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Training to Failure

Failure isn't something people usually try to achieve, but for some bodybuilders, it's a way of life. Now before anyone takes that personally, let me explain.

Many bodybuilders will perform a certain exercise, say bicep curls, until the muscle fails. The idea is that by pushing the muscle until it fails, they force the muscle to adapt to the stress and grow. The more a muscle is pushed, the more it grows. Pushing to failure is the ultimate push.

To better understand training to failure, you first have to learn about the three types of muscle failure. Concentric (muscle shortening), eccentric (muscle lengthening) and static/isometric (the muscle is contracting, but there is no change in the joint angle). Here's how they apply in a workout.

Concentric Failure is when you can't complete the positive part of the lift using proper form. In a bicep curl, that would be when you're curling the weight up. For the purposes of this article, when I use the term "training to failure," I am talking about concentric failure.

Eccentric Failure is when you can't maintain proper form or control on the negative part of the lift. In a bicep curl, that would be when you're curling the weight back down.

Static/Isometric Failure is when you are incapable of holding the weight in place.

One of the first major proponents of training to failure was Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus weight training equipment. He promoted the idea that you should do one set of each exercise per session, done to failure. Many people followed that program and saw results, but not necessarily for the reasons Mr. Jones claimed.

Some of those people who saw gains were beginners just starting a workout program on the new Nautilus equipment. If you're a beginner just starting to workout, it's almost guaranteed you will make short-term gains on almost any training program that doesn't injure you.

There is also a large percentage of people who workout exactly the same way, using the same equipment, in the same order, at the same intensity, for months or even years on end. Any time someone like that changes their program, they tend to see some progress. When Nautilus equipment was introduced in gyms around the country, scores of people started changing their workout routines for the first time in years and naturally saw positive results.

That doesn't mean the results came because of training to failure; it was just a case of muscles being stimulated in new ways.

So do you have to train your muscles to failure on every set to see results? No, and scientists have now proven it.

Researchers in Spain studied 42 men training over a period of 16 weeks. One group was training to failure on all their working sets and the other didn't train to failure on any of them. At the end of the study, both groups had similar increases in strength and power. Still, the ones who trained to failure had lower levels of insulin-like growth factor-1, testosterone and elevated levels of cortisol compared to the group that didn't train to failure.

You read that right. Both groups saw similar increases in strength and power, but the group that trained to failure was at greater risk of overtraining as seen in the depressed levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 and testosterone.

But that doesn't mean you should never take a set to failure; there are at least two instances where it might be beneficial.

  1. Failure can be used as a gauge to find your baseline of intensity. Here's how it works. Let's say you regularly perform three sets of shoulder shrugs with 45-pound weights in each hand. The first set you do twelve, the second set you do twelve and then the third set you do until failure. If you get 25 reps out in that third set, it tells you that the first two sets weren't intense enough and you should either increase the weight or do more reps the next time you do that exercise.

  2. Use training to failure as a way to shake things up. If you're doing the same workout today that you did six months ago and you haven't seen any progress, you might consider a few weeks of training to failure to break through that plateau. But you must stop your set once you reach that point of failure. If you try and push beyond by cheating or not using proper form, you're just asking for injury.

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Updated 7/31/2010