In your books, you talk a lot about training to failure, but I’m having a tough time figuring out exactly what failure is for me. Is it when I can’t lift the weight for one more rep, or is it when I can’t use my muscles at all, even with assistance? Please explain. 


Some of us who have been in this sport for a while may take the phrase “training to failure” for granted. In reality, it’s a term used rather loosely to describe several different points along the scale of muscular exhaustion while performing an exercise. I’ll break it down for you. 

When I did an exercise such as a Nautilus incline bench press, and I chose a weight that allowed me to perform only eight reps, those reps would be all out and in good form. By the end of the eight, I was spent, not able to perform even one more rep on my own. This is called positive failure

If you’ve seen photos or videos of me training, you’ll notice that I usually worked out with a partner. Although I usually trained to positive failure each workout, there were often times I wanted to go beyond failure, which refers to the point in a set when you can no longer perform a repetition without a spotter’s assistance. At this point, your spotter will help you complete an extra rep or two by reducing some of the resistance. 

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During a Nautilus bench press, my spotter would pull on the handles of the machine just enough to enable me to get the weight back up to the top of the movement. From there, I could lower it on my own. The lowering of the weight is referred to as the negative part of the movement and, as you guessed, it is easier to lower a weight through the negative portion than it is to raise it. 

Jay Cutler spotting Phil Heath doing a cable pull down exercise

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After one or two forced reps, I reached what is referred to as total failure. At this point, I no longer had the strength to raise or lower the weight. My muscles were totally spent. This is sometimes referred to as negative failure, because this is a point at which you no longer have the strength to lower the weight without assistance. 

A word of caution: I don’t recommend going past failure to anyone except the most advanced trainers. Even then, I suggest they keep such a technique to a minimum as it taxes not just the muscles, but the entire nervous system to a high degree. In fact, I believe that repeatedly training beyond failure will make a bodybuilder susceptible to injury and muscle tears.

Even training to failure is a technique that you need to employ judiciously. For most trainers, I recommend stopping just short of failure (by one or two reps) most of the time and attempting to reach failure every third or fourth cycle of your routine for a particular bodypart. 

When used wisely, training to failure can help you succeed in bodybuilding. Misuse this advanced training technique, however, and you’ll soon discover that its name will apply to your personal bodybuilding pursuits.

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