Training to Failure: Are You Sabotaging Your Own Gains?

Think training to failure is necessary for gains? Think again. Train with technical proficiency at percentages of your 1 rep max and you'll see far greater results.

A common misconception in strength training is that each and every set must be taken to muscular failure in order to yield a positive adaption. When it comes to high rep hypertrophy and endurance training, the body will ultimately discontinue work as a result of your intolerance to bear the high level of hydrogen accumulation or “lactic acid”. This is a natural process, as the body is protecting itself from excessive muscle damage.

When it comes to low-rep, maximal-strength work, (1-3 reps) the body discontinues work in the inability to adequately recruit muscle fibers for the job.  In certain situations, carrying sets of exercises to repetition failure are advantageous, such as 1 rep max testing or short microcycles that aim to increase one’s maximal strength. In most cases, however, training to failure is both unnecessary and detrimental to performance.2 Rarely, if ever, do I have my athletes or clients go to failure when training a heavy compound, multi-joint movement.

What’s the Issue with Training to Failure?

Unfortunately, the notion that training to failure being necessary for performance gains has surfaced over the last several decades. Advocates of this style often cite that it is necessary to drive adaption and push the limits, paying homage to the old “no pain no gain adage”. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the most effective methods are often less complicated than one is led to believe. The issue with training to absolute failure in the sense of maximal strength is that it causes neural fatigue and disruptions in resting hormonal concentrations.1 Most 1 rep max tests I see novice, intermediate, and even some advanced athletes perform deviate far from anything I’d consider technical. The range of motion often shortens dramatically, and they end up looking like more of a survival attempt than a lift.

Athletes who push themselves to the point of failure every session set themselves up for the inability to properly recover and repeat high performance over the next few days. In a phase where one is seeking to gain strength, they will find that they are fatigued and becoming weaker if they consistently push to failure on a regular basis.  Additionally, this can lead to injury and retraction from strength training altogether, with the label that lifting heavy makes them stiff, tired, and hurt when in reality they never followed a properly structured plan.  When seeking hypertrophy or muscular endurance, reaching absolute failure is less detrimental from an injury, hormonal, and neuromuscular standpoint however it is still not necessary. It can lead to overuse, excessive muscular damage, and other similar peripheral issues.

Powerlifter doing deadlifts in gym.

Training Smarter, Not Harder

If you resist the urge to bury yourself and always push for that “last rep”, you will find the results rather pleasant. The most effective method of training is the incorporation of the idea of “reps in reserve” (RIR). What this means is that when you are working at a percentage of your one-rep max, say 85%, you should theoretically be able to complete four reps with the attempt of a fifth resulting in failure. Rather than pushing for four reps at 85% of your 1 rep max, the idea should be to aim for two or three technically sound reps. This is a continuum that can be implemented with nearly any rep range.

Related: 16 Squat Tips To Improve Form, Strength, And Size

In 2011, the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science for Sport presented a study that displayed two subjects both doing squats at ~80% of their 1 rep max.3 Subject one quit squatting with the weight when his movement velocity decreased by 20% (leaving more RIR), and subject two quit squatting when his movement velocity decreased by 40% (leaving less RIR).3 These two subjects followed the program for several weeks and the results were astonishing. Despite subject two completing more overall work and pushing himself closer to failure, he sustained a significantly lower gain in strength than did the subject one who quit each set earlier to failure.3

What this means is that strength training should always be performed with technical proficiency and that in most cases pushing to failure is unnecessary or even detrimental. Obviously, certain situations will be different in the cases of novice vs. experienced trainees, however, the general takeaway is the same.

Training Structure to Increase Strength

Once you can accept that going too heavy too often is a recipe for disaster, you are likely left wondering what to do instead. Training with extremely light weights and low intensities is certainly not the answer either, as you will make no progress regress at some point or another. Training hard while training smart is what I preach to my athletes and clients. Maintaining a disciplined schedule with perfect technical execution and a strong emphasis on recovery will yield the best results.

One of my favorite ways to layout training is through a method developed by Dr. Mike Stone of East Tennessee State University. In order to keep his volume and intensity in check with his programs, he implements a system of loading prescriptions on a “very light, light, moderately light, moderate, moderately heavy, heavy and very heavy” termed basis. These terms are certainly not arbitrary, and instead, have a direct correlation to a range of load percentages as follows:

  • Very Light - 65-70% 1RM
  • Light - 70-75% 1RM
  • Moderately Light - 75-80% 1RM
  • Moderate - 80-85% 1RM
  • Moderately Heavy - 85-90% 1RM
  • Heavy - 90-95% 1RM
  • Very Heavy - 95-100% 1RM

What Dr. Stone then does with these numbers is lay out his program on a weekly basis with each day being labeled appropriately to correspond with what the overall intensity for each lift will be that day. The table below exemplifies this:

Table showing training method of Dr. Mike Stone of East Tennessee State University.
As you can see in the table above, each week is displayed with the corresponding number of sets and reps. You can see that on week one, three sets of ten reps are prescribed at a “moderately light” weight. In this case, the person would perform the lift with a load equivalent to 75-80% of their 10-rep max, resting 2 minutes between sets.

What this method does is cater to the RIR paradigm previously discussed and allow the individual to work with a 5% range for that given exercise on that given day depending on how they are feeling. Furthermore, the intensity shows a steady increase over the course of three weeks peaking at a “moderately heavy” intensity and unloading on the fourth week at a “light” intensity. This is only one way to go about organizing your training, but it is certainly a fundamental pattern to programming using a periodization strategy.

Related: Smart Training: Don't Break Your Body Trying to Build It

Conclusion

Remember to train intelligently and understand that sometimes the old adage “less is more” can still reign true. Training is not meant to break you; it is a tool with which to increase your capacity to perform. There is a time and place to empty the tank and display your absolute end degrees of strength, however, nobody ever wins a weight room training championship, they let it all out on the court or field. Think about what your current training looks like and how you can implement a better strategy. Be honest with yourself and question whether or not you may be going too hard and falling prey to the pain and gain trap. Train hard but train smart.