Should you train to failure? by Mark Cosgrove, Master Trainer @

Training to failure is exactly what you think it means. Training a muscle to failure. Training it untill it can no longer perform what you’re ‘telling’ it to do. There is nothing left in the tank. You can’t finish the last rep, no matter how hard you’re pushing or how much your brain is saying ”moooove”, it’s just not happening. It’s painful, it burns, but, it feels so good! However, just because it feels good doesn’t actually mean it is good. Especially if it isn’t used correctly. There’s a time and a place to train a muscle to failure and hopefully I am going to help you understand how and when to implement it into a routine.There are benefits of doing so if you do use it correctly, however, there are also negatives, like anything, if not used correctly. Training to failure is miss used, over used or simply not used correctly by so many people. Some people think they have reached failure when in fact they have not. They have not reached momentary muscular failure. Most will use it daily and in some cases, on almost every exercise they perform. This is not optimal at all and can be very detrimental to your goals and progression towards them. If you are performing a certain exercise to failure on your very first set how are you supposed to perform another set??



So why should you train a muscle to failure?

Strength Gains
Lifting a heavy weight until you can no longer complete a full repetition for one, maybe two sets will generate a positive stimulus for gaining strength optimally and therefore producing the biggest muscle gain. Having a stronger muscle and lifting heavy weights will only lead to that muscle developing greater.

Training Frequency
Performing 1-2 exercises for a muscle group to failure is adequate. Your muscles will only benefit from a certain amount of stimulation. Once they reach that point anything else is just wasted energy. There is no need to perform another 4-5 exercises (when training to failure). Some people will train a muscle to failure then proceed to train that same muscle with 3-4 other exercises, for the same muscle group. This is not optimal and will only result in you requiring longer to recover.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that performing a couple of exercises to failure will take less time than performing lots of exercises. This can be beneficial because of the extra time you have outside the gym. Muscles are not gained in the gym. The stimulus is placed upon them there, the time away from the gym spent eating and recovering is where muscles are made. More time recovering is a win in my book!

Injury Prevention
This may seem like an odd one. You’re forcing your body to lift heavy weights to absolute failure, how can it prevent injury? Well it may not prevent injury because performing any movement over and over will lead to the joints and tendons becoming worn but it certainly reduces the risk. Lets look at the two people. One who performs 1-2 exercises and that’s it, and then the other who performs an additional 4-5. The volume of the latter is obviously greater, meaning more repetitions, more wear and tear on the joints resulting in a higher risk of injury.

You need to be both focused and mentally tough when pushing yourself to muscular failure, it’s not pleasant nor is it easy. It brings discomfort and pain. However, when you expose your muscles to this kind of torture it can be beneficial. Working a certain muscle group to failure will stress that muscle group to its max. Therefore it will bring about optimal development and growth. All of this of course if used correctly!

Training a muscle to failure… The negatives!

For all the positives of using this method there are also negatives of doing so. It can lead to a negative impact on performance with later sets of an exercise and other exercises there after in a session. It can also limit the ability of you recovering between sessions, another direct opposite to using it correctly. This is because it can be extremely taxing on your body. Not just to the specific muscle or muscle group you are training, but the whole body. Your central nervous system takes a battering and can lead to all kinds of problems. The negative effects on the central nervous system are not due to training to failure, but rather, under recovering. The microtrauma caused by training leads to an inflammatory response. If the body is not given enough recovery time between workouts, chronic inflammation results, and cytokines involved in inflammation start to act on the central nervous system causing the various symptoms associated with overtraining (under recovering).

In addition, there’s also the issue of safety. Going to failure on an exercise like tricep pushdowns or leg extensions is fairly safe, but failing (especially without a spotter) during a set of squats, barbell bench presses, or something similar is not a fun place to be as I am sure you can imagine. This could result in some serious injuries.

When to optimise training to failure –

There are a number of ways to incorporate training a muscle or muscle group to failure into your workout.

I use training to failure on my hypertrophy specific workouts. I try to go to failure on my last set of a given exercise. Here’s a quick example, if you have performed 3 sets of 10 squats, attempt as many repetitions as you can safely perform on your 4th set, I always do this with a spotter present, as I mentioned above, doing so without one could lead to some serious issues. It’s also worth pointing out that I would not train another exercise to failure thereafter in the same workout. I would carry on with the other moves as normal or as my program dictates. I also usually like to keep the weight the same through out all my sets, even with my last one if I am going to failure. However you could lower the weight slightly if needed. For example:

If you performed 2 sets of 8 on the barbell bench press at 80KG, decrease the weight by 10KGs and go to failure from there on your last set.

Choose only ONE exercise per workout to apply this method. It is not necessary to use training to failure on multiple exercises. It won’t do you any good. So for a leg workout you could use this method on Squats (if a spotter is present), if not, I would use it on the final set of leg press or even leg curls/extensions. It’s much safer. Remember, Squats, Bench Presses even Military Presses should only be performed to failure if a spotter is there. If not, chose a different exercise and use that.


Mark Cosgrove

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