The Ins and Outs of Training to Failure

Train to failure for show-stopping gains.


Failure is your friend. Failure to understand failure, however, is another story — especially in terms of taking sets to failure in your workouts. There’s a way to do it right and there’s a way to do it wrong, and we’re willing to wager that most of you are all too familiar with the latter. If you’re part of this failing-to-fail-properly group, however, you’re in luck. On the following pages, we define training to failure once and for all — and show you, with some help from our experts, how, why and when to break out this time-tested technique for adding mass and building the physique you’re after.


Here’s what happens when you train to failure (the point at which your exercise form breaks down). 

  1. Intramuscular adenosine triphosphate begins to decline. Energy within cells is transported via ATP, so an ATP deficit will contribute greatly to muscular fatigue.
  2. Creatine phosphate concentrations deplete quickly at the beginning of a set, and since creatine powers the production of ATP, the energy stores in muscles can’t be replenished.
  3. Acid levels begin to build up in muscles. This interferes with muscular contraction, and it also further hinders the production of ATP.


Most of the studies involving training to failure have examined the technique’s effect on strength levels. The process by which failure stimulates growth, however, can be easily extrapolated from a simple examination of how muscle is built.

  • When actin-myosin cross-bridges (the machinery in muscles that causes them to contract) can’t be formed as muscles need them — they need ATP for this — the tension in the muscle fibers causes “tears” at the sites where the cross-bridges would have formed.
  • These tears, and the subsequent rebuilding of the muscle, stimulate the growth process in muscles.
  • Training to failure causes more of this microtrauma to muscle fibers in a shorter period of time; so, working muscles to failure theoretically stimulates more growth than stopping a set short of failure would.
  • Research also shows that GH levels are much higher after workouts taken to failure than in other forms of training. This is due to the buildup of fatigue-stimulated chemicals in muscle, such as lactic acid, and is also critical for stimulating muscle growth.


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