A Complete Guide on How/When to Lift to Failure

Tom MacCormick
Written By: Tom MacCormick
April 17th, 2020
Updated: May 14th, 2024
Categories: Articles Training
12.8K Reads
A Complete Guide on How/When to Lift to Failure
There's so much information out there that promotes training to failure and condemns it. Learn what the science actually says and how to best apply it.

Training to failure polarizes opinion like few other topics in bodybuilding.

People tend to fall into two camps. Either you train to failure on every set and think anyone that doesn’t is a wimp who doesn’t know what it takes to build muscle. Or you think training to failure is dumb, take the intellectual high-ground (supported by numerous peer reviewed articles to back you up), and leave a few reps in reserve on your sets.

The reality is that both points of view have some merit.

Training to failure should not be a binary, black or white, all or nothing scenario. Sadly, the training zealots and keyboard warrior training gurus out there have made it one.

In reality, depending on your training experience, there is a sweet-spot of training to failure that’s just right for you. This sweet-spot is a moving target and one that changes over the course of your training career. To build the most muscle possible you should recognize and understand this fact.

By understanding the nuance of training to failure you can fully capitalize on the muscle building benefits of matching your proximity to failure to what is needed at a given moment in time. I like to say there is a lifecycle of training to failure throughout a lifters career.

In this article, I’ll explain that lifecycle and how you can maximize your results by aligning your approach to training failure with what is most appropriate at each stage.

Why the Disagreement?

Tons of guys have built tons of muscle training to failure.

On the other hand, there is a big group of lifters who’ve built impressive physiques training shy of failure. It’s only natural to be attached to what has worked for you. Much like the passionate advocates for different diets that have lost weight using a certain methodology.

Once something has worked for you, you become attached to it and you want to tell everyone about it. I mean we’ve all spoken to a vegan, intermittent fasting, Crossfitter who wants to tell us why this is the lifestyle everyone should lead, right?

Defining the Debate - What is Failure?

Hitting failure means different things to different people. This ambiguity is a problem when people are debating the same topics but, with different metrics of what failure really is. Thus, it’s important to have a working definition of what failure means so that everything in this article can be placed in context.

Failure means the lifting portion of the rep cannot be completed with good from even with maximal effort. If someone put a gun to your head – could you do another rep? If the answer is yes, you weren’t at true failure.

As you approach failure during a set the repetition speed will slow down as fatigue increases. The final rep of a set taken to failure will be noticeably slower than the first. It will be what is often described as a grinder. I’ve seen people reach this point and the final rep almost seems to move in slow motion.

So long as form is in check, this is fine. If, however, your form goes out the window, or you shorten the range, or need assistance from a spotter you went beyond failure.

Common Ground

Whilst there is a difference of opinion between the two camps on whether training to failure is needed to grow muscle there is some common ground. Both sides agree you have to train hard. This is an important, yet obvious, piece of information.

For any of you who thought I was going to suggest building muscle could be done without working hard I’m sorry to disappoint. There is no doubt that your training has to be challenging. In fact, to maximize your results there will be times it needs to be brutally hard.

The point is you need to pick and choose those times intelligently. You shouldn’t begin your lifting career training to failure and cling tightly to this approach forever if you want to reach your maximal muscular potential.

What the Research Says

In recent years there has been an increase in the amount of research examining the relationship between training to failure and muscle gain. When it comes to building muscle the research clearly supports the fact you need to push close to failure.

It appears every set should be within about 4 reps of failure to count as being challenging enough to stimulate any significant growth stimulus. This probably seems pretty obvious to you, but in practice many seasoned lifters underestimate how many reps they have in reserve.

This inaccuracy when estimating how close to failure a lifter is, is one of the main reasons why I think training to failure at some point in your career is vital.

Does Hitting Failure Improve Results?

The research on the amount of fatigue created by training to failure is limited, but what we do have is quite clear, training to failure increases fatigue significantly. This extends the recovery time of a muscle both within a session and from session to session. So, training to failure might limit how much volume you can do in a session and how often you can train a muscle.

When it comes to what the research says about training to failure stimulating more growth there is a bit more research, but it is still an early area of investigation. This is a topic still in its infancy. With that said, the data established so far indicates that training to failure is not superior for muscle growth. In one recent study by Carroll et al. (2019), they actually reported that stopping a few reps shy of failure resulted in better outcomes on measures of strength and hypertrophy.

The final nail in the coffin for training to failure? Not so fast!

The fact is, research has consistently shown that trainees are terrible at estimating how close to failure they are. Also, pushing to failure in the lab under research conditions is very different to in your local globo-gym.

In the gym, when your muscles start to burn and the rep slows down it’s all too easy to stop and tell yourself you’ve hit failure. In a lab, there will be a team of research assistants whose job it is to push you. They will scream and shout at you to be certain you gave it everything and went all the way to failure. This difference in intensity between the lab and the gym could well skew things.

Your results of leaving a few reps in the tank in the gym might be very different to what leaving a few reps in the tank is when an excitable undergrad student is calling you names and goading you to find another rep. In light of this, those sets a couple of reps from failure in the gym might be more like 5 reps from true failure. If that is true then many of the sets you do aren’t actually growth stimulating.

This is why I think it’s vital that you undergo a period of consistently training to failure. This means you’ll develop a reliable ability to judge how close to failure you truly are.

The Benefits of Training to Failure

Training to failure helps you to develop the skill of knowing precisely how close to failure you are. Once you have become competent in this skill then you can use it to your advantage later in your career. It means you can make the most of utilizing reps in reserve (RIR) as a training strategy. This opens up the opportunity for more productive training long-term. Trying to use RIR without a sustained history of going to failure, however, is likely to provide sub-par results.

You will become more aware of the sensations in your muscle as you approach failure and be able to distinguish between it burning a bit and the muscle having nothing left. You will become adept at knowing how your rep speed slows and when there is one more in the tank and when attempting another rep will end up with you being pinned under a bar.

You will also understand the nuance of knowing how different muscle groups feel as they approach failure and how that, even the same muscle group feels different when training it to failure with various exercises. For example, training your quads to failure is a whole other level of discomfort than training your rear delts to failure.

Even within the quads though, failure training can feel very different. A set of squats, leg press, or leg extensions all feel very different and you might fail for various reasons. The squat for example, might fail not because the quads are maximally fatigued but, because the overall systemic fatigue is just too great for you to coordinate another rep with good form. This is unlikely to ever be the case with leg extensions though.

Developing the ability to train to failure means you can guarantee that you are stimulating muscle growth. It takes the guesswork out of things. This is a vital step. It ensures you build muscle during the time you train this way and it also opens up the possibility to capitalize on this skill in future.

As an early intermediate lifter still finding your way in the gym this is very useful. You haven’t developed the experience to know what work best for you. You don’t yet have the skill of knowing how close to failure you are. There are still quite a few question marks over how to apply the principles of training optimally to yourself. Take the guesswork out of the equation. Push to failure. You’ll build muscle and learn valuable lessons which will serve you once you are more experienced.

The Bigger and Stronger You Are the More Fatigue You Generate

When you are very big and strong, training to failure is not sustainable. Pushing everything to failure once you can squat more than 2xbodyweight for multiple sets, deadlift 2.5-3xbodyweight and bench press 1.5xbodweight for sets and reps takes its toll.

A set taken to failure with these loads is extremely demanding. The recovery time from pushing compound lifts like this to failure is massive. Pushing every set to failure increases injury risk, extends your recovery time between sessions, and digs a big recovery ditch for you to climb out of after every session.

This will catch up with you eventually. Either your body or your mind will break. The physical toll is something most people understand and consider. The psychological stress is often overlooked. The mental fortitude required to repeatedly show up and push through sets to failure on the big lifts when you are extremely strong is huge. Far too often those that train this way burnout mentally even if their body has stood up to the test.

The Lifecycle of Failure

We periodize all other elements of training to reach peak performance. Why not do the same with training to failure?

From a thousand-mile view of your lifting career I think there should be three distinct phases of your approach to training to failure.

Phase 1: Beginner (0-12 months of consistent training)

Do NOT train to failure!

Beginners haven’t learned the skill required to push themselves to failure on compound lifts. If you’ve ever seen a beginner getting close to failure on a bench press, for example, you’ll notice they start wriggling all over the place. Their feet start doing a little tap dance. Their hips pop up. Their shoulders start shifting around all over the place and their head swivels as they anxiously look for the safety of the hooks to rack the bar.

The good news is they don’t need to put themselves through this embarrassing sequence. They can rack the weight several reps earlier and still get a growth stimulus. Simply lifting weights with a bit of effort and learning the motor patterns required for the main lifts is enough for a newbie to grow. It also reduces the risk of them getting injured and giving up before they even really started.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen loads of beginners build lots of muscle staying well clear of failure on the main lifts. Their threshold for overload is so low that it doesn’t take much for them to grow.

Beginners don’t need to do much (if any) isolation work to grow, but if they do, the research says they don’t need to take machine based isolation exercises to failure. Two recent studies have shown that beginners grow just as much muscle stopping shy of failure on isolation lifts as they do going to failure.

Phase 2: Intermediates (1-3 years of consistent training)

Spend at least 6 months training to failure.

The research is quite clear that intermediates don’t need to train to failure. So, you don’t have to train to failure throughout your entire intermediate stage.

As I’ve previously identified, training to failure at some point of your career is useful as it educates you on what true failure is and allows you to better judge your RIR on sets. The intermediate stage is ideal for this.

Once your newbie gains are taken care of you need to provide a greater challenge to get the body to adapt and build bigger, stronger muscles. By this stage you should also have ingrained good lifting technique on all the main lifts and be capable of safely pushing towards failure.

Learning the skill of training to failure takes time. You can’t just get pinned under a bench press once and learn all the lessons training to failure has to teach you. That’s why I suggest 6 months straight of training to failure. It gives you enough time to learn what failure feels like and to develop the ability of holding your form right up until your muscles can’t move the weight another inch.

A period of training to failure at this stage in your career will help you break through the newbie gains plateau a lot of guys get stuck in. It’s also an investment in future gains.

Phase 3: Advanced (4+ years of consistent training)

As things stand the research indicates that advanced lifters can build muscle and strength leaving reps in the tank. This opens up the window of opportunity for longer runs of productive training.

Gains are harder to come by as you become more advanced. Manipulating training variables like volume, frequency, and intensity is widely recognized as good practice for advanced lifters. Your proximity to failure is another one of these variables that you should modulate over time to reach your potential.

By starting a phase of training with a few reps in reserve you can provide a growth stimulus and leave plenty of runway for more productive training. Always starting out at failure naturally limits how much you can progress from week to week. When you’re advanced and pushing to failure you cannot add 2.5lbs to the bar each week. At that level, your body doesn’t adapt that quickly.

This makes applying progressive overload problematic. Being a bit more strategic about things, however, can navigate this process. It can mean you can string together 6-8 weeks of effective training rather than 3-4 weeks. Overtime that adds up!

For advanced lifters, I suggest periodizing proximity to failure on compound lifts within a phase of training. Starting out further from failure and gradually pushing all the way to failure over several weeks before taking a deload and repeating the process. For example:

  • Week 1 – 4 RIR
  • Week 2 – 3RIR
  • Week 3 – 2RIR
  • Week 4 – 1RIR
  • Week 5 – 0RIR
  • Week 6 – 0RIR (plus a drop set or rest-pause on the last set for a muscle group within a workout)
  • Week 7 – Deload
  • Week 8 – Repeat (but adjust other training variables like frequency, exercise selection, &/or set & reps etc.)

Some exercises are better than others for going to failure. These can and probably should be taken to failure more often. Machine based isolation exercises are an example of this. The systemic fatigue generated by pushing these to failure is much lower than on compound lifts. The injury risk is also much lower. As a result, I suggest you take these to failure much more often. Taking them to failure all the time is effective and sustainable for most lifters.

The Final Word

Training to failure should not be viewed as a static or set in stone variable. Much like other training variables it can be periodized over time to squeeze the most from your muscle building potential.

By gradually ramping up the intensiveness of your training as you progress from beginner to intermediate you can keep building muscle and set the scene for sustained growth as an advanced lifter.

Once you reach the heady heights of advanced status you need a more nuanced approach to keep seeing gains. At this stage, treat training to failure like any other training variable. Manipulate your approach to it by undulating between being a bit further from failure to training with balls to the wall intensity.

Doing so has both physiological and psychological benefits and will allow you to perform the most productive training long-term. Building muscle is a marathon not a sprint so, finding ways to extend periods of productive training is the secret to reaching your muscular potential.