Watch Apollo 13 enough and you’ll agree, “Failure is not an option.” Turn your eyes to pretty much any fitspiration video on YouTube and you’ll quickly change your mind. Visions of athletes being “hardcore” and pushing every set to complete failure, trashcan on hand for the near certain barf session, fill training videos. This video popularity consequently fuels the belief that if athletes aren’t pushing themselves to the absolute brink every set, they’re simply betas destined for subpar growth.
Turn off the movies and video and take notice of the actual scientific research behind strength and size progression, and a completely different story is told. For those of us looking to make an impact in our athletic careers, fortunately training programs rarely lend to either extreme, yet require a healthy balance of various intensities and programming strategies to maximize progress. Do those strategies require constant nausea from extreme training intensities, or never being able to unleash the beast in the gym for fear of overtraining? The answer requires several considerations, and man, are we glad you asked!
Failure vs. Fatigue Management
Athletes are recognizing the important balance of failure and fatigue management more and more. As that recognition increases, so does the question of whether it’s necessary to, or how often it’s beneficial to train to muscular failure in a program. Anyone that’s trained in that fashion knows hitting failure every set makes it increasingly harder to recover and push our selves as the training program continues. On the other hand, keep too much in the tank, and we leave the gym underwhelmed at our performance. If either extreme leaves us making supbar progress, then what the heck do we do? As with most questions, let’s turn to modern science to get a better insight.
The Science of Failure
Over the years, we as athletes have trained to failure (the point where a full repetition cannot be completed with proper form during a working set) with the idea that, by doing so, we ensure all incorporated muscle fibers are completely stimulated and fatigued. Providing enough stimuli that our muscles are sure to adapt and grow in response. Training to anything less, and we feared risking leaving progress on the table, and not reaching our athletic potential.
This rationale is logical enough, however like any scientifically minded athlete, we can’t rely on logic alone to make our decisions. Keeping an eye on current research can help us combine the logical approaches to training with the scientific findings to find the middle ground that can help us navigate the confusion and progress more effectively.
In recent years, research has continued to highlight similar results from periodized training in which complete failure isn’t reached to be just as effective as training to failure. This seems to be the case due to the higher training volume athletes are able to achieve on a week-to-week basis by training just shy of failure; thus better regulating their fatigue accumulation and allowing for more quality working sets. For example, a 2006 study led to a group of participants training shy of failure making very similar progress (during 11 weeks of training) in 1RM squats and bench press, along with repetitions performed with 75% of 1RM compared to participants training to complete failure. In this study, total volume was equal, and a combination of back squat, bench press, shoulder press and some isolation exercises we performed either to failure or just shy of failure. 
In another study among untrained women, participants performing training programs varying among 3-15 repetition sets, 4 days per week made significantly more strength and muscle size progress than those training 3 days per week with 1 set of 8-12 reps to complete failure. As many of you may notice, volume wasn’t equal in this study. The difference in volume can be likely extrapolated as one crucial factor in the improved progression in the higher volume group. By following a more periodized program, and training just shy of failure, participants were likely better physically and mentally recovered before each session. This would have lead to more total volume completion while still training at intensities sufficient to produce muscle strength and size. This study can help signify the benefits of not always training to failure in exchange for being able to complete more volume and come into each session fresher over the long run. 
Recently, a study published earlier this year showed no additional strength or size development in groups training to complete failure when compared to others training to just shy of failure, while competing the same amount of total training volume. Although the study didn’t directly measure this, it would stand to reason that the non-failure group would likely recover better, and require less de-load weeks throughout the year than those training to complete failure. If this were the case, it may mean greater long-term progression when not training to failure (or training to failure less often) by ensuring efficient recovery rates. 
Studies like these are continuing to support the idea of training with intensity, but learning to take working sets to very near, but not quite complete failure. In most situations, this means gaining more and more experience as to what complete failure actually is, and taking sets to 1-2 reps shy of that point. Finding that balance is admittedly a bit difficult at first, which brings me to another important consideration- how experience effects failure-based training.
The Caveat is Experience
So research is supporting that, generally, training just shy of failure can be just as effective for muscle development, while also supporting improved recovery. That’s great news for athletes that previously thought hitting failure constantly was the only option but constantly battle burn out and frequent de-loads or low volume training blocks to recover enough. However with one answer comes other questions; namely, the question of what “shy of failure” is, and how to determine that sweet spot. Just like a good wine, the ability to balance failure and fatigue tends to come with age.
Newer athletes often have a hard time determining what “complete failure” actually is. Many unfortunately begin overanalyzing failure vs. just shy of failure, which often leads to them stopping well short of failure and simply not training hard enough. It takes time to properly identify accurate self-assessments of various intensities when weight training. What may be initially felt as “I can’t do another rep” will later be “I’m just getting started.” As pain tolerance (within reason) is heightened and athletes get better at training in various intensities, knowledge of what true failure and just shy of failure is becomes clearer, and athletes are better able to identify when it’s best to, and when not to empty the tank.
For this reason, it’s normally a better bet to error on the side of failure than leaving reps in the tank if you’re a new athlete. The exception being barbells squats, bench press and deadlifts, which can create unique safety and neuromuscular issues, which I’ll cover later in this article. Aside from the big three, pushing each set is often a better strategy for younger athletes (~1 year or less training) in order to gain a better appreciation for how hard they can train and what capabilities are actually possible by learning to train with appropriate intensity.
Experience is the Best Teacher
On the other hand, as athletes reach a more intermediate and advanced level of training (1-2+ years consistently), the idea of training just shy of failure can become more useful as programming complexity progresses and a better understanding of personal exertion limits is achieved. In addition, the ability to handle and recover from higher training volumes increases with training experience, helping athletes manage failure training better as well.
Training just shy of failure is proving more and more likely to be just as effective for overall muscle development in many situations. That being said, this doesn’t mean training to failure is completely useless or inherently harmful. There are still benefits to taking some sets to failure. Those benefits include the ability to increase mental toughness in training, increase work capacity through greater endurance with a given training load, and a sort of “gut check” to continue gauging where true failure is with a given exercise & load to base future sets off of.
Both failure and training just shy of failure can be beneficial, but generalizing either strategy across all exercises can be a mistake for athletes focused on maximizing the return they receive from their efforts. Actually, the degree of failure reached can pretty greatly depend on the exercise type itself. Very high intensity sets such as heavy squats, bench press and deadlifts may not require true failure (or be safe to do so) while single joint movements may allow more flexibility and a greater opportunity to take advantage of training to failure without creating excess fatigue. 
Frequency over Failure
Let’s think back to the study mentioned earlier comparing higher volume, multiple set programming to be more effective than lower volume, single sets to failure. As I mentioned then, the likely largest factor in the multiple set group achieving greater results is the higher volume they were training at. 
This, among other studies comparing training volume and resulting progress, help reflect the importance of balancing intensity with overall workload, both to ensure sufficient recovery, but also allow for better quality & quantity of sets.
Total volume alone is not the only training factor that benefits athletes. Continued research is also showing the benefits of higher training volumes spread among multiple sessions, compared to just one session each week. Although 20 sets may be better than 10 sets (purely for example purposes) of a body part each week, simply doing all 20 sets in one session isn’t likely to produce as much development as spreading that volume among 2-3 weekly sessions. 
Put differently, there is mounting evidence that classic bodybuilding splits of one muscle group each day being inferior to frequencies of 2-3x/week spread evenly throughout the week. The increased frequency allows for a few unique benefits to the athlete including:
- Greater stimulation of muscle protein synthesis (shown to be increased for 36-48 hours after training) 
- Greater energy levels put toward each working set (compared to doing all working sets on one session)
- Likely increased motor pattern learning, allowing for better execution of a given exercise 
As with anything, it’s important to keep in mind that at some level, we reach a point of diminishing returns. In other words, too much of a good thing begins turning into a bad thing. There’s more or less a “sweet spot” with volume progression where athletes will see greater progress without cutting into their recovery negatively. That spot will differ between each person, but even so- focusing on sufficient training volume and training just shy of failure on most sets will very likely provide greater long-term results than classic 1x/week body part splits approached with a “balls to the wall” low volume strategy.
RPE with SBD
One of the most common areas I see athletes overusing failure sets are going “HAM” on their squat, bench or deadlift (SBD) sets, typically performed first in a training session. They have a killer SBD session only to drag through the rest of their workout. After emptying the tank on SBDs, all of the other exercises programmed that day begin to suffer, or even get skipped altogether.
Even though SBDs are awesome exercises that give athletes a great bang for their buck, we can’t rely solely on these exercises to build a balanced physique. First of all because although they hit a large number of muscle groups, additional exercises still offer a large benefit to overall shape and proportion. If we empty our tanks on the first exercise, even if it may be the “king” of exercises, we risk leaving a lot on the table. Not to mention, pushing too many SBD sets can greatly increase the risk of injury and also central nervous system fatigue without offering very much additional benefits when it comes to muscle development.
Instead, I typically suggest that as athletes gain training experience, they should continually find that “fine line” with each set. Pushing the last set of each SBD session to near failure, but leaving around 1 rep in the tank can help to ensure sufficient CNS recovery between sessions, and making sure that form doesn’t break down and increase injury risk. Of course, having a trusted spotter on those last or AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets is a good idea too.
Another major reason leaving just a bit in the tank on your first major exercise is to, again, allow for more total volume to be competed in your training session. You may initially feel like your short-changing yourself by not doing that final rep of back squats. However when the result is being able to complete the rest of your leg training with sufficient intensity, you can see why giving up one rep on some squat sets can result in a larger total work volume to promote more long-term muscle growth. 4 all-out sets of squats at a RPE of 9-10 (1-10 scale) compared to 4 very good sets at an RPE at 8-9 in addition to 8-12 additional sets of other leg exercises; see the potential difference?
If you’re constantly crushing your squat, bench and deadlift sessions, then unable to do much else afterward, try tapping the breaks on those movements just slightly over the next month or two and see how much more you may progress by allotting more energy for the remaining training session volume.
Double Progress, Minimize Failure
If we aren’t training to failure on most sets, then how we can make sure we’re still getting stronger and bigger from week to week? This is a great question I’m sure you’re asking yourself, and that’s where a double progression strategy comes into play. Approaching your training with double progression in mind, and journaling each training session can go a long way in making consistent progress without having to always aim for failure.
Double progression is essentially tracking total reps completed for a given rep scheme, while approaching your weight additions systematically. After the newbie gains stage, most of us aren’t going to have the ability to add weight to each exercise every week, much less every workout. As weight additions become less frequent, adding more focus to total reps completed comes into play.
Let’s say you had a squat session of 4 sets x 6-8 reps (or 24-32 total reps). For your first week you completed 4×6 (the bottom end of the rep range) with 225lbs, a very solid session to kick off the new training block. You completed each set, pushed yourself appropriately, and left around 1 rep in the tank on all four sets. Next week on this training session, you use 225lbs again and are able to knock out 4×7. A little tougher but you were able to knock them out and still leave a bit in the tank to be safe. This continues until you complete a full 4×8 (top end of the current rep range) with 225lbs.
At this point, it’s safe to add 5-10lbs to the bar for the following session. At some point, you may not be able to add 5-10lbs to the bar or compete the same number of reps each set. The next workout may look like 235lbs x 8,8,7,6- 29 total reps. Next week, adding weight may not be ideal since you haven’t yet hit the top range of your rep scheme, so merely aiming for at least 30 total reps in those sets will ensure progression by aiming for reps of (8,8,7,7 or 8,8,8,6), even if it may seem small. Keeping these small rep goals in mind each week helps us continue progressing each week by first completing the top end of the programmed rep scheme, then adding weight. Reps added first, weight added second, a double progression.
Following this, we can better pace our workouts by focusing on total reps performed with each exercise, rather than feeling like we have to go all-out each set. If instead we emptied our tank on the first set, we may get 10 reps. That sounds awesome until we realize that it severely hindered our following sets, resulting in something like 4×10,7,5,5. 27 total reps, 2 less than if we left 1-2 in the tank on our first set in anticipation of the upcoming sets.
By leaving a bit in the tank early in our exercises & workouts, we can first ensure we’re hitting sufficient reps in our first workouts, then gradually push harder each week in the latter sets, ensuring sufficient volume is achieved, while still keeping intensity sufficient to stimulate positive adaptions in strength and size.
Quick Guide to Failure
Squat, Bench, Deadlift – 1 Rep in the tank on most sets
*Aside from occasional final sets where a spotter can be used easily or the weight can merely be dropped if in a pinch
All but last set of other exercises – ~1 rep in the tank
Last sets of each muscle groups’ exercises – Train to failure as recovery allows
*Pushing final sets of bicep work etc. can allow assessments of total strength while limiting recovery interference compared to big compound exercises.
Succeed, without Fail
When it comes to life, virtually no success comes to us without a lot of failures along the way. As tough of a life lesson that may be to embrace, luckily the gym does not follow those same principles. Training to failure isn’t necessarily “bad” but just an important factor to balance in the ultimate training equation. Continuing to gain an understanding of our own training potential, then balancing the times we hit the gas and others when we need to tap the breaks can help us ultimately progress further in our journey without getting as beat up along the way.
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