Is training to failure necessary?

By Marwan / July 9, 2014

And I am back again with a controversial article called “is training to failure necessary“?

There are two different types of training to failure. First there is Momentary Muscular Failure secondly there is Complete Muscular Failure, like not being able to lift your arm or unable to walk normally where you typically do so many sets of bicep curls that you cannot do another set.

Let me outline something before we start.  In order for your muscles to grow you must put them under enough stimulus in terms of volume and weight (volume being reps, sets) and break down the fibers so that the body rebuilds new fibers to protect itself from being exposed to such extremes again.

That does not mean training until Complete Muscular Failure.  Examples of Complete Muscular Failure include using methods over and above what you have already done, lots of forced reps, lots of eccentric reps, strip sets, rest pause methods, cheat reps you name it.

You can reach Momentary Muscular Failure when you can no longer do a rep in a controlled manner but when you rest for a short period of time while your ATP system is replenished you are able to once more complete more reps.

Training to Complete Muscular Failure is pretty similar but you are no longer able to lift the same weight or lesser one for any reps.

Training until muscular failure DURING a set is something else.  If your programme stipulates 4 sets of 10 reps then the most optimal way is select a weight based on the tempo and number of reps and try and hit failure at 10 reps with good form ideally in each set.  If you find the weight too easy and you are likely to do more than the outlined number of reps then slow down the tempo and squeeze, squeeze the muscle like it owes you money!

This might sound like failure, but you can plan phases of heavy lifting, so a 4 week programme would look like this, 1 week of hitting goal reps with optimal form, no forced reps or missed reps, second week increase volume slightly and try to hit goal reps, keep forced reps to minumum, then in the third week you can really go for it and try and set some PB and really hit failure.  On the fourth week is when you reduce the volume and go heavier than you went in the first week whilst hitting goal reps.

For you guys eager to do more you can do a strip set on the last set, drop the weight  by 20% and perform the required number of reps with that weight.

There are 3 types of muscle contractions of which we have one type of muscular failure associated with each. We know when we lower the weight it’s called Eccentric, the action of shortening the muscle. Eccentric contractions can be as much as 75% stronger than concentric contraction.  The average lies between 25-40% greater.

Secondly we have concentric whereby the muscle lengthens, the action of pushing the weight away from you.

Thirdly we have Isometric contraction, whereby you perform a bicep curl and hold the weight at the top psition for X amount of seconds.  This contraction tends to be 10-15% stronger than concentric contractions.

As we have one type of failure associated with each contraction it is called failure if the following situation arises; one is unable to lift the weight up (concentric), unable to bring the weight down at a given tempo so if the tempo is 3 seconds down and you can only bring it down for 1 second this is perceived as failure.  When one is unable to hold the weight at any point in the range of motion this is isometric failure.

So 3 types of contractions and 3 types of failure.

Failure occurs when the muscles are unable to generate enough strength to control the weight.  It is in situations like this your chances of injury increase.

Let us go a bit deeper and understand how muscles are recruited to be able to answer this question fully…

Muscle fibres have 2 recruitment patterns:

  • Innervate units that recruit the same fibres but at different times so some rest while others work
  • More fatigue resistant fibres are recruited before fibres that are more rapidly fatigued

Type 2b fibres are the more resilient fibres so once these fibres have been fatigued you will no longer be able to lift, and it is also these type 2 fibres which have the most potential for growth. This is strong evidence that training to failure is obviously a requirement to achieve growth.

It is well known that Time Under Tension or TUT causes the muscles to grow.  The more tension the muscles are put under the more they microtrauma is incurred which causes a growth stimulus.  Whilst this gives strong evidence that the muscles must be subjected to failure in order to grow HOWEVER when it comes to Central Nervous System training this is NOT the most efficient way and I will explain why..
The human nervous system comprises of 2 parts, the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS).  The central nervous system functions by sending electrical impulses through your nerves to the designated motor unit.  The signal cannot be sustained for a long period of time with speed and power for optimum frequency.  The signal will become inhibited and eventually you will exhaust all the firing patterns that the body is able to fire.

What does this mean? Your brain like anything will get tired and eventually it will not be able to send the signal to the muscles fibres to fire, this will result in poor form and leaving you more exposed to being injured.   When the signal cannot get to the muscles they cannot contract and when they cannot contract you are no longer growing my friends.

You are more likely to get injured acute and chronic – training to failure results in oxygen deprivation to the muscles.  Also terminating the set in mid-rep results in soft tissue injuries.  If you have been doing this in the past please stop now before you do yourself an injury.  Count yourself lucky that you haven’t had one yet

Overtraining potential increases – You are most likely to over tax the central nervous system which will lead to overtraining.  Overtraining causes you to take time off to recharge your mental and physical state which will mean less training.  As you know from my previous articles that in order to grow both the muscles and the nervous systems need to have recovered in order to grow.

Regular failed attempts lead to a reduction in a lowering of the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) excitation threshold – what this means is whenever you do a rep or a lift that is beyond what the body is used to it will excite the Gogli Tendon Organ whilst missed lifts will lower it.  To be more simple the more you miss the more you are likely to miss in the future.

So to answer the question is training to failure necessary?

No it isn’t.  Not every time.  Muscular failure in all 3 forms is not needed.  What is needed is good form, continuous training and planned overreaching phases blend this will good diet and rest and you are good to go.  The only people that are able to grow whilst training like this are guys who are unnatural, so if you have been doing this kind of training take my advice and stop now.


More is not better!

About the author


Hi, my name is Marwan and I set up this site to help skinny guys and girls just like you to end their frustrations and have the body of their dreams. I believe there are no limitations to what mankind can achieve.