Weight training began for me like it does for most guys: in high school, puberty raging and wanting to impress the ladies. Bonus: I got to hang out with my friends after school.
Those days our brochacho workouts were almost exclusively the bench press, bicep curls, and shrugs. All show and no go, baby!
We would press, add weight, and press some more. We’d load up every plate in sight and do negatives and all sorts of drop-sets and burnout sets to get a wicked chest pump. While that sort of training is often reckless – and I wouldn’t do it nowadays – it was fine because we were young and had each other’s back.
But that was the key: I had a spotter or someone to bail my dumb ass out in case things didn’t go well.
Fast forward a few years later and I’m benching at the gym. Normally this routine went well, but this time was different: I had recently broken my finger in a flag football incident and was wearing a splint from an operation.
I also had no spotter.
I loaded up my barbell and with an awkward grip went rep after rep, getting closer and closer to failure each set. Going to failure was the only way to stimulate new muscle, I thought.
Ya wanna take a wild guess at what happened next?
I set a new bench press record at the University of Tennessee and all the alpha males hoisted me on their shoulders, the cheerleaders chanted my name, and they wrote songs about my triumphant success.
What really happened was that I “flew too close to the sun”, took the barbell for one more rep, but couldn’t lock it out.
Here I am, barbell hovering over my chest, heart pounding and muscles screaming, and unable to lift it and rack it. I’m holding still 3” above my chest. Fatigue gets the best of me, and that barbell slowly lowers onto my sternum.
Now 185 lbs is crushing my chest, and I’m wondering what my gravestone will read:
“Here lies Andy, who wanted to lift with his muscles, but instead lifted with his ego”
Breathing has become difficult. And because of my ego (and possibly because I could barely breathe), I won’t shout for help.
Then it happened: a knight in shining armor saw my struggle, leaped to my aid and ripped the barbell off my chest. I think they crowned him King after that. I mutter a “thank you” through my reddened face, pack my shit, tuck my tail and shamefully walk out the gym doors.
What I learned
You may chuckle at my expense, and that’s fine: it panned out ok for me. But some are not so lucky: each year severe, life-altering, or even life-ending, injuries occur at the gym because someone decides to test their limits – to venture too far – without the safety of a spotter. It’s no laughing matter.
I learned I should never lift with my ego, and check myself before attempting a lift I’m not 100% confident in.
Put another way: when training big lifts like squats and bench press, always leave 1-2 reps in the tank. And, if possible, have a spotter nearby. There’s neither glory nor accolades for attempting – and missing – a lift.
Let’s dive into this issue of “training to failure” and see if – and when – it’s ever appropriate.
What is “failure?”
Obviously, it’s not making the lift.
It’s when you try for just one more rep and no matter how much effort you put into it, the bar or dumbbell isn’t moving. Technical failure is when you can no longer perform the intended lift with good technique.
Does your bench look like a bench press should look? How about that squat? If your technique looks like a bastardized version of the original, you’re beyond technical failure and you’re better off racking the bar, resting, and trying again later.
Why you shouldn’t train to failure
Training to failure, or past technical failure, leaves you open to injury as you force your way through the rep. This is especially true when the bar is crushing your body, like a barbell bench press or barbell back squat.
If you don’t have a spotter or at least safety pins, it becomes exceptionally dangerous because there’s no one to save you if things go wrong.
Injury risk aside, training to failure is not necessary to increase muscle hypertrophy (size) because the growth response is NOT dependent on one rep (i.e. the last rep)
To grow new muscle, you need three things:
- Muscle damage: this occurs when you lift weights that challenge your muscles
- Metabolic stress: the “burning” sensation you feel when you lift weights repeatedly, caused by metabolic waste
- Mechanical tension: this is when you lift heavy weights, which recruits more muscle fibers to contract than when you lift relatively light weight
In other words, if you train with weights regularly, add weight when appropriate, take a set to near fatigue, and do more total work over time (more sets and more reps), then you’ll grow new muscle without ever having to take a set to failure.
In fact, it appears that along with a caloric surplus, volume is the greater determining factor for growing new muscle. So although it’s cool to lift heavy-ass weights, it’s not totally necessary in order to build a great physique. You can increase your training volume through more reps, more sets, or both (i.e. 3×10 week 1; 4×10 week 2; 5×10 week 3; etc.)
Training to failure is fatiguing to both the working muscles and to your central nervous system. The amount of stress incurred by regularly training to failure (and without adequate recovery) means you’re constantly feeling beat up, sore, and/or unable to train at high intensities again later in the week, diminishing your return on your efforts altogether.
Conversely, if you “leave a couple reps in the tank,” or train 1-2 reps shy of failure, you may find yourself feeling mentally and physically fresh and ready to train intensely in the next workout. I’ll take consistency and intensity any day over intensity alone. My mentor used to say, “it’s not about today.” Leave some room for tomorrow.
Can I ever train to failure?
It depends. Context is key and it’s important to remember that strength training is for the development of strength, not necessarily the demonstration of strength.
Because of the high risk associated with certain lifts taken to failure, plus the fatigue it induces, it should be rare that you test your limits and take a big lift to failure.
But there are several instances when taking a set to failure is warranted:
- When you’re testing a new personal record (not relevant to beginners)
- When you have a spotter
- When you want to stimulate your muscles in a new way
- When the lift is not inherently dangerous if you fail
Setting a new Personal Record
In the early stages of strength training, you’ll find “newbie gains” left and right. Each week you’re throwing heavier weight around for more reps than last week like it’s your job. Beyond “newbie gains” however, you’ll find that progress slows.
It’s at this point that developing strength should be your main focus, and you should test your limits only on occasion, like every 4-6 months.
Additionally, we tend to think of new PRs as a 1-repetition maximum (1RM) where you lift the heaviest weight possible for only one rep. But we can also utilize 3-, 5-, 8-, and even 10-RMs to assess strength gains. These alternative measurements allow the use of lighter relative loads and allow wiggle room to make improvements.
When you have a spotter
Because, duh. When you have someone who knows what they’re doing while spotting then you can be confident that they’ll bail you out if you miss the lift.
Spotting is NOT just grabbing the barbell. Have confidence in your spotter’s abilities. After all, your life could literally be in their hands.
Stimulating a muscle in a new way
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: if you don’t have a spotter when attempting a new bench press or squat PR, DON’T GO TO FAILURE. It’s not worth the risk. Choose safer exercises like dumbbell variations or machines
You can stimulate new muscle growth with the use of drop-sets, mechanical advantage drop-sets, and other set-extending techniques.
With drop-sets, once you fail you’re replacing the weights with something lighter. For example: barbell curls at 65 lbs for 8 reps, followed by 55 lbs (10-lb drop) for 6-8 reps; followed by 45 lbs for as many reps as you can get.
Push-ups are another example: doing as many reps with feet elevated on a bench; doing as many with hands on the floor, and finally elevating your hands on a bench. If you fail, you just lay on the floor.
Mechanical advantage drop-sets work, too. One of my favorite ways to achieve this is with pull-ups, chin-ups, and inverted rows.
Pull-ups are the most challenging of the three, so start there with as many reps as possible. Then switch your grip to a more mechanically advantageous one – palms facing you – and perform as many chin-ups as possible. Lastly, switch to inverted rows, where the intensity (your body weight) is lessened and you’re able to continue pumping out reps.
This allows you to continue exercising with little risk that “failure” will result in injury.
When the lift is not inherently dangerous if you fail
Let’s say you choose safer alternatives that you can more easily bail from. For example, barbell front squats, dumbbell bench presses, and even barbell deadlifts are all great lifts where you can challenge your abilities – with or without a spotter – and if you miss the lift, no big deal.
Worst case scenario, you just drop the barbell or dumbbells out of the way and try again.
Let’s assume you’re trying to stimulate some new muscle growth with training to failure. As long as you have an easy and safe way out, I don’t see the problem with going to failure occasionally (remember: fatigue).
Bicep curls, tricep pressdowns, push-ups, inverted rows, goblet squats, and even leg curls are all great exercises where you can train to failure and have minimal risk of injury. Just make sure your technique is solid throughout, and you should be fine.
- Training to failure is typically a bad idea, especially if you train alone and don’t have a quality spotter nearby.
- Training to failure carries injury risk and leaves you feeling fatigued and beat up.
- Training to failure does not yield greater strength and mass gains versus a more reasonable approach, which is to leave a rep or two in the tank.
- Leaving a rep or two in the tank on your big lifts leaves you feeling accomplished, worked, but not worn out, and fresh enough to tackle big lifts later in the week.
- If you decide to train to failure, pick “self-limiting” exercises like goblet squats, dumbbell press variations, push-ups, leg curls, etc. which carry little-to-no risk of injury when you fail
Remember: it’s not about today
Work hard, but work smart. Leave a rep or two in the tank and recover from your workouts so you can train hard tomorrow, next week, next year, and for life.
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