Training to Muscle failure

November 2nd, 2007 by Paul Johnson

Whether or not training a set to muscle failure is better (or even necessary) for muscle growth, is a age old debate in bodybuilding. Muscular failure means doing reps in a set, until you can no longer lift the weight with proper form through the full range of motion.

Why is this last rep so important to discuss?

It may only seem like just another rep that happens to be the last in a set, but bodybuilders and scientist have viewed the last rep to failure as distinctly different from the other reps. Bodybuilders see it as giving it "your all" and fatiguing the muscle completely. Some high intensity workout programs, believe that you must go to failure for maximum muscle and strength gains.

Training to failure research studies:

To see why scientist see this rep differently, let's look at some research.

A study published (J Appl Physiol. 2006 May;100(5):1647-56. Epub 2006 Jan 12.) did a 11 week resistance training program of failure vs nonfailure groups. Immediately after the 11th week all groups did the same workout, to see the effects each previous training led. Both groups had similiar increases in one rep max. During the 2nd phase of the study, there was an increase in muscular endurance in the failure group and power in the nonfailure group. The failure group had lower IGF-1 levels (important anabolic hormone for muscle growth), while the nonfailure group had lower resting levels of cortisol and higher testosterone levels.

A study published in (J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May;19(2):382-8) compared failure to nonfailure in 26 basketball players. The failure group did 4 sets of 6 repetitions every 260 seconds, whereas the nonfailure 8 sets of 3 repetitions every 113. Results showed that the failure group had significant strength increases over the non-failure group. One problem I have with this study is, time under tension differences between the sets. The failure group is doing 6 reps in a set instead of 3 reps. Even though the weight is the same and the time is lessened to increase intensity, 3 reps per set is not going to be the same stimulus.

A few months ago JM Willardson, who has published some important studies in excercise science, wrote a research note recently in (J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):628-31.) He acknowledged that there isn't enough conclusive evidence yet, whether sets should be done to failure or not. However, willardson recommended advanced lifters use training failure to break past plateaus, due to increased activation of motor units and the hormonal response. He also didn't recommend it long term due to overtraining and risk of injury.

  1. Mark on November 2nd, 2007

    From my experience when I don’t train to failure I feel as if I am not really doing anything. Yes I am lifting weights, but stopping before it is about to get tough seems like a waste?

    I have heard that it is the final few reps and the closer you can go to failure the better you stimulate the muscle. For advanced trainers the high intensity technique of doing forced reps even takes you beyond regular failure.

    While I will have to admit I have never consistently not trained to failure, I just find it hard to believe that you could build more muscle by not doing those hard reps at the end of a set.

  2. Fred Conn on June 21st, 2008

    Fro my personal experience, it takes me mosre time to recover and improve on performance – especially as shown by my squat and bench press – when I do to failure. I tell you, waiting 1 week to do the exercise – let’s say 3 sets of squats with last 2 to failure – doesn’t seem to be enough time. The same with chest: coming back after one week, I can at best match previous performance! But when I wait 10 days, and even 14 days: always improvement. Maybe it is just that my body responds differently.

    But when I stop short 1 or 2 reps of failure, I recover faster and 7 days later I stop 1-2 reps short of failure again, only this time I have done two more reps than last week. Muscles, at least for me, seem to recover faster w/o working to failure – and as a stuck with that, I have been able to increased reps. Feels sort of lazy to me, but so far it has worked – my 4th week doing that. Quite happy!

  3. Jacob on October 5th, 2008

    Going to failure sure feels right. I train specifically for athletes to develop explosion. I recommend athletes go to failure ONLY on the last sets of a given exercise. If failure is avoided in the initial sets you are able to workout with heavier weight the MAJORITY or the time. The last sets for a given muscle can go to failure to still gain the benefits of activating all muscle units. Moreover, with increasing explosiveness I recommend that the failure sets are done with weight that still allow an explosive plyometric movement, as opposed to a slow struggling movement. Good blog thanks…. FYI the following sentence in your blog seems to be missing a key “non” – Results showed that the failure group had significant strength increases over the failure group.

  4. admin on October 26th, 2008

    Thanks Jacob for picking up the typo. I’ll fix it.

    Jacob you bring up a good point about being able to do more weight over many sets by avoiding failure initially. However, when you think about it it means your doing less work (less reps) at the most intense set (the 1st one) when you are using the most weight. So, I’m not sure that is the main argument for or against muscle failure.

  5. Jason on February 24th, 2009

    I have to agree with Fred 100%!

    I have noticed the same exact thing!

    When I train to failure on multi-joint lifts it takes me up to 14 days to recover! Actually my biggest lifts are when I waited until 14 days later to train again! But I can’t stand waiting that long even though it worked!

    However recently I have been stopping 1-3 reps short of failure on ALL my lifts and I am getting stronger. We’ll see?

  6. Mel on August 29th, 2009

    Fred & Jason got me really interested since overtraining is such a frequent problem with trainers who go to failure and beyond. Maybe going to failure only at the last set of an exercise with a forced rep just to complete the rep? Oh yeah, any updates guys?

  7. Johnnylu243 on March 15th, 2010

    Yea i use to stop when i started getting tired but i don’t anymore and i see better results continuing versus stopping.

  8. Wade McMaster on August 5th, 2010

    I’ve always found that pushing hard and going to failure (or past with forced reps) is what really makes the difference for me, but can be a little too much if im trying to burn fat. So I guess depending on bodytype, if you’re naturally skinny it might be a lot to recover from when you’re trying to really find the fine balance between promoting growth and overtraining.

  9. George Rocco on August 27th, 2010

    For ten years plus I have trained to failure.
    I built a consiberable physique with failure but now I have learned failure is wrong.
    As of yesterday I started training without going to failure. Lets see how big and ripped I get now.

  10. RJ on September 30th, 2010

    Well, I understand this issue is a toss up, but I like to mix and match between failure and non-failure. Going to failure may make you stronger too, but as most people learn from the military its more about muscle endurance. You never get a chance to recover when your in Basic Training. I suggest some weeks you might want to go short a rep or two, then the next week or so, go to failure and work a different group of muscles. Overall you’ll still look and feel great!