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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.

 FAILURE DEFINED 

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.

 STIMULATING GROWTH 

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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 WHY FAIL 

When you train to failure on a regular basis, it’s bound to mess with your recovery, and the consequences can be severe. Each rep that hits failure — and each cheat set you take beyond failure — sets you back more and more in terms of how much recovery time you’ll need after that particular workout. With that said, why would anyone want to train to failure?

IFBB Pro League athlete Stan Efferding goes to failure sporadically throughout his training year, usually at the end of his high-volume hypertrophy workouts. “I’m trying to get more blood to my muscles at the end of an exercise and stretch out the fascia [the protective sheath that coats muscle fibers],” he says. “My goal when training this way is to push as much weight as I possibly can in an hour.”

Training to failure builds mental toughness that can’t be achieved when you’re always training short of your limits. “Failure helps me discover what my limits are,” Efferding says. “With a program of progressive resistance, training to failure enables me to get to my limits, then push past them.”

IFBB pro Derik Farnsworth utilizes failure to fully fatigue his fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones most conducive to promoting effective growth. “I do it for overload,” he says. “I think the last set of an exercise should really knock me out, so training to failure helps me go all out, be economical with my workouts and not waste any sets.”

“I train to failure, because it gives the muscle a harder, more dense and well-developed look,” says IFBB pro Chris Cormier. “It brings out deep fibers that may otherwise be dormant.”

 HOW TO FAIL 

Next time you’re in the gym, take a look around and see how many people train to failure on every single set. According to our experts, consistently working failure into your program this way is a recipe for disaster. Applying the principle correctly, however, can stimulate gains beyond anything you’ve ever thought possible. Here’s what they suggest: train to failure on a movement only once every three weeks and take time to mentally recover in between workouts during which you go to failure in multiple movements. “The psychological part of this is why you have to keep your volume low,” says Dave Tate, legendary powerlifter and owner and CEO of Elite Fitness Systems. “That’s why, with programs like Doggcrapp and high-intensity training, the volume is so low. It’s also why, with programs like FST-7 [fascia stretch training], which have much higher volume levels, most sets won’t go to failure.”

BEWARE OF FATIGUE 

“Too much of anything will give you problems,” says Cormier. “I give myself a period where I’m pressing the issue, and then I’ll back off for a period of time to recuperate.”

FIND THE RANGE 

Train to failure only on sets within the 8- to 20-rep range. “Going to failure with anything less than this is not the best way to train for muscle growth,” Efferding states.

FAIL AT THE END 

Choose one exercise per bodypart, and then train to failure for the last one or two sets for that bodypart.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS 

It’s OK to cheat on the last rep of a movement if you have to, but failure should be considered the point at which you can’t do another rep of an exercise with proper form.

 

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 EXERCISE SELECTION 

Here is where you’ll find the most room for debate. Can any exercise be taken to failure? What’s best for the purpose — machines or compound, multijoint lifts performed with free weights?

ADVANTAGES OF TRAINING TO FAILURE WITH MACHINES

  • Exhausting your muscles with machine lifts allows you to train to “true” failure as previously defined — the point where your form breaks down.
  • With machines, you’re locked into a movement pattern or groove that doesn’t allow you to cheat — and doesn’t permit breakdowns in technique — so when you’re done, you know you’ve reached true failure.
  • Machines help you more efficiently get blood into your muscles when training to failure, because you’re isolating a specific muscle and concentrating solely on working through a lactic-acid burn.
  • There’s less of a psychological aspect to machine failure, because machine lifts are generally accessory lifts that don’t require significant amounts of mental preparation to perform. You don’t have to psych yourself up to do, say, lat pulldowns or cable crossovers the same way you would before you bench or squat.

ADVANTAGES OF TRAINING TO FAILURE WITH COMPOUND LIFTS

  • Compound, multijoint lifts — the bench press, squat and deadlift — give you the best bang for your buck in terms of the amount of muscle fibers you’ll be able to stimulate within the constraints of a set.
  • Training to failure with compound lifts builds mental toughness that you won’t get from machines or isolation movements. “People want to go into the gym and do the little pansy exercises,” says Farnsworth, “but the only way to get there is through compound moves.”
  • Studies have shown that selectively training to failure during compound lifts can increase overall muscular strength across all lifts.

 

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 SAMPLE FAILURE CHEST WORKOUT 

Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets, 8-12 reps

Bench Presses: 3 sets, 8-12 reps

Incline Dumbbell Bench Presses: 3 sets, 8-12 reps

Decline Dumbbell Bench Presses: 3 sets, 8-12 reps*

*perform last set to failure

 SAMPLE FAILURE BACK WORKOUT 

Lat Pulldowns3 sets, 8-12 reps

T-bar Rows3 sets, 8-12 reps

Barbell Rows3 sets, 8-12 reps

Hammer Strength Pulldowns3 sets, 8-12 reps*

*perform last set to failure

 SAMPLE FAILURE LEGS WORKOUT 

Squats3 sets, 8-12 reps

Barbell Lunges3 sets, 8-12 reps

Hamstring Curls3 sets, 8-12 reps

Extensions3 sets, 8-12 reps*

*perform last set to failure

FLEX