Evidence Based Programming (Part 6) - Proximity To Failure

Posted on Aug 23, 2019

If you were to consume most of your muscle-building and strength training information from professional bodybuilders, or even just from what goes on at the gym, you’d likely feel that in order to progress, training to failure is absolutely necessary.

Failure is defined as performing a set to the point where you can’t do another rep. You might attempt a rep and fail, or you might just about successfully complete a rep, and decide there’s no way you’re going to be able to do another one.

Like many aspects of programming, failure has its place, but it’s certainly not essential.

In fact, training to failure likely offers more disadvantages than advantages, particularly when it’s done too regularly.


The Benefits of Training to Failure

Training to failure can increase mental toughness.

There’s no doubt that you often have to dig deep, and summon up all your psychological reserves when you know you’re going to take a set to failure. Additionally, there’s no fear of a lack of muscle stimulation when you’re taking every set to its limits.

Some research does point to the notion that training to failure enhances gains in muscle mass, strength and power. (1,2.)

We also know that training to failure causes more muscle damage, and more metabolic stress than stopping short, which can enhance muscle growth rates. (3) Plus, going past the point of failure (i.e. performing forced reps, slow eccentrics, or partial reps once you can no longer perform full reps unassisted,) can be beneficial. A study from The International Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that -


“The data indicate that the forced repetition exercise system induced greater acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses than a traditional maximum repetition exercise system and therefore it may be used to manipulate acute resistance exercise variables in athletes.” (4)


The Downsides of Training to Failure

The closer to failure you get, the greater the likelihood of using poor form, and as such, the greater the risk of injury.

You’ll know this yourself, as it’s highly likely any time you’ve performed a set to failure, you’ll have noticed a degradation of technique. It’s very rare that someone takes a set to failure, and the only form breakdown you see is a lack of speed. The body tries to recruit other muscle groups, which can cause poor technique, or, in compound moves, one of your weaker muscle groups may fatigue before a stronger one.

This is why you might see things like flared elbows and protracted shoulders when benching to failure, or knee collapse, and ‘good morning-ing’ the weight up when squatting to failure.

The studies also show that training to failure simply isn’t necessary to achieve muscle growth. (5,6.) You van build muscle perfectly well by training hard, without ever hitting failure.

Another downside of training to failure all the time is that you’ll likely achieve a lower total volume, due to accumulated fatigue.

Let’s say your bench press max is 100kg, and you’re going to do 5 sets with 80kg (80%) of that.

5 sets of 5 reps would be tough, but would likely be manageable. The first set you might have 2 to 3 reps left in the tank, and by the last set you might have just 1 rep left. You’d hit your 25 reps, or a total volume of 2,000 kg, having been moderately fatigued.

Were you to max out on each set though, you may find you get 8 reps on set 1, 5 reps on set 2, 4 reps on set 3, and only 3 reps on the last 2 sets. That’s a total of 23 reps, or 1,840 kg - 160 kg less volume. These numbers may differ from person to person, but it’d be likely your total overall volume would be lower, plus, by lifting right at your limit, you’d cause more neural fatigue, and put yourself at a higher risk of injury.

From a strength standpoint, training to failure is rarely a great idea.

The argument here is that in order to get stronger in a certain lift, not only do you need to gradually increase volume over time, as well as building muscle, but you need to become more neurally efficient, and that requires consistent practice of the movement.

Constantly pushing your limits leads to form breakdown, and so your body will start to learn that poor technique.

This is the reason why most powerlifters and Olympic lifters won’t ever test their 1-rep max other than in competition, and will usually train at percentages and with weights that are tough, but with which they’re still able to use perfect, (if not close to perfect,) form.


When Failure Works

Failure has more of a place when using lighter loads, and with single joint movements.

While we never want form breakdown, it’s a lot safer for form to break down under both these situations.

It’s not nearly as dangerous to hit failure with 50% of your 1-rep max as it is with 90%. Likewise, single-joint movements (such as leg extensions, biceps curls and triceps pushdowns,) are far less neurally draining than squats, deadlifts or bench presses, and so even if you do go to failure on them, it’s unlikely to have too big an impact on your recovery.

Failure should almost always only be reached on your final set alone. Hitting failure before this is going to negatively impact volume, and so even if you’re still getting muscle fiber stimulation and producing metabolites in the following sets, that decrease in volume is going to outweigh any other potential advantages of training to failure.


Practical Recommendations

By and large, most of your sets should be taken 1 to 2 reps short of failure.

That means 1 to 2 reps short, WITH GOOD FORM. We’re also talking about technical failure here:

Technical failure means hitting the most reps you can while still using good form. Absolute failure means hitting the most reps you can while using questionable form, or doing almost whatever you can to get a weight up.

The only time absolute failure is ever acceptable is if you’re competing in something like powerlifting, Olympic lifting or CrossFit, and it’s contest time.

The MyPhysique training templates are set up so the vast majority of your sets will be between 1 and 3 reps short of failure most of the time. While there will undoubtedly be desire to push even harder at times, remember - the science shows that training to failure isn’t necessary, and the extra risk you take on in terms of potential injury and neural fatigue just isn’t worth any potential benefits that training to absolute failure may offer.

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