Training To Failure


By Alex Cromartie CPT

If you spend any time reading about fitness or strength training, then chances are you will run across the term “muscle failure” or what is more formally known as “momentary muscle failure”. But what exactly is muscle failure? Should you try to achieve it during your workouts?

Simply put, this means the point at which you can no longer perform another repetition of an exercise while still maintaining proper form. By “proper form” I mean keeping a tight core with the abdomen drawn in, the spine straitened, and the chest held high. If this form is not maintained when approaching muscle failure, the body will attempt to jerk and twist (often into a crunch position) in an attempt to recruit neighboring muscles to help move the load. The problem is that these neighboring muscles aren’t designed for this purpose, and often get strained in the process. This is how many lifting injuries occur. Maintaining proper form forces your body to operate correctly, using the correct muscles to move the load (agonist), and the correct muscles to stabilize it (synergist).

So how should you incorporate muscle failure into your workout? Should you always lift to failure? Probably not, at least not in every set…  While it is crucial to the development strength and the building of lean muscle, training to failure can be taxing on the central nervous system and should be eased into. There are those that insist on training to failure on every set, usually by compromising their form. This may work well for a time, but like most things in life it can be overdone, which can lead to over-training, injury or both. There are many different methods and techniques for achieving muscle failure, but to begin I would suggest approaching muscle failure in sets two and three, and lifting to complete muscle failure in your fourth set. Advanced techniques, such as incorporating drop sets into your routine even go beyond initial muscle failure to really shred apart those muscle fibers!

Your first set of an exercise should be considered a sort of warm-up set. Make it challenging, but don’t go to failure. Try to get between twelve and fifteen reps. For your second set, you will notice your muscles are a bit stronger, so you will want to add a little weight, and get between six and fifteen reps, depending on your goals (lower reps and heavier weight is geared toward strength, while higher reps and lighter weight is geared  towards endurance). I find ten to twelve reps to be my sweet spot. Also in sets two and three I always try to approach failure by my last rep, meaning that if my goal is ten reps that I get the tenth rep but could not do an eleventh successfully. I find that if I push too hard on set two, then set three will suffer, so my sets tend to get incrementally closer to failure each time (you may find though that you have to back the weight off a bit on set three and four to keep your reps in the same range as the previous set). Hitting your rep goal right before failure takes a little practice, but you will get the feel of it quickly. Additionally, you can increase or decrease the difficulty of the set by changing both the  speed at which you perform the rep, and the amount of time you rest between sets. Slower reps produce more time under tension making them more difficult, as does less resting time between sets. Finally, for the fourth and final set, bring the target rep goal back up to between twelve and fifteen reps, but keep going past your goal on this set until you reach true muscle failure. When you get to this point it is crucial to keep proper exercise form. Resist the urge to twist into a different position to recruit more muscle fibers to assist in get the weight up. If you fight through the discomfort you will get to a point to where your muscles simply can’t move the weight up any more. THAT is true muscle failure.

Training to momentary muscle failure is an excellent tool for increasing strength and building quality lean muscle, and is recommended for healthy individuals. Remember to ease into them though, and that exercising with proper form is fundamental to your long-term success.

1 thought on “Training To Failure

  1. Pingback: Drop Sets | Awakened Fitness

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