muscle
growth,” Efferding states.
FAIL AT THE END Choose one exercise
per bodypart, and then train to
failure for the last one or two sets for
KNOW YOUR LIMITS It’s OK to cheat
on the last rep of a movement if you have
to, but failure should be considered the
point at which you can’t do another rep
of an exercise with proper form.
Here is where you’ll find the most room for debate. Can
any exercise be taken to failure? What’s best for the purpose
— machines or compound, multijoint lifts performed
with free weights?
ADVANTAGES OF TRAINING TO FAILURE WITH MACHINES
■ Exhausting your muscles with machine lifts
allows you to train to “true” failure as previously
defined — the point where your form
■ With machines, you’re locked into a movement
pattern or groove that doesn’t allow you
to cheat — and doesn’t permit breakdowns in
technique — so when you’re done, you know
you’ve reached true failure.
■ Machines help you more efficiently get blood
into your muscles when training to failure,
because you’re isolating a specific muscle and
concentrating solely on working through a
■ There’s less of a psychological aspect to
machine failure, because machine lifts are generally
accessory lifts that don’t require significant
amounts of mental preparation to perform.
You don’t have to psych yourself up to do, say,
lat pulldowns or cable crossovers the same way
you would before you bench or squat.
ADVANTAGES OF TRAINING TO FAILURE WITH COMPOUND LIFTS
■ Compound, multijoint lifts — the bench press, squat and deadlift — give you the best bang for your buck
in terms of the amount of muscle fibers you’ll be able to stimulate within the constraints of a set.
■ Training to failure with compound lifts builds mental toughness that you won’t get from machines or isolation
movements. “People want to go into the gym and do the little pansy exercises,” says Farnsworth, “but
the only way to get there is through compound moves.”
■ Studies have shown that selectively training to failure during compound lifts can increase overall muscular
strength across all lifts.