Engaging “beast mode,” going all out, trashing your muscles and performing an exercise to the point of absolute failure seems pretty damn hardcore, right?
After all, you need to create muscle damage to grow.
And the best way to damage your muscles is to punish them, put them through their paces, and train each and every exercise to the point of exhaustion.
That means going to failure … or does it?
What if training this hard wasn’t just not benefitting your training, but was actually stopping you from gaining muscle?
What is Failure?
Failure involves performing as many reps as you can, before you reach the point where you can’t complete another.
That sounds simple enough, but there are two types of failure –
Technical Failure –
You can’t do another rep with good form.
Absolute Failure –
You can’t do another rep with sub-par form. In a set where you train to absolute failure, it’s highly likely your form will break down several reps before you actually miss a rep.
For instance, if you’re shooting for 10 reps where you fail completely on rep 10, reps 1 through 6 will probably be fine.
Rep 7 will be a bit shaky, rep 8 questionable, rep 9 pretty poor, and rep 10 you can’t complete.
Failure: What is it Good For?
By working your muscles to the point where they’re fatigued, you’re creating damage and metabolic stress.
The tissues are breaking down so that they can rebuild bigger and stronger, and metabolic by-products such as lactate and hydrogen ions accumulate, along with a rise in hormones like growth hormone and testosterone. These are strongly linked with an increase in muscular hypertrophy.
If you never push yourself, you’ll never grow. However …
When Failure … Fails!
By constantly training to the point of failure, you’re really not doing yourself any favors.
It’s all well and good pushing yourself and training hard, but this can come at a cost.
Using poor form just to get an extra rep or two not only puts you at risk of injury, but also means you start using poor motor patterns.
For instance, on an all-out set of squats, small technique flaws will start to come in as you fatigue – things like your knees caving in, your back rounding, or your weight coming forward onto your toes, rather than you sitting back onto your heels.
These might not seem too detrimental, but if you start doing this regularly, your body learns this bad technique, and this can actually make you weaker in the long term.
Training to failure is also highly demanding on your central nervous system. (CNS.)
The phrase “over-training” is thrown around a lot, and while most trainees will never reach the point of true over-training, you can certainly get into a stage of over-reaching.
This is where your CNS is so hammered from hitting failure, that you begin getting weaker.
You feel tired, drained, stressed and the quality of your training goes down. (Read This: The Most Important Days to Train)
This works on a sliding scale:
With lighter weights and higher reps, training to failure isn’t hugely demanding on your CNS, but using heavier loads and hitting failure (particularly absolute failure as opposed to technical) can be seriously damn stressful on your CNS.
It’s Not All About Damage
Muscle damage is one factor that induces growth, but it isn’t the only factor.
Volume is just as important.
Volume is the total reps lifted (usually in a single session) multiplied by the weight.
So a leg workout where you do 5 sets of 6 reps with 225 lbs equates to 6,750 lbs of volume. (5 x 6 x 225.)
Let’s say that this 225 lbs is around 80% of your 1 rep max.
What would happen if instead of doing 5 sets of 6, you decided to max out every set?
Your workout would probably look something like this –
Set 1 – 9 reps
Set 2 – 6 reps
Set 3 – 4 reps
Set 4 – 3 reps
Set 5 – 2 reps
Total reps = 24
Total volume = 5,400 lbs.
Due to the cumulative fatigue, you get fewer reps each set.
Now, instead of working hard, yet not taking each set to failure, and getting 30 total reps with your 5 sets of 6, you’re actually only getting 24 total reps, which is a lower training volume.
And that equals less muscle gain long term.
Using Failure Properly
Failure is a tool in your training toolbox.
It has a place, but if you abuse it, you’ll run yourself into the ground, and likely burn out, get injured, and compromize your growth.
A good way to incorporate failure is with an AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) set on one exercise once a week.
This is commonly used in Daily Undulating Periodization routines as a way of setting new PRs and busting through plateaus without risking injury or slowing down growth.
If you were doing 4 sets of 8 reps using 75% of your 1 rep max, with an AMRAP set on your 4th set, you’d do 3 sets of 8, then shoot for as many good quality reps as possible on set 4.
The next week, you’d still do 3 sets of 8, but aim for more reps on your 4th set. Or you could aim for the same number of reps but with a heavier weight, or perform 4 sets of 8, then an AMRAP on the 5th – basically anything that means you’re increasing overall volume.
Training to absolute failure should only ever really be used on isolation movements, or machine exercises, where form breakdown doesn’t matter as much, and even then, it’s a good idea only to go balls to the wall like this on one or two sets of one or two exercises each week at the most.
Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter and actually on the platform at a meet, or testing your 1 rep maxes in the gym, absolute failure should never be used on compound free-weight moves like the squat, bench and deadlift.
Technical failure is a little less stressful on your joints and CNS, so can be used more often, but still, in terms of your “big 3” it’s not wise to go here more than once a week on each lift, and this would only be when using an AMRAP.
A good rule of thumb is to leave 1 to 2 reps in the tank on 90% of your working sets on every exercise each week, and use failure when you need that bit more of a push.
Training to failure isn’t always hardcore … but it is always potentially risky, and could be doing your gains more harm than good.
To read more about using failure appropriately to get bigger and stronger, check out “The DUP Method.”
About The Author
Mike Samuels runs online coaching business Healthy Living Heavy Lifting.
He loves flexible dieting and specializes in getting clients lean while eating cake and ice cream!
Mike has competed in men’s fitness and bodybuilding competitions, and is also a record holder in the Great British Powerfliting Federation.
You can contact him at –