Notice the title said bodybuilding. Bodybuilders are obsessed with working to failure. The internet is choc-full of advice backed up with scientific research that says you should train to failure, absolute or relatively close to it.
The definition of working to failure takes on many forms and can use or customize any or all of these variables: negatives-resisted negatives-eccentric holds- assisted negatives- using cable or bowflex power rod machines for perpetual tension– drop sets-giant sets-rep speed-rep times-time under tension-rest between sets-rest pause reps.
Whats Yours? Can’t do another concentric portion of the rep in good form? Need someone to assist lifting up a weight? Is this an assisted rep or repping to failure? Or is it when rep form gets sloppy and you can’t lower or raise the rep without rushing? Your definition is not someone elses.
And then how many sets do you do to failure? 1, 6, 10? The numbers can get really crazy, especially with many of today’s bodybuilders on YouTube flouting their massive muscles and work ethos. Bear in mind you can’t actually know how long they have been on this cycle (training not steroid) and whether there is iron or water inside those weight plates!
All joking aside it is ok to go to failure, but physically and psychologically and even practically, it’s implausible and also counter-productive to work to failure every single set, and for every body part, each time you hit the gym.
Not only can you not do this session in and out of the gym on a continual basis, but after a while your body and mind will fool you that you are going to failure. Once your mind starts to sap, so does your form. Bad form is a precursor to injury and stagnation. The dreaded PLATEAU.
It’s Ok To Set Yourself Up For Failure
Whatever training method you employ there are reasons to train to failure. There are reasons not to train to failure. Should you train to failure all the time, every set, every day you walk into a gym, for the rest of your life?
Do power lifters or strongmen train to failure? On competition day, yeah. Pre-competition day? Not all the time. And rightly so. If they did linear progress would stall. Injuries would be more frequent. A slight alteration of form can cause life limiting injuries when the poundages are massive.
Plus the momentum is lost when you don’t cycle the intensity, which includes working to failure.
In reality training to failure can be done safely. It doesn’t also require a training partner neither, techniques like dropsets and concentric and eccentric holds can be done safely enough, especially with machines.
Does training to failure have to be done with light weight or heavy weight? Studies have shown it doesn’t matter- see here.
The McMaster university study cited in our article showed that it doesn’t matter, both heavy weights and light weights taken to failure have the same results on muscular growth. Both were positive. Both light weight and heavy weight to failure definitely increases muscle mass.
There are more factors at work here. Genetics play a role. If two individuals who weight the same, are the same height, and perform the same workout routine, get the same amount of sleep and nutrition, the results will be entirely based on the individuals ability to synthesize protein (both drug assisted and drug free) and the structure and length of their muscle belly to tendon ratios.
In other words if you have long thick muscle bellies which attach to short tendons you have a greater capability of putting on more muscle mass than someone who has short muscle bellies and longer tendons.
Perform a bicep contraction, if your bicep stops halfway down your humerus you have a short muscle belly and long tendon (where it inserts at the elbow). Some individuals have this only only select parts of the body, some have it nearly everywhere.
With regards to building massive arms, if you have a large gap between your contracted bicep and your elbow you are at a significant genetic disadvantage when it comes to building huge thick arms.
Quite simply you can’t build the width of your arms to massive proportions if you don’t have the length to match. If so your upper arm would not biomechanically work.
Massive Biceps At Work
Charles Staley Hits Puts It Succinctly…
Many credit Arthur Jones (the inventor of Nautilus equipment) with developing and popularizing the “one set to failure” paradigm. Jones argued that bodybuilders should work to the point of momentary failure, using one set per exercise/per session, rather than using multiple sets of multiple exercises.
But Jones’ commercial success may been potentiated by a long-standing tradition among young trainees (particularly men) who, in the absence of qualified supervision, regularly trained to failure as an intuitive way of obtaining objective feedback about their progress.
Whenever an additional rep could be performed with a given weight, the trainee was psychologically reinforced, which further entrenched this “habit.”
Unfortunately, it also reinforced poor exercise form and the tremendous frustration that set in when, after several months of monotonous training, the inevitable plateau set in.
This frustration then paved the way for numerous ill-conceived commercialized training “systems” that emerged over the past several decades. The result is an endless cycle of unsupervised trainees switching from one miracle method to another, in an endless search for the “perfect program.”
Charles Staley, B.Sc, MSS ellitthulse.com
The Debate Is Split
There is no clear winner in the train to failure vs not training to failure debate. Many studies such as the JA Sampson study listed below show that training to failure has no increased benefits.
One of the problems in today’s age where everything is researched to death is that there is not enough evidence on training to failure.
While guys with great work ethics, genetics and steroids have been waxing lyrically for years about the importance of training to failure, no clear evidence exists whether they could have got the same results with less effort.
Bodybuilding is an addiction. Bodybuilders especially when they are younger love the gym. What’s not to like if you can afford the lifestyle and it intertwines with your social life?
Training smart requires you to log your progress and extrapolate what works for you. Not everyone can spend 5 hours a day in the gym. Look at Mike Mentzer, Dorian Yates, and natural coach Stuart McRobert.
Mike and Dorian trained to absolute failure but their training sessions were short, heavy and taken to failure.
Who Can Benefit From Training To Failure?
Beginners – if you’ve been around bodybuilding for any length of time you’ve heard or will hear “growing like a weed”. If you have never done bodybuilding before and you start with failure training you will make progress unless you damage yourself by not knowing when to reign it in or exercise with poor form.
You will make progress until you hit a plateau….nothing lasts forever baby
OCD Bodybuilders- if everything in your bodybuilding life is micromanaged on the side of consistency – if you never change set and rep ranges, exercise choices, rep speed etc, once you switch to failure if you have never done it before you will notice a difference. Like beginners it can be short term until the dreaded plateau is reached.
Which begs the question why doesn’t training to failure work for everyone?
1. We are all individual. There is no perfect program that works the same for each of us. No two people respond exactly the same to a given program.
2. Your body will adapt to any new stimulus or exercise program, how long that lasts is different for everyone.
The way I see it is failure is a useful tool in gym routines. It is not the be all and end all. Neither is negative training. Neither is 100 rep squats.
Don’t Fool Yourself
Logging results is key. If you think working to failure over 1 or multiple sets is working log your results over a 3-6 month period, or a year would be more ideal if you can stick it out. Train one or several cycles to failure.
You don’t have to do it on every exercise. Then train not quite to failure or even less if you prefer for another training cycle.. Contrast the results and also count the cost on your body and mind. How are your joints? Are you emotionally spent?
Did you progress? Regress? Did it affect your social life, relationships? Is it worth it?
With regards to failure if you start with it and continue each time you hit the gym once you stagnate where do you go from there? Add more sets? Try to add more weight? Options get limited after a while.
Exploration is key. Log your results, see how long you can train at failure before progress stalls. Switch up a few variables like adding less sets, more sets, less weight, more weight and find out what works for YOU.
Stronger By Science – cuts through the myths between what training to failure is and achieves and the scare tactics that failure leads to injuries
JA Sampson Study – shows no real difference expect higher work output between working to failure and not working to failure
Women Strength Training & Hypertrophy Failure Study – training did not show gains in strength but rather gains in muscle size (hypertrophy)