Do You Need to Train to Failure to Build Muscle?

by Tommi on March 1, 2011

Exercising to Failure - Fire!A great deal has been written about training to failure. However, it doesn’t deserve the near mythical status some people have given to it.

When you read articles on weightlifting methods they all seem to  “one-up” each other in training to failure.

Drop sets, pyramid sets, pre-exhaustion sets all these are ways to “really” train to ultimate failure.

Going to failure on each and every set has become a religious dogma.

Some bodybuilders believe that progress is impossible without using this principle.

Understanding what failure training is and when and why to use it can save you from wasted efforts and needless suffering.

What Is Training To Failure?

Failure in this case refers to lifting a weight until you just cant do another rep. Despite all your best efforts you “fail” to get even one more repetition in good form.

Failure doesn’t mean “ooh this feels hard, going to stop now”.  Failure means the last repetition of your last set should make you shit out a kidney, sputter, spit and shake. OK, maybe the bit about having an internal organ fall out is an exaggeration, but an all out effort is what counts.

Natural Strength And Muscle Building

Going to failure hardly exists in any normal human activity. When did you last see a construction worker lift bricks or lumber until he couldn’t do it anymore?

A short distance runner usually has enormous legs and overall muscularity, and they never sprint until they can`t take another step. Going to failure rarely happens outside the gym.

So why is that many construction workers and sprinters are built like a brick shit-house? Those unfamiliar with that expression, it means, very large and muscular.

The belief that you MUST train to failure to make progress just isn’t true.

Dangers Of Training To Failure

Training to failure on every set and multiple training sessions throughout the week is a surefire way to burn yourself out.

If you get injured or depressed from central nervous system burnout your efforts in the gym are wasted. It takes weeks to months to recover from that kind of abuse.

You can’t train to failure on every set and expect to recover within 48-72 hours. If you seek a “sure thing,” then stay away from failure training altogether. You will make progress as long as you work hard and push yourself a little more each time.

If you absolutely must train to failure, which can be fun, make sure you split your workouts in such a way that you only train each muscle group each week.

If you’re a beginner, you may get away with doing more.

What Good is Exercising to Failure?

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra have some proof. It appears that going to failure is important for maximizing strength gains.

In their study the 2 groups of athletes perform either four sets of six reps (with failure on the last set) or eight sets of three reps (without failure) on the bench press.

At the end of the study, the failure group demonstrated double the strength increase (10% vs. 5%).

The important discovery was that you only need to go to failure once in each exercise. The benefits were the same regardless. Going to failure on each and every set will just cause unnecessary damage and take longer to repair.

So What Should You Do?

Honestly, if you’re a beginner, I recommend you start with higher reps and work your way down. Use big compound exercises such as squats, deadlift, bench, overhead press, and row.

With each session do 15 reps, workout 3 times a week, and increase the weight slightly as you return to the gym.

When you realize that you can no longer progress in the 15 rep range, simply change to 12 or 10 reps. It’s a natural progression that will have you training to failure some days, and some days not.

It will also show you that you do not have to spend hours upon hours in the gym. All you have to do is lift consistently and increase the weight you lift frequently.

Training to Failure: Yay or Nay?

Training to failure in the traditional sense is definitely not the holy grail. It is only one of many ways to tax your muscles beyond what they are used to.

What it all comes down to is pushing your body to grow. It’s as simple as that.

Work hard and spice up your training with the occasional failure sets and glory await

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Danny Cooper March 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm

The construction worker analogy is a good one, however it makes me question a lot of principles.

1) Rest days. Construction workers mostly follow a mon-friday schedule with no rest days inbetween.

2) Protein/carbs/fat intake. If you see the lunches of some construction workers you would certainly question the nutritional value. Most consist of take-aways.

3) Progressive overload. I find it hard to believe construction workers are pushing themselves beyond their limits day after day or week after week.


Tommi March 3, 2011 at 9:46 am

Hi Danny, thank you and thanks for asking.

I am pleased you are questioning principles, thats the goal of this article.

Just to clarify, the example was meant for invalidating exaggerated beliefs. It is NOT a recommendation to imitate the average construction worker to gain optimum results.

1. Sadly the average builder focuses on optimizing income instead of maximizing recovery. I do not recommend copying construction workers in such detail.

2. It is possible to build an impressive physique with unhealthy foods? Calorie intake takes first place when you are doing heavy labor, you spend incredible amounts of energy hauling bricks, concrete and other materials all day. Caring for your diet does give better results.

3. Ye s, your right, they don`t push themselves beyond their limits daily.

Again, becoming a construction worker or emulating them is not something I would recommend for optimum results.


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