Should we train to failure?

What is Failure?

First of all, let's define what true muscular failure is. Muscular failure: the point where the neuromuscular system can no longer produce adequate force to overcome a specific workload. This may be the point at which, during a set on bench press, a spotter has to intervene to re-rack the bar safely.


Upon reaching this point, we might consider our sets on that exercise done, or we can actually go beyond failure. This is done by incorporating techniques such as drop sets and assisted reps. This style of training is extremely intense, and may force more growth, but does have some drawbacks.

-it can increase injury risk
-it can increase recovery time, affecting other sessions in the week
-some people simply are not comfortable pushing their body that far

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Reps for Failure

What about 1RM? Failure can be achieved by repping a weight until we cannot perform any more reps, or by increasing weight for single reps until we cannot perform a rep. Our one rep max. One rep max training is actually not as helpful for muscle building as we might think. It doesn't achieve time under tension and is extremely taxing on the CNS. For the most part, one rep maxes should be reserved for powerlifting meets! Lifts progressed at mid-higher rep sets will still increase 1RM, this doesn't need to be regularly tested for ego! Avoiding 1RMs especially important for beginners who should focus on form, mind-muscle connection and getting the basics down.

Many coaches advise that most sets should be completed with around 2-3 reps left in the tank, and failure planned into a programme based on your own judgement of what is safe, and what your max recoverable volume is.

One way of qualifying reps left in reserve is RPE. The RPE scale goes from 1-10, 10 being no reps left, 9 being a grind, with one possible rep left, and so on.

MRV- the most work we can do and still recover. Basically, where we want our training to be most of the time. Training above it for an extended period can cause us to become overreached. Training below it for an extended time means that we will make little to no strength and muscle gains. The most sensible times to go to failure are on higher rep sets of movements where you are unable to use very heavy weights on. This might include cable curls or lateral raises. Larger exercises such as squats are more risky and more of a grey area. For example, if you find your knees caving in as you near failure, the increased injury risk is possibly not worth it.

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Key points:

-when form starts to significantly break down, end the set
-do not take every exercise to failure
-heavy, compound movements are the riskiest

About the Author

Savannah Westerby, BSc Sport and Exercise Nutrition. IG:@savannahwesterby
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