First before you even start implementing failure or other more advanced techniques, make sure you are actually performing workout sets with a purpose. You want to have a solid foundation of how you perform each and every rep.
I’m sorry to say, but if you are able to hold a casual chat during your sets, you’re missing out on building the important mind-muscle connection required to maximise muscle recruitment. Going through the motions most of the set and then trying to make up for it by grinding out the last two reps isn’t going to get you far. If you’re serious about making progress you’ll need to be able to focus during your entire sets and train with intention. Pay attention to your form, breathing and the muscles you intend to work and soon it’ll become 2nd nature.
Let’s also get into our minds that the idea of failure is relative to each person training. The difference in a person who has been training for 1 month going to failure and someone who has been training for 15 years can be night and day. Realistically you will need to have trained for at least 1 or 2 years and have developed a decent capacity to train, focus and push yourself. Only then will you have an idea of what failure really is.
I will assume that this question of training to failure is to maximise muscle building potential and strength. We all be wanting “dem gainzzzz”. So while there are many factors that affect muscle growth. We’ll narrow it down to 5 key variables that can affect your decision to train to failure.
Factor 1: Exercise Selection: What exercise are you going to perform?
What it is
This should be your first consideration. Some exercises are just not suitable for training to failure as they would cause a much higher risk of injury.
Now I obviously cannot list every exercise possible, and this is where common sense needs to come into play.
In general ask yourself:
If you fail on this lift, where will the weight go?
You don’t want to put yourself or just as importantly other people at risk of getting hurt
Most gyms will not appreciate you throwing weights or damaging equipment
Is this a more technical compound lift that involves multiple muscle groups?
Remember that as you fatigue, form will often diminish and the force of the weight can be put onto more vulnerable links in the chain such as the lower back, knee or shoulder joints.
Does this lift affect any of my previous injuries?
If you have a previous injury or weak area. Training to failure is not advised for that muscle group or area.
Why it matters
If you want to make real gainz, you’ll need to be training for many years consistently and avoiding injuries is a key component of this. Picking appropriate exercises and those suitable for pushing yourself harder on is a valuable skill to possess.
So many people ego lift and try to progress as fast as possible with the mindset of “more equals better”. You’ll often hear things such as “squats are the king of exercises”. Yet they are can only be considered the king if they can be performed with good form and safely. We all have different biomechanics which means that not every exercise suits everyone.
I cannot express how important injury avoidance will be in your long-term health. While exercise can make you stronger and better prepared for everyday tasks. The reality is, the more you train, the more at risk you are at the possible negatives such as injuries. Take Olympic athletes for example, some of the best genetics and training facilities in the world. Yet due to having such a high training load, many will pick up several injuries throughout the year.
In general I would avoid going to complete failure on compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench press and unsupported rows. As great as these exercises are, the risk to reward ratio of going to failure is too high. Many a lifter can attest to getting injured this way.
If you wish to incorporate some training to failure you’ll be better off doing this with more isolation, machine or bodyweight exercises.
Factor 2: Training Experience: How many years of well structured and consistent training do you have?
What it is
Now if you’ve been going to the gym on and off for 10 years, and only got serious and consistently followed a good plan in the last year. You only have 1 years training experience, end of.
Why it matters
Like any experience in life, training experience can be crucial in your ability to train to failure safely. Not only will you better know your body and any weaknesses, but you’ll also know have a better idea of how much volume you need to make progress. The longer you have been training, the closer to your genetic potential [link] you should be approaching. As you get closer to your limits, forcing any new growth can mean the more frequent use of tools such as failure and other advanced methods to go beyond failure (drop sets, rest-pause etc…).
If you have less than 1 or 2 years real training experience, I would recommend leaving advanced techniques and failure until later in your training life. If you go balls to the wall from the very start, you just make your progression harder in the long run as you give yourself no where to go. Ideally you want be making progress using more of a minimal effective dose. Then you’ll always have variables you can ramp up from time to time to continue progress.
For those advanced, the use of failure from time to time may be more necessary to squeeze out those last drops of progress. After a few years of training you’ll develop more self-awareness and be able to access how your body responds.
Unfortunately the fitness world is very fake and you often don’t see the real stories behind a lot of the best and most famous physiques. Drugs, injuries and sponsorships deals are often hidden away and inexperienced people can get caught up in the hype and believe that they have to train with the same workouts, supplements and (photoshoot) effort as their favourite fitness idols.
Factor 3: Volume: This is defined as Weight x Reps x Sets
What it is
This is simply the total weight that you lift for a given exercise or workout. For example if you did 3 sets of 10 reps with 100kg, you would have performed a total volume of 3000kg.
Why it matters
Now if you look at modern studies on the most important muscle growth variable, volume appears to be king. Now it’s incredibly important to point out that volume is only king if other variables such as intensity and RPE are sufficient. You cannot just pump out 10,000 reps with a 2kg dumbbell and wake up with huge arms.
A big issue with training to failure is that it will cut into your body’s resources. This will limit how much volume you can perform and recovery from. You will also find that if you go to failure at the beginning of your workouts, the subsequent sets and exercises will suffer in performance. Making gainz is a fine balancing act and you have to pace yourself accordingly. Imagine it more as a marathon, you wouldn’t go sprinting as fast as you can for the first mile, as you’d know the consequences down the road.
If you want to train to failure do it in a way that will have the least negative impact on the volume you can perform. Only go to failure or perform other advanced methods:
On the last set/s of a bodypart
Do not compromise your whole workout, just because you wanted to go hard as a mofo on the first set.
In workouts where you feel up for more
If you feel fatigued or stressed out avoid going to failure and save it for a better day. This is called self-regulation and will keep you in the game longer.
Factor 4: Intensity: This is defined as the % of your 1 Rep max.
*This is not to be confused with how much effort (RPE) you are giving.
What it is
If you can lift 100kg for 1 rep and decide to do a set with 85kg you’ll be working at 85% intensity. There is a direct link between number of reps possible and intensity. Typically 85% intensity will allow you to do 5-6 reps, while a lower intensity of 70% will allow you to do around 11 or 12. Bare in mind that these numbers are based on maximum effort and can vary per person and muscle group.
Why it matters
One of the main reasons training to failure is advocated by some is that it can maximise muscle fibre recruitment for that set, which is beneficial to muscle growth. However high intensities (85%+) already provide maximum muscle fibre recruitment from the start. In short if you are using heavy weights that only allow you to perform a maximum of 6 or less reps, adding failure is not as important or recommended. High intensity + failure is also just an potential recipe for disaster for anyone regardless of training experience.
Here there is an inverse relationship.
Higher intensities require less training to or close to failure.
Lower intensities require more training to or close to failure
I would advise avoiding going to failure on any intensities above 85%. However as the intensity drops and the number of reps possible increases, failure training is more desirable. In general intensities of 65% or lower are more appropriate taking to failure. Training to failure on a set of 20 reps even though it burns and hurts like hell, is less demanding on the central nervous system than say doing 5 reps to failure. A lot of advanced trainers implement the method of a “finisher” exercise at the end of the workout or body part. This is usually done by going higher rep (15+) and training to failure or even beyond failure by using advanced methods such as drop sets.
Factor 5: RPE “Rate of perceived exertion”
What it is
Typically defined as a 1-10 scale. For weight training purposes the “reps in reserve” version is simpler to understand and use.
As you can see in the above chart, training to failure would be classed as a 10.
Why it matters
RPE can give you a good indication of how hard you are pushing yourself in your sets and workouts in general. The harder you push yourself, the less volume you will be able to recover from.
Going 10 out of 10 RPE for every set is not needed and will often require compromises in other important areas such as volume and your ability to recover between workouts.
While it is important to take yourself out of your comfort zone and to make progress, it’s been proven that failure is not necessary all the time to provide enough stimulus for growth.
In general I would advise taking yourself out of your comfort zone, working hard and aiming more for an RPE of 8 to 9 if your goal is muscle building. You can then sprinkle in the odd RPE of 9.5-10 towards the end of workouts if you feel more energetic that day.
Training to failure in my eyes is like your favourite cheat meal, too much of it is a bad thing, but timed correctly it can be beneficial. In the great gainz equation, going to failure is not the most important variable and as such should not be a priority in your training.
We are all vulnerable to our egos and trying to do more in the gym than we safely can. You’ll be amazed at how many people are carrying around niggling injuries and can no longer perform a wide variety of exercises due to preventable injuries. Mobility is one of the keys to good health and you don’t have to risk injuries or burnout to make faster short-term gainz. You’ll nearly always be better off playing the long game and going for sustainability.
For most of us, aim for an RPE of 8-9 in your sets. This will provide a good muscle recruitment stimulus without compromising volume (the most important variable) as much.
Going to failure is appropriate:
For exercises that can safely be performed to failure. (isolation, bodyweight, machines)
For more advanced lifters with at least a couple years of good training experience
At higher repetitions ranges (12+)
Used towards the end of workouts or bodyparts to not compromise the rest of the workout
In workouts where you feel well recovered and fresh