30 Seconds to Failure: Activate Muscle Growth in Short Workouts

Alex Nurse
Written By: Alex Nurse
July 18th, 2016
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
33.4K Reads
30 Seconds to Failure: Activate Muscle Growth in Short Workouts
Are you under a time crunch or simply don't have the motivation to hit a long workout today? Give this method a shot for an effectively short workout!

Everybody goes through training slumps. Sometimes, life just runs you down and you can’t help but be a little tired.

You’ve hit that plateau where you just aren’t making the same size or strength gains you were a couple of months ago.

It’s getting tougher for you to find that motivation and you have to psyche yourself up for training every session because you know it’s going to feel like a grind.

Well, I have the solution! Forget the sets vs. reps and the heavy loads that just aren’t exciting right now. I will show you how to get back the progress that you were previously making!

And the best part? It’s only going to take you 30 seconds.

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30 seconds to Failure

Actually, to say thirty seconds is somewhat inaccurate. BUT what is accurate is that this method of training is great for those individuals who have all the normal training parameters against them: they are short on time, they have hit a progress plateau, and they want to make more muscle gains from exercises they are familiar with.

It uses the magic of post-activation potentiation and the abuse of the 10s ATP half-life to elicit a maximum amount of metabolic stress, muscle damage, and risk to the membranes of our muscle fibers. That’s three of the four major physiological pathways to spark growth.

The best part is that it’s super simple, effective, loads of fun, and can be done with a partner to keep you accountable.

Related: Max Adaptation Upper Lower (MAUL) Workout

As stated, the method actually does work best with exercises that you are most familiar with. Familiarity breeds more safety when a high amount of volume or intensity is involved, as the movement will utilize your most practiced neurological pathway(s).

Regardless of the exercise, the basic premise of the method is that you choose a weight that is as close as possible to your 8, 10, or 12RM. I find that the 10RM typically works best for the big, bilateral, compound movements because the 8RM sometimes ends the method too quickly, while the 12RM tends to be a little bit easy.

Perform half of your repetition maximum (so, five reps if you decide on using your 10RM) and then rest for 30 seconds. Afterward, immediately unrack the bar (or pick-up the dumbbells) and do another five. Keep this up until you hit failure and can no longer handle that weight for five reps, then lower the load by anywhere from 5-10%, and start again.

30 seconds to failure shoulder press

The Three Rules

The method is simple, but there are rules.

Rule #1

The first rule is nobody gets hurt while training. Once you get hurt training, the fun is over and you will be set back. To avoid this problem you are only permitted to perform one set past mechanical failure. This means that if you reach mechanical failure but still manage to finish the set, you may use that same load for the next set one more time.

Regardless of whether you are once again able to get all five reps, lower the load by 5-10% and continue as usual. In this way we remain respectful of the Risk to Reward ratio, and won’t place our joints at risk for minimal reward.

Why bother continuing past mechanical failure at all? The reason is to enable us to recruit high threshold motor units (HTMUs). A 10RM isn’t really heavy enough to recruit these large growing fibers on its own. Only heavy loads (~85% of your 1RM) will do that under normal circumstances.

Related: Auto-Regulation and Percentage-Based Training - The Hybrid Approach

However, there are a couple of ways that you can recruit HTMU’s even without heavy loads. One of them is by training through failure. When training through failure, a fatiguing muscle will search for all available fibres to get the job done- even if the load is relatively light. So, we permit one set past mechanical failure to really dig out those yet untapped fibers.

Rule #2

The second rule is do not waste time. If 100lbs in each hand (200lbs) for the dumbbell chest press is your 10RM maximum, don’t draw out the method to the point where the sum of the dumbbells in your hand barely add to 50lbs. Once you get to 50% of your starting weight that is as low as you need to go.

With loads lighter than that you’re, at best, only hitting your slower twitch fibers. At worst, you are going through repeated joint cycles with connective tissue structures that are already super fatigued. They will no longer provide the joint with any support and the muscle fibres you are training aren’t going to benefit anyway. So, move on to the next exercise in your workout.

If you feel that you got down to the 50% point too soon, it’s because you didn’t start heavy enough or you lowered the load by too much each time. You have to start with your true 10RM!

Rule #3

The third and final rule is you must try to accelerate the load with each and every repetition, especially the first of every set. The other way to recruit HTMU’s when using lighter loads is by increasing the speed of the concentric contraction. The speed of the contraction, or the tempo, can determine the type of muscle fibres you recruit. Here is an example:

30 seconds to failure bench press

We’ll use the bench press because it’s easy to visualize. If the bar weighs 315lbs, in order for you to hold it isometrically, you would need to apply an equal amount of force to it (eg. 315lbs). Applying under 315lbs of force to it will cause it to either slowly or quickly descend towards you. This is because the bar now weighs more than the force you are applying against it.

If, on the other hand, you apply more than 315lbs of force to it the bar, it would go up. So let’s say you apply enough force to press the bar back up, but only just enough (eg. 316lbs). It will still go up, but it will do so very slowly. However, if you apply way more than enough (eg. 400lbs) of force to it, the bar will fly back up and perhaps take your hands and shoulders with it!

In other words, the speed at which you are pushing the weight is an exact indication of how much force you’re applying to the bar, regardless of how much the bar actually weighs.

That is why this third rule is of great importance. Because the load is “light” (an 8-12RM), and the sets are short, you must accelerate the load to make sure you are hitting as many HTMU’s as possible. After several sets of this method your muscles will be so traumatized that if you don’t push hard and fast you simply will not be able to get it back up!

The ATP Half-Life and Post-Activation Potentiation

Aside from the three rules mentioned above, the 30 Seconds to Failure method essentially works by utilizing the ATP half-life and PAP.

The ATP half-life is about ten seconds. This means that after about ten seconds of rest, your stores of ATP (the molecule responsible for facilitating your muscle contractions) are restored by about 50%; ten seconds later, they are restored by half of that, etc.

30 seconds to failure squat

So, with the thirty second rest period, you don’t allow the body to recover all of its ATP stores, but you still allow it to recover some of them. Because the sets are short and the thirty second rest period allows for roughly three cycles of ATP half-life recovery, you can accelerate the bar for the first rep or two. After that, it is a grind and you’re going to have to learn how to strain through fatigue.

The strain is also a great way to educate your nervous system to access more motor units, which will help bolster your overall work capacity and strength.

Next, let’s talk about PAP. Although the PAP which occurs in this method isn’t nearly as effective as it is in Poliquin’s Wave Load, when you drop the load for thirty seconds before picking up a lighter one, you will find that initially you can press it with relative ease.

Related: How To Break Through Muscle Building Plateaus Using Explosive Lifting

This is partly because for the last two or three sets your nervous system and muscle fibers have been primed for the previous load you were using. This is why when you start performing reps at the new, lighter load it will initially feel very manageable- even though you barely survived the previous set.

That “manageable” feeling won’t last, though. But while it does, it is a great tool to get more reps in at what is still a contextually challenging load.

Why are We Doing This Again?

This program is phenomenal when you do not have much time to train. Maybe you are between clients or in a training slump and just don’t have the energy for a regular sixty minute session. It can be done quickly. Also, aside from the fatigue the loads are totally manageable and don’t require substantial mental fortitude to endure. It enables you to make fantastic gains with even one exercise a day!

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I recommend doing two a day (one for upper, one for lower; or one for pressing, one for pulling; etc.), but even just choosing one will get you great results and should perk you up.

This method will make you feel good about training again and throw some fun into what might have otherwise been a tough grind. Give this method a shot and break free of your physical and mental plateaus!

João Miguel Da Silva
Posted on: Mon, 07/24/2017 - 12:19

Sorry the comment but i found a mistake there and i can prove it, you need , at least 1min30sec to restore 60% of the ATP used, it's impossible you recover 50% of ATP in 10 sec, several studies ,( showed by one of my strength & conditioning teachers , from SPORTS SCIENCE COLLEGE where i study, shown exactly that, where the target was "how long do you need to rest to restore between 50%-75% of ATP used between sets, and one thing you are correct, every min or 30 sec the rate of recovery is near 50% from the previous before. EX:
1min you resto 50% of ATP
2min you add 50% to (50% of ATP) which equals to 25% - After 2 min 25%+50% = 75% ATP restored

Great Trainings to everyone

Eric B
Posted on: Sun, 07/31/2016 - 23:35

I think I'll try this. But I'm not so good at math. Tell me if I have it right (I'm skinny, don't laugh):

So if I normally do flat press at no failure with 45 lb dumbbells (22.5 lb each hand) 30 reps at 2 sets, I should do:
15 reps
Rest for 30 seconds.
15 reps
Rest for 30 seconds.
15 reps
Rest for 30 seconds.
15 reps
Rest for 30 seconds.
15 reps (Lets assume I fail at this fifth set)
Rest for 30 seconds.
Change weights to 40 lbs (20 lb in each hand)
15 reps and quit the exercise.

Posted on: Sat, 08/06/2016 - 13:05

No, your reps are too high. You need to find the weight that makes you max out at 10 reps. Then, do 5 reps. Rest 30 seconds. Keep doing that until failure. Then decrease the weight by 5%-10%. Repeat what you just did until failure. Then, decrease again by another 5%-10%. Keep doing this until you reach 50% of your 10 rep max.

So, let's assume your 10 rep max is 30lbs in each hand. You would do 5 reps, then keep doing sets of 5 until failure. Next, decrease the weight by 5%-10%. Let's say you do 10%. So you take 10% of 30 which is 3. 30-3=27. Your next go to weight is 27lbs in each hand. Do sets of 5 reps again until failure. Keep repeating this until you get to 15lbs in each hand, which would be 50% of 10 rep max.

Eric B
Posted on: Mon, 08/08/2016 - 17:55

Thanks Z! I needed that clarification.