How to (Safely) Train to Failure to Boost Your Intensity and Muscle Mass
When you’re new to the gym, it seems like all you have to do to gain muscle and get stronger is look at a dumbbell. But the more experience you get under your weightlifting belt, the harder it can be to push your body to the edge you need to continue making progress. Do you have to spend countless hours that you just don’t have in your schedule at the gym to keep the gains coming? Well, you can. But you don’t have to.
This is where methods like training to failure come in. You’ll increase your training intensity so that your muscles start giving out during the last rep of your set. This doesn’t mean that you’re cursed to an eternity of monotonous biceps curls until your muscles finally surrender. Sometimes, you’ll approach failure by using really heavy weights. Other times, it’ll mean tempo training with just your bodyweight.
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Whatever intensity-boosting method you choose, training to failure helps you accumulate more muscle damage so that you can build more muscle. It’s not effective for everyone — beginners, we’re looking at you. But for lifters with experience, flirting with some missed reps might be the burst of new lift your program needs. When you like to live your training life on the edge, it helps to know how to chase your thrills — and your gains — safely and sustainably.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
- What is Training to Failure?
- How to Safely Train to Failure
- Strategies for Training to Failure
- Who Should Train to Failure?
- Who Shouldn’t Train to Failure?
- Fail for Success
What is Training to Failure?
Training to failure refers to working so hard during your set that you struggle to complete the last rep. This might mean using a heavy enough weight to make your muscles want to quit in the five to 12 rep range. Or — if you’re training with light weights or with just your bodyweight — it means performing enough reps or manipulating the intensity so you hit failure in the 15 to 30 rep range.
If you’re thinking of using this method to increase your max strength, you might be out of luck. Training to failure doesn’t seem to make you stronger than submaximal work, especially when you keep the overall volume the same. (1)(2)(3) But that doesn’t mean that the cacophony of support for failure is an echo chamber of lies — because building max strength isn’t the only goal out there.
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If you don’t have access to heavy weights or need a break from using them, training to failure with light weights can help you gain muscle. Hitting failure with lighter weights (as low as 30 to 50 percent of your one-rep max) can elicit similar levels of muscle growth as training with 70 to 80 percent of your max. (4) At least in part, this may be because hitting up against failure in training causes significantly more muscle damage than stopping before your muscles force you to. (5)
How to Safely Train to Failure
If you decide that the sweet sensation of failure is something you want to integrate into your program, you’ve got to make sure you’re doing it safely. You’re already increasing the damage you’ll do to your muscles — which is one of the main points of this methodology — so you want to make sure you’re not dramatically increasing your risk of injury along with it.
Practice Lifting Safety
First and foremost, if you’re going to make a goal of failing or nearly failing your last rep of the set, know how to keep yourself safe. The best way to do this is by using a spotter who knows how to spot your lifts safely. If that’s not available to you, learn how to miss lifts safely.
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To help you do this without your floor preservation instincts kicking in too intensely, try to only use weights on a weight-safe surface. No access to the luxury of gym mats? Try to have a soft surface available to drop weights onto if need be. You can also restrict your failure training to bodyweight-only work so there are no external loads to worry about.
When you decide to ramp up your intensity with some good old-fashioned failure, you have to program it just right. To avoid overtraining, make sure you’re cycling failure-oriented programming so it’s not all you’re doing for weeks on end. (1) Instead, choose only one method of training to failure per four to six week cycle.
For example, you might move through four microcycles, each of which are four weeks long. You’ll only take one aspect of your training to failure during each cycle.
- Microcyle One: Choose two or three bodyweight exercises to take to failure as finishers after your heavier lifting sessions.
- Microcycle Two: Use drop sets with your main compound lifts to hit failure, starting with heavy weights and ending with light weights.
- Microcycle Three: Use tempo training to help you take your accessory lifts to failure.
- Microcycle Four: Use pause reps in your main compound lifts to help you reach failure with moderate weights.
During each cycle, make sure the rest of your training remains the same — you should only be taking the indicated part of your program to failure. You’ll also want to make sure your recovery stays on point.
Mix Up Your Strategy
Approaching failure isn’t all about slapping more plates onto the bar. It’s also not about using a light weight and pushing through endless boredom until you’re finally hit a point of immense fatigue. You don’t have to choose between risking a quick and dirty form breakdown with irresponsibly heavy weights or endless, monotonous reps with light weight. You can get a lot more creative than that.
Try varying up your sets to failure with tempo training, pause reps, and drop sets. With tempo training, you’ll be spending longer periods of time in the eccentric portions of your lifts. Similarly, pause reps will force your body to maintain tension and muscle contractions isometrically at the toughest points of your lifts. Drop sets will have you complete a heavy set to failure, immediately drop weight, hit failure again, and repeat. All of these methods increase your time under tension — in and of itself, that added time will spur more muscle growth.
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Combining these strategies with the intention to continue until your form gives out will help you get there with fewer reps. This will help you fail without boring yourself away from success or crushing yourself under heavy weights.
Because training to failure causes a lot of muscle damage, you’ll need more time to recover than when you’re training less intensely. (6) Since you’re going to cause your muscles so much damage and your system so much fatigue, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. This will help your body repair the damage faster and help keep you from overtraining. You’ll also have to make sure you’re eating enough to keep your body fueled during and after sessions. If muscle gain is your reason for hitting failure, you’ll need to be focusing on eating for mass anyway.
Strategies for Training to Failure
Once you’re confident you can program failure training safely, it’s time to figure out how to get your body to its max capacity. Failure is not necessarily about loading up the heaviest weight you can find and going until you force yourself to bail out. You want to be as strategic as possible about your failure training, which means implementing different methods for pushing yourself to the limits. The good news is, this means you can get yourself to failure in a lot of different ways.
Tempo training is a method to dramatically increase your time under tension and help you put more emphasis on the eccentric portions of your lift. Since you can move more weight in the eccentric phase than you can concentrically, you can often lift heavier — and reach failure faster — with this method.
You’ll see tempo training indicated with four numbers — for example, 3-1-1-0. The first number is for the number of seconds to spend on the eccentric portion of a lift, like the descent of your squat. Then the second number is the seconds at the bottom of your lift (the hole of your squat). The third number is for the concentric, or up, portion of your lift (rising back to standing from the hole). Finally, the last number is how long you should hold at the top (standing in your squat) before diving into the next rep.
1 ½ Reps
Training one and a half reps is a brutal way to push your body toward failure. It’s a pretty simple concept. Complete one rep of your exercise — say, a full push-up. Then perform a half rep — so, descending to the halfway point of your push-up and coming back up. That entire thing counts as one rep. Whether you’re using a barbell or your bodyweight, the fatigue will accumulate very quickly.
Deploy pause reps when you want to get to failure faster and iron out a particular sticking point in a lift. Do you tend to fail your bench press off your chest? Pause for three to five seconds at the bottom of your bench to strengthen that position — and get yourself to failure. Tend to fail at lockout? Pause with your elbows at 90 degrees to target that position and overload your body with fewer reps.
Performing speed reps are reps performed with excellent form but very quickly. True to form, they will work your muscles to failure very quickly. You’ll be approaching a plyometric training style here, because you’ll be generating a lot of force in a short amount of time — over and over again. If you really want to raise the stakes — and your fatigue — combine speed reps with pause reps for maximum failure.
Drop sets are the intensity booster you’ll love to hate. Start with a heavier weight and perform a set to failure. Immediately drop the weight by 10 to 20 percent and perform another set to failure. Rinse and repeat until you can’t go anymore. Drop sets are an extremely time-efficient form of training to failure. So if you want maximum muscles in itty bitty amounts of time, this strategy can help a whole lot.
Who Should Train to Failure?
As long as you’ve got enough experience lifting, hitting failure can help you grow muscle — even when you have limited access to the training equipment of your dreams.
Athletes With Limited Access to Weights
Whether you’re a competitive strength athlete or an experienced recreational lifter, you might not always have access to the weights you need to keep your intensity up. Maybe you’re on the road traveling with just your bodyweight to work out with. Or you might be working out at home but don’t have access to a wide selection of heavier weights.