If you go to any gym, you’ll generally see two types of people.
There are those who are simply going through the motions, and then there are those who are beating the crap out of themselves to make up for lost time.
In the first group are those who are basically watching TV on the treadmill or standing around on their phone in between every set on the machines. These are the same people you usually see six months later looking exactly the same (if they are still showing up at all).
Then there are the weekend warriors who show up on Saturday morning and do 8-12 sets on every machine in the gym as they sweat through their 2-3 hour workout. These are also the same people that you never see at the gym for the rest of the week because they are either too exhausted, injured, or sick.
The secret, like most things when it comes to health and fitness, is found not at these extremes, but somewhere in between.
Pushing yourself forward
As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the reality is that you have to constantly push yourself in order to make progress in the gym.
In other words, to get what you don’t currently have, you have to do what you haven’t done before. This means doing more reps and lifting more weight than you did the workout before.
But how do we know where to draw the line?
How do we find that balance between pushing ourselves in the gym versus going too far and risking exhaustion or even injury?
Training to fail(ure)
After years of hearing the beefy bros at the gym and on the internet telling me that training to failure was necessary to reach those “high threshold motor units” that supposedly only kick in when you’re on the verge of muscular failure, I decided to take a closer look and see what the research had to say on the subject.
Maybe this is simply a reflection of the “go hard or go home” macho crap that you see all too frequently in the gym (choose your workout partners carefully, my friend).
This is also one of the biggest issues I have with Crossfit in general. The fact that so many of the workouts are designed to push you to failure (and beyond). After all, as many reps as possible (AMRAP) means exactly that, you continue until you fail.
Again, there’s a fine line between pushing yourself in the gym and pushing yourself to the point where your body gives up.
What exactly does it mean to fail?
First of all, when we are talking about training to failure, we are talking about temporary muscular failure, which is when you are physically unable to complete another rep.
While this may seem stupidly obvious, this is not the same thing as thinking that you won’t be able to do another rep. It means that you actually tried to lift the weight and failed.
Why do we do it?
The biggest advantage of training to failure is that you can be confident that you are giving your maximum effort. Remember the idea behind progressive overload is that you are trying to do something that you haven’t done before.
In other words, to grow stronger, you have to constantly be pushing yourself to do more, lift more, and be on the edge of your current ability.
This is pretty much the opposite of what you witness in most gyms where you’ll see people doing the same exercises and lifting the same weights month after month and year after year.
So what’s the problem?
Training to failure is extremely hard on your body. This not only can mean a longer recovery time after your workout, but it can result in less work being done for the rest of your current workout as well.
Like most things, you can get away with more of this kind of thing in your twenties, but once you get into your 30’s and beyond, you need to start considering the amount of time it’s going to take to recover from your workout.
Training to failure is not only hard on your muscles, but it can be stressful for your central nervous system as well, which can eventually lead to fatigue and mental burnout.
In other words, training to failure becomes an issue when it makes you skip tomorrow’s workout because you’re too tired, sore, and mentally exhausted to make it back to the gym.
Crushing it Crushed at the gym
The other problem I have with training to failure is more of a safety issue.
It’s one thing when you fail to complete the rep on a lat bar pulldown or a deadlift where you can simply drop the barbell. It’s another thing when you fail to lift the bar off your chest on a bench press or fail on a back squat when you have a 300lb barbell balancing on your shoulders.
Putting aside the dangers of being physically crushed for a moment, training to failure can also lead to injuries due to poor technique caused by awkward “cheating” movements in a desperate attempt to lift the weight.
So knowing all of this, is training to failure worth the trouble? (Spoiler alert: Not really)
From all of the research I’ve seen, when you consider the safety risks, and all of the physical and mental fatigue that comes with it, training to failure is probably not worth it. Even when you look at it from a strength and muscle building perspective, most of the research out there has found that training to failure is simply not necessary.
So what’s the alternative?
Training (close) to failure
We know that in order to get stronger and build more muscle, we need to continue to push ourselves in the gym. We can do this by progressively lifting more weight, lifting the same weight more times, or simply not resting as long in between sets.
At the same time, if we push ourselves too far in the gym, it can hold us back with longer recovery times, mental exhaustion, and potential injuries.
So how do we find that elusive balance between pushing ourselves close to our current physical limits without pushing too far and having to deal with the consequences?
One way we can do this is by closely monitoring our fatigue levels, and instead of pushing ourselves to failure, we leave a few reps in reserve (RIR).
Research has shown that we are usually pretty good at estimating how many reps we have left during each set as we get close to failure. What this means is that instead of reaching muscular failure, we should aim to stop our set with 1-2 reps still left in the tank.
The benefit of training this way is that every workout will be slightly different based on that specific day’s energy level, previous workout’s recovery, and motivation to train.
So instead of just stopping when you hit a prescribed rep range (ex. 8-12 reps), you would continue until you feel that you are 1-2 reps away from failure on that particular set. Maybe that will end up being 9 reps, or perhaps you’ll get to 15 reps.
In other words, this is a type of autoregulation where you would keep going until you feel that you are 1-2 reps away from actual muscular failure.
Now, of course, if you consistently find yourself exceeding your recommended rep ranges, you may want to consider bumping up the weight for your next workout.
What if we guess wrong?
Okay, so what happens if we end up overestimating our ability when we are training close to failure, and actually….. you know, fail?
I think this has happened to most of us at one time or another when we are pushing ourselves and training close to failure. Although we are pretty good at estimating how many reps we have left in us, sometimes we end up being wrong, but that’s okay.
There’s a difference between reaching failure unintentionally once in a while versus making it your goal to reach that point on a regular basis.
Above all, you need to listen to what your body is telling you and adjust as you go along.
The bottom line…
In order to make progress in the gym, you have to constantly be pushing yourself to do more than you did the workout before.
This can mean lifting more weight, but progress can also mean lifting the same weight more times, or simply allowing less time to rest in between your sets.
There’s a fine line, however, between pushing yourself and pushing yourself to failure in the gym.
Research has shown that training close to failure and leaving a rep or two in the tank is probably a better option than actually reaching muscular failure for both achieving muscle growth and reducing recovery time in between workouts.
Push yourself, but always remember to leave something for tomorrow.
Davies T, et al. “Effect of training leading to repetition failure on muscular strength: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sports medicine. 2016 Apr 1:487-502.
Nóbrega SR, et al. “Effect of Resistance Training to Muscle Failure vs. Volitional Interruption at High and Low Intensities on Muscle Mass and Strength.” J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Jan:162-169.
Lacerda LT, et al. “Is Performing Repetitions to Failure Less Important Than Volume for Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength?” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2019 Dec 4.
Martorelli S, et al. “Strength training with repetitions to failure does not provide additional strength and muscle hypertrophy gains in young women.” European journal of translational myology. 2017 Jun 24;27
Zourdos MC, et al. “Proximity to Failure and Total Repetitions Performed in a Set Influences Accuracy of Intraset Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion.” Journal of strength and conditioning research. 2019 Feb.
Graham T, Cleather DJ. “Autoregulation by ‘Repetitions in Reserve’ Leads to Greater Improvements in Strength Over a 12-Week Training Program Than Fixed Loading.” Journal of strength and conditioning research. 2019 Apr.
Morán-Navarro R, et al. “Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure.” European journal of applied physiology. 2017 Dec 1;117:2387-99.Come hang with us!