Why You Shouldn’t Go to Failure When You Strength Train

You can still be a beast without training to failure Most likely you’ve heard the mantra, lift to failure. In strength training, this is common advice to ensure that the muscles are sufficiently fatigued (and swole enough to be in beast mode). In fact, training to failure is a principle routinely used by bodybuilders to elicit the most muscle gains possible.

 

“Training to failure” means lifting a weight so heavy that you have extreme difficulty completing or cannot complete the last one or two repetitions in a set.

Some would argue that there are two types of failure: technical failure, in which your form breaks down, and absolute failure, in which you can no longer physically move the weight. Either way, should you ever train to failure?

In practice, a very experienced lifter may be able to manage decent form on a brutal final rep. But many strength experts believe that lifting a load to near-failure is a more effective and safe way to make gains in the long term.

Dig the Right Trenches

Scott Dueball, a biomechanics engineer and certified Performance Enhancement Specialist who has trained elite-level powerlifters and athletes, maintains that always training to failure is a big mistake.

Dueball likens how our brain controls movement to digging trenches. “Each time you perform an activity, your brain digs a small trench,” says Dueball. “Each time you perform that activity in the same way, the trench gets deeper. The deeper this trench gets, the easier it is to slip into that mode of performance.

“These trenches can be dug for both efficient and inefficient methods. Obviously, you want to dig the trench for the most efficient method. This concept is what is often referred to as “muscle memory” (although there’s no actual memory in your muscles). Over time, the brain learns to activate muscles in a specific order to improve the efficiency of the motion. The effect is that you lift more weight.”

The danger with training to exhaustion, Dueball says, is that you risk digging the wrong trenches. Sloppy lifting during the final reps of a set teaches the brain to activate inefficient neuromechanics during non-failure reps, resulting in injury and lack of progress.

Not only that, Dueball says, but ineffective or careless warm ups teach the brain the wrong patterns as well, and that can translate into learning the wrong movement and neuromuscular patterns.

Another area to be concerned about when you constantly training to failure are negative impacts on your recovery. And inadequate recovery between workouts can mean a not-so-nice training plateau or injury.

Train Your Brain During Warm Ups

Competitive powerlifter Brian Carroll, who experienced potentially career-ending back pain and injuries, learned this when he sought the advice of Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading spinal expert.

“The first comment Dr. McGill made was that over time Brian had become sloppy and lazy in his warm ups,” Dueball says. “The warm up is the best time to perfect your form because you’re typically using lighter resistance and your body is fresh,” Dueball says. “Performing lazy warm ups can fatigue the weaker muscles that are essential when lifting heavier weights. In Brian’s case, that led to relying solely on his vertebrae, which fractured over time.

“The nervous system is responsible for the much of your gains,” says Dueball. “The mechanical strength in your muscles and bones is greater than we give it credit for. We just need to teach our musculoskeletal systems properly. In essence, we can ‘learn to get stronger’.”

Dueball recommends spending time developing these patterns. “Keep the weight low enough to maintain perfect form,” he says. “Change your definition of failure. Instead of lifting until you can’t get to the last rep, learn to identify when your form deteriorates.”

“When teaching the powerlift bench press the first thing we see is the lifters’ elbows winging out when they get tired,” Dueball says. “Reverting to their older pattern is unacceptable; even though they can grind out another rep, if it’s not perfect it hurts their development.”

The take-home? Let’s redefine “training to failure” to mean “training until your form deteriorates.” Rather than pushing until you cannot move the weight, lift only as long as you have good form. And spend time on high-quality warm ups. (I require my virtual and in-person clients to spend about 10 minutes on dynamic warm ups to strengthen stabilizer muscles and increase mobility.)

Sounds like a better path to success to me!

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Comments

  1. I would also like to add that this type of weight lifting definitely increases my annoyance at the gym, because they are usually the ones slamming the weights down making loud sounds.

    • Haha! You might be surprised. Even non-grunters think they need to go to failure – it’s just sort of become a mindless “rule” to many.

  2. Love this post; very informative (and the interview style is great!).
    I’ve used your very generous comments to dramatically improve my book draft; including the ones that you talk about in this post!
    See you Thursday! xo
    Tamara recently posted..What to do when your trainer’s on vacation | 5 tips for staying on trackMy Profile

  3. I have a ton of respect for Dr. McGill and have studied his work in depth because of my two crappy spinal discs.

    That said, I’d have to see some compelling research before I’d accept Dueball’s thesis. For one thing, I don’t accept the suggestion that training to failure means accepting sloppy form.

    I am an extreme stickler for form and have been for 30 years. I don’t *always* train to failure, but I do it frequently—yet never at the cost of form.

    My idea of training to failure is completing the last rep my body will allow while *maintaining* proper form. So I don’t do “cheating” reps, and I never ever ever throw or drop weights.

    Even though I don’t agree with Dueball, I love this post because it’s excellent food for thought—definitely different and will make me evaluate what I do!
    Mary C. Weaver, CSCS recently posted..Goodbye, FitBit–welcome back, BodyMediaMy Profile

    • Thanks for writing Mary, I do appreciate your thoughts. And I don’t think yours and Scott’s views are as far apart as it may seem. Your definition of failure (maintaining proper form) seems acceptable in Scott’s view. Plus very experienced lifters such as you and I can mostly maintain form on final failure reps (though it always deteriorates a little). I think the concern is when people always train to failure and learn incorrect patterns. I also think training to failure too frequently overtaxes the CNS. As for myself, I sometimes go to failure on the last set – a nice balance. I’m with you though – food for thought is always a good thing!

    • Scott Dueball says:

      Mary, Thanks for reading. Suzanne is spot on; I absolutely
      agree with your angle on failure. As a powerlifter, I frequently
      work to fail as well but its important (as you said) to maintain
      form throughout. Taxing the CNS is extremely risky and most don’t
      have the background to perform it properly. For that group, I am
      not convinced that it is the most productive method of
      training.

  4. Great information. Training to failure isn’t something I do with most of my clients because of their level. If it’s hard for those last 1-2 reps, that’s good enough when you’re getting started.

  5. Suzanne, thanks for all of this excellent information! I’m going to follow your advice and make sure that my brain doesn’t dig the wrong trenches. Have fun at Fitbloggin and please give Tamara, Kymberly, Alexandra and Christie I a big hug from me!
    Shira recently posted..Can a nutrition “cleanse” help clean up your mind?My Profile

  6. Hi Suzanne,

    I agree with this article. My trainer also told me about this concept. He also told me to do my warm ups seriously to optimize my performance. For me, it’s really necessary to get a trainer when you want to try heavy workouts to avoid failures.
    Lily Parkes recently posted..Best Workout Routines For WomenMy Profile

  7. Great post, Suzanne. This is my most common mistake when I just started my heavy weight lifting. I always start strong then suddenly fail to finish the required reps. BTW I admire Scott Dueball for sharing his knowledge on this matter. Thanks a lot! 🙂

  8. Thanks for this. I was always under the impression that training to failure was the correct way…. However I don’t think that your form has to be poor once you reach failure.

    Either way it is something to consider, so thank you for opening my eyes!

  9. I’ve always found that training to failure had the effect of demotivating me in the short term but motivating me in the long term. The effect was an initial widening in rest days, but a gradual return to short breaks. Good article – thanks.

    • That’s an interesting perspective. Yes, training to failure can lengthen recovery time. I’ve noticed this about myself when I’m pushing hard. Perhaps coming back stronger is part of the adaptation for those who do it correctly.

  10. This is the first time I come to know about lift to failure..great informative article

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