The past week of lifting was extremely challenging for me, both physically and mentally. For the first time since November, I trained above 90 percent of my all-time best 1-rep maxes. And I pretty much fell flat on my face.
I laid out a minimum amount of volume I needed to accumulate with such (relatively) heavy weights. I ended up falling well short and even missed reps for the first time since… well, since way before I can remember. I went 9-for-9 at my last powerlifting meet, so it’s been awhile since I attempted a lift that I couldn’t complete. I missed two deadlift attempts and a squat attempt, and I am not proud.
But it got me thinking about a touchy subject: should you lift weights until failure? This question sparks a lot of emotional responses from lifters, trainers and coaches. It’s as polarizing a topic as there is. Some people say you always have to make the target muscle fail if you want it to grow bigger and stronger. Other people say training to failure will fry your nervous system, stunt your gains and turn you into a stumbling zombie.
As with anything, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
I tend to side with the never-train-to-failure camp, but there is a time and a place for it. Here are a few simple rules to help you pick your battles and train to failure only when the benefits outweigh the risks.
1. DON’T TRAIN HIGHLY TECHNICAL LIFTS TO FAILURE
Highly technical lifts like the powerlifts (squat, bench press, deadlift), Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk) and their variations require a tremendous amount of coordination and skill to perform safely and effectively. Because of this, there’s a greater risk of injury while performing these lifts. This risk gets exponentially greater the closer you take these lifts to failure.
Why are powerlifters, Olympic lifters and gymnasts jacked out of their minds despite never training to failure? Because they treat strength as a skill. Countless submaximal (challenging, but not impossible) reps with picture perfect technique. You don’t have to run yourself into the ground with hernia-inducing sets to build ridiculous strength or muscle mass. Why do you think most average Joe bench press clowns do forced reps, drop-sets, super-sets and dozens of other silly “intensity” techniques - yet they never get better at benching? Because you can’t constantly fail and expect to get better at something.
Take it slow, leave room for consistent improvement and be patient.
2. DON’T MISS REPS ON BIG HEAVY LIFTS MORE THAN 4 TIMES A YEAR
There’s a reason you can’t compete in a powerlifting meet every weekend. Lifting extremely heavy loads is incredibly taxing on your muscles and nervous system. The only thing more taxing is attempting to lift extremely heavy weights and failing.
The heavier the load, the further you should stay away from failure. Honestly, the training stimulus from doing an all-out heavy set of 3 reps isn’t that different from doing 3 reps with a weight you could do 5 times. The former is much more dangerous but isn’t that much more beneficial than the latter.
Four isn’t a magical number proven by science to be the max number of times you can miss lifts without negative effects. But if you’re following a smart training planning and testing your lifts only once every 12-13 weeks (i.e. four times a year), you should theoretically only miss lifts when you’re testing your 1RM. Ideally, you’d never miss lifts because you’d pick your 1RM attempts perfectly and always get stronger, but we know this doesn’t happen in real life. Our egos get the best of us from time to time, but do the best to miss heavy lifts very, very infrequently. Approach heavy weights with confidence, knowing you’ve trained hard and earned new levels of strength.
3. IT’S SAFER TO TRAIN TO FAILURE WITH HIGHER REPS, LIGHTER WEIGHT AND SMALLER MUSCLE GROUPS
There is a humongous, astronomical difference between failing on a set of heavy squats and failing on the 12th rep of a set of biceps curls. The smaller the muscle group, the lighter the weight and the higher the reps, the safer it is to go to failure.
This goes back to point number one. Heavy, full body lifts shouldn’t be taken to failure. Advanced lifters might be able to do sets of 10-20 reps on big barbell lifts, but they have the foundation of strength and technique to do so safely. A newbie lifter who can hardly tie his shoes has no business doing death sets of 20-rep breathing squats.
On the other hand, most small muscle groups aren’t effectively trained using heavy weights and low reps. I talked about this extensively in my rant about biceps training, and the same goes for most isolation exercises. Crush the big muscle groups with heavy, full-body lifts, then smoke the small muscle groups with less complicated exercises, lighter weights and higher reps. Failing on a set of rear delt flyes won’t set you back like convulsing through a set of barbell rows to failure. Completely exhausting small muscle groups that are constantly active during posture or everyday activities (e.g. calves, lower traps, forearms, etc.) might actually be necessary to make them grow.
We still don’t know the exact physiology behind strength/muscle gains. I like to think hard work is the main ingredient but people like to argue about hormones, mechanical stress, metabolic by-products and stuff. People will try to tell you that training to failure is the only way to ensure 100 percent intensity because it guarantees maximal recruitment of all types of muscle fibers (slow, intermediate and fast twitch), which creates the right hormonal and metabolic environment for growth. This may be true if you’re using a day-spa-friendly 3-1-3 tempo (e.g. “slow and controlled”), but if you want to really build strength and muscle, you need to crush each rep as explosively as you can with perfect form. Lower the weight under control, but always lift each rep with maximal effort like you’re trying to blast it through the roof. This will ensure recruitment of all fiber types, especially fast-twitch Type IIx fibers which have the most potential for hypertrophy.
What the super-slow-training-to-failure crowd is also forgetting is the neurological bitch-slap that comes with training to failure. Constantly bombarding your body with sets to failure (and beyond in the case of forced reps) may spark some quick growth but it’s just not sustainable. Eventually, resting testosterone levels will fall, cortisol will rise and your desire to train will plummet. A lack of desire to work out doesn’t sound like a long term plan for success, does it?
Fatigue the body into adaptation through frequency and volume, not intensity. Training more frequently (4-5 days per week vs. 2-3) with more volume (12-20 sets per body part vs. 1-3) and less intensity (sets of 5-10 reps stopping shy of failure vs. 8-15 reps to failure or stupidly heavy sets to failure and beyond) is more sustainable. You’ll feel less run down and be more motivated to train because you’re not constantly banging your head against training ruts, injuries and plateaus.
4. STOP AT TECHNICAL FAILURE, NOT ABSOLUTE FAILURE
Sometimes people get confused about the true meaning of failure. It’s easy to get confused when you’ve just done 50 kipping pull-ups followed by a dozen burpees in a pile of your own puke.
Jason Ferruggia and Eric Cressey both advocate stopping almost every set one rep shy of failure. But when they say failure, that doesn’t mean one rep shy of beheading yourself with a bench press guillotine or inches away from crapping your spleen during a scared-cat deadlift.
The above video shows two kinds of failure: absolute and technical. Absolute failure is when the muscles literally cannot generate enough force to complete the rep. That’s what you see on rep #2 in the video. What Ferruggia and Cressey are talking about is technical failure, which means textbook form can no longer be maintained but you could still crank out slow, ugly grinding reps such as rep #1 in the video.
The key to maximizing the hormonal benefits of training close to absolute failure without the injury risk is to get really good at lifting heavy weight with perfect form. This goes back to points #1 and #3. If you can lift heavy and close to failure without your form breaking down, you’ve narrowed the gap between absolute failure and technical failure. Once you’ve reached this point, chances are you’re pretty damn big and strong.
Practice the lifts without failing and earn the right to do the risky, high rep stuff.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Training to failure won’t benefit the majority of people trying to get bigger and stronger. And the injury risks certainly don’t warrant the benefits when we’re talking about the big lifts.
In order to get the most out of your training, perform the big, heavy lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses, rows) well shy of failure and take your smaller accessory lifts (curls, flyes, push-ups, ab work, etc.) closer to failure. Learn to struggle under weight with perfect form and then you can throw in some crazy, balls-to-the-walls dance-with-death stuff every once in a while.
Remember: stimulate, recover, repeat. It’s simple. Don’t screw it up.