Should You Lift Weights to Failure?

by Tony Bonvechio
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Should You Lift Weights to Failure?

To fail, or not to fail? That is the question.

We’re not talking about Shakespeare or failing an exam in school. In this case, failure refers to momentary muscular failure while lifting weights. In simpler terms, when you perform an exercise to the point you can no longer complete a repetition — that’s failure. For example, if you’re doing pushups and you can no longer straighten your arms as you push away from the floor, you’ve hit failure.

Ironically, this type of failure is often associated with success. That is, success in building strength, muscle size and muscular endurance. The “go big or go home” mentality has been popularized by bodybuilders and hardcore gym goers, but do you need to train to failure to reach your goals?

The answer is: It depends. To determine if training to failure is right for you ask yourself this series of additional questions:

QUESTION #1: WHAT’S YOUR GOAL?

What’s the number 1 reason you lift weights? To get stronger? Gain muscle size? Increase muscular endurance? The answer to this question will largely determine how often you should train to failure.

Getting stronger is largely a product of neurological adaptations, meaning your brain gets better at learning the technique of an exercise and making it happen automatically. Training to failure doesn’t help you learn proper technique, so failure isn’t the best option here.

Gaining muscle size is perhaps the best goal for training to failure. Pushing your muscles to the brink is a sure-fire way to spark hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size) assuming you use exercises where training to failure isn’t dangerous. More on this later.

What about muscular endurance? Lifting weights can help to improve in muscular endurance activities like running and cycling, but you’d never perform these activities to failure (you can’t finish the race if you collapse before the finish line). It’s best in this case to stop your set just before failure, rather than pushing to the point where you can’t complete a rep.

Here’s a simple rule: The fewer body parts involved, the safer it is to perform the exercise to failure.

QUESTION #2: WHAT’S THE EXERCISE?

Some exercises are better suited to failure than others. For example, performing pushups or situps to failure results in virtually no danger or negative consequences. You simply can’t finish the rep. But if you perform squats or deadlifts to failure, you risk injury due to stress on your spine and knees, not to mention the dangers of dropping a heavy barbell.

Here’s a simple rule: The fewer body parts involved, the safer it is to perform the exercise to failure. If you’re using only one body part to do biceps curls, triceps extensions or a similar exercise, train to failure as much as you like. But if you’re doing compound exercises where many muscles have to work together to maintain proper technique, shy away from failure.

QUESTION #3: HOW HEAVY IS THE WEIGHT?

The weight on the bar also determines how effective it is to train to failure. The heavier the weight, generally the less effective it is to fail. Here’s why.

Heavy weights (i.e. a weight you could lift 1–5 times) are best used for gaining strength, while intermediate weights (i.e. a weight you could lift 6–12 times) work better for gaining muscle. Finally, lighter weights (i.e. a weight you could lift more than 12 times) help build muscular endurance. There’s a huge difference between failing on rep 12 of a set of 12 and failing on rep 3 of a set of 3. The set of 12 uses a light weight that likely won’t result in bad technique, whereas the set of 3 is very heavy and may cause a severe technique breakdown if you approach failure.

Another simple rule to follow: The lighter the weight, the safer it is to train to failure. If you’re training heavy, stop at least 2–3 reps shy of failure, but with lighter stuff, don’t be afraid to do as many reps as possible.


READ MORE > IF YOU WANT TO BUST A PLATEAU, EMBRACE FAILURE


QUESTION #4: WHAT EQUIPMENT ARE YOU USING?

The equipment used for a given exercise influences the effectiveness and safety of training to failure. Free weights (i.e. barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells) require greater stabilization to maintain proper form, making it harder to train to failure and maintain good technique. Machines (cable and plate-loaded) tend to lock you into a fixed form, resulting in less risk of poor technique when approaching failure.

In general, train your free-weight exercises heavier and stay away from failure. Then, finish similar muscle groups with machine exercises closer to failure. For example, perform barbell squats with heavy weights and few reps, stopping each set with a few reps left in the tank. Then, perform machine leg extensions with lighter weights and do as many reps as possible.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL

Training to failure can be productive and safe if done properly. The next time you hit the gym, ask yourself the aforementioned questions. The answers will determine if training to failure is right based on your goals and exercise selection.


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  • Jeff Metcalf

    This is a pretty good article and I generally agree with it. The only detail I’d add is to the point where the author endorses training to failure for muscle hypertrophy.

    Training for hyperertrophy requires high training volume, with volume being reasonably defined as

    sets x reps x weight

    The problem is even with an assistance exercise like barbell curls done to failure, fatigue accumulated on your earlier sets will reduce the number of reps you can execute for later ones. This is especially problematic for hypertrophy training which is usually done with shorter rests between sets. You will end up doing less volume of work if you fail on your first set and are therefore cut short on your ability to perform reps on later sets.

    So for example, let’s assume you’re programmed to do 3 sets of 8 at 50lbs. And let’s say you executed the following to failure with 2 minutes rest between sets where you fail early on set 3 due to fatigue.

    10×50
    8×50
    5×50

    That’s a total volume of 500+400+250=1150

    Compare that to executing 3x8x50. In that case your total volume would be 1200 and more total work. That means more growth.

    In summary, I’d recommend executing assistance exercises for hypertrophy where volume is key by leaving a few reps in the tank on your first set, a little less on the next set, and so on to a final all out set to failure.

    But again, I agree with the author. Never take compound exercises where technique is extremely important to failure, especially with a heavy load. This is a recipe for injury.

    • Frowin

      I do not believe that inhibiting early oneself early in a set is beneficial purely for tge purpose of fitting into a set plan of reps × sets × weight. Hypertrophy training should mostly be to failure in my opinion and from experience.

      • Jeff Metcalf

        I hear what you’re saying. But you might find research on RPE and volume for hypertrophy by Eric Helms to be interesting.

        Scroll down and read

        Lesson 3: Using RPE to manage fatigue
        P
        It’s extremely useful information.