I’ve been recommending people train to failure for years.
It’s the only way to get 100% out of every set.
Nevertheless, I sometimes get asked…is it really necessary to go to failure in every set? Every single set?
Short answer – yes. If you want to produce real structural changes in muscle mass, yes you should train to failure in every single set (except for warming up).
A set not taken to failure is a warm-up set, as far as I am concerned. It might look good, but you’re getting nothing done. You’re stimulating nothing. It’s too easy and will not warrant an adaptive response by the body.
THE SCIENCE OF TRAINING TO FAILURE
I have laid out the science behind this in may previous articles. To summarize…
Training to failure:
- Maximizes muscle fiber recruitment (especially those type 2b ones we need for size gains)
- Maximizes metabolic stress
- Maximizes muscles fiber damage
…and all of the above factors correlate positively with protein synthesis (or growth rates in simple language).Training to failure causes an increase in all the growth factors responsible for protein synthesis rates Click To Tweet
It’s a no-brainer. You want your workout to be maximally effective in terms of stimulating growth? Then take each set to the last possible rep.
In addition to the above biological factors, I present studies in the free THT training manual showing the efficacy of training to failure – even if performing just one set!
In addition to the studies in THT training, here are 2 more we can look at to put a nail in the coffin of the “not-to-failure” argument.
This study  saw subjects bench press 3 times a week, one group going to failure and the other not-to-failure (the total reps/total volume being the same). The failure group experienced better increases in strength despite the total volume being equal.
“Bench press training that leads to repetition failure induces greater strength gains than nonfailure training in the bench press exercise for elite junior team sport athletes.”
Another study , again totalling the same number of reps and sets, saw the failure group gain more muscle.
The group doing straight reps to failure with no rest (the “no rest regimen”) experienced greater increases in 1 Rep Max, maximal isometric strength, and muscular endurance.
The failure group also showed a marked increase in muscle cross-sectional area, whereas the WR and CON groups did not. Bottom line: the failure group got bigger and stronger over 12 weeks. The other groups did not.Click here for 2 studies showing training to failure produces more #muscle growth Click To Tweet
FAILURE VS TOTAL VOLUME
I’m not going to repeat myself too much here because I wrote an in-depth article on the absurdity of the Total Volume argument here – please do read it and end any confusion you may have on the issue.
From that article…
This is NOT mathematics. It’s biology. Total Volume does not take precedence over Intensity.
There are biological factors occurring inside the muscle that just don’t happen if you don’t train to failure – fact.
THE LAST REP…
- That last rep is what is responsible for maximizing “metabolic stress”. And metabolic stress rates correlate positively with muscle hypertrophy/growth.
- That last rep will also maximize the recruitment of type 2b muscle fibers, the ones that are predominantly responsible for size gains.
- That last rep will help maximize muscle damage. This leads to inflammation, which leads to the release of growth factors that stimulate protein synthesis. Damage the muscle and stimulate the thickening of individual muscle fibers.
- The sheer stress and fatigue caused by those last reps is a form of “cellular disruption” that causes an increase in all the growth factors i.e those responsible for protein synthesis rates.
These are the biological markers of stimulating gains. The “total volume number” you write on a piece of paper at the end of your workout is not a marker of anything – though it may inflate your ego.
The only people saying that training to failure can result in overtraining are those people who don’t understand what overtraining is.
It has nothing to do with training to failure.
Overtraining = Under-recovering. That’s all.
If there is not enough rest between workouts to allow the body to produce the gains you stimulated in the gym, you’re overtraining.
So by doing too much too soon, you short-circuit your gains. Growth takes rest and time.
I call it the Peak Overcompensation Point (POP). Train before your body has had a chance to produce the gains stimulated in the gym and you’ll get nowhere.
Overtraining is absolutely not a result of taking your sets to failure. Please read my post here for more in this issue.
It depends on your goal. If you are training for hypertrophy/growth, you should always take a set to failure. There is never a good reason not to. Then get enough rest.
I’ve seen some terrible advice on the web. For example, perhaps the answer is not to have “lighter weeks” or “not-to-failure” sessions.
Why? Such sessions pointless. Your body simply needs rest. Not ‘not-to-failure’ workouts.
The real answer is to hit it hard. Then rest. Full, complete rest.
If you have any questions about training or diet, ask me below. If you need personalized 1-on-1 help from me, consider booking a consultation with me.
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Train With Intensity i.e. To Failure!
 Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May;19(2):382-8.
 The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jun;37(6):955-63.
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Intensity > Volume. But volume is still important once you are going to failure.
@Fred. That’s exactly right. It’s not Intensity without volume. It’s that intensity takes precedence over volume. Once the intensity is there, then volume/number of sets matters.
M big fan of your work. Just a question here, I read many times that training to failure everytime fries the central nervous system and hence all the sets should not be taken to failure.
I personally had record gains using THT, so I know how imp is training to failure but still want to understand this relationship between training to failure and CNS.
@Saurabh. It certainly does not. This is from my free THT book…
“But Doesn’t Failure “Fry your CNS”?
Don’t you just love it when a phrase is parroted around by people who don’t even know what it means? People that don’t like/want to train to failure pick this phrase up somewhere on their journey and regurgitate when it’s needed to defend their position.
While there is a lot that can be said on this issue, I can summarize it by simply saying that it’s rubbish. You can experience this type of burnout by OVERTRAINING, but taking a set to failure doesn’t “fry your central nervous system”. THT is a fairly low-volume, high intensity approach that works! You will not overtrain with THT.”
The question is how do you know you have fully recovered and grown before you do your next workout? Everyone recovers different, age, body type, diet, protein consumption etc. You might squat every 4 days and go up a few pounds or reps but if you gave it an extra day you might even do better.
Does the latest THT workouts mean the older versions are now defunct/obsolete? Are they worth holding onto to for future rotation for instance? Or you would view them as “no, don’t use them”.?
Thanks for the good work.
What are your thoughts on taking sets past failure (i.e. using a spotter or “cheating” after reaching failure)? Would it be too much to do that for every set?
@Ty. If you look at my POP diagram above. You know if you’ve overcompensated when you go to do the same workout and your performance improves (slightly more reps/weight over the workout).
If you do THT, this is all taken care of automatically.
@Jamie. They’re not useless by any means. But the latest is the most effective. But feel free to use earlier versions.
@Norman. Yes I got past failure sometimes. I write about these advanced techniques here https://musclehack.com/6-techniques-to-build-muscle-that-youve-never-heard-of/
Hey Marc, I was wondering what your thoughts are on ‘time under tension’ training. Ive been doing tht for 18 weeks; however, I feel like my strength levels have gone up so much that Im just ‘lifting weights’ using the tempo prescribed. What donyou think about 8 second reps w lighter weights?
Been reading your site for some time now, really good stuff! I have no workout partner or a spotter, over the years I have built my own gym in my home. Training to failure is not an option for me, and others who train alone, on many exercises. How would you handle my situation?
Mark, if you hit (say) 12 reps but haven’t reached failure do you keep going or stop there?
This is the NUMBER ONE!! problem in the gym. The guys are training ”hard” but there’s no intensity in their sets. They get to a certain rep range and stop and then hit another 6 sets of the same exercise!! They just don’t fricken get it!!!
I assume different people take different amounts of time to fully rest and recover, is there a way to calculate that time or a way to (or signs to) know when the body has completely rested and recovered?
mark in yr tht program there are very few sets for each exercise like fr forearms 1 sset etc but i have noticed that in internet max sets for each exercise is 3 or 4??. If i train 3 days a week with these workouts will my body grow rather than using 5 days of plan. Thank u
Appreciate such a detailed reply. Thanks a lot.
One more question is when we are cycling rep ranges in THT like 6-8 reps for weeks, then 10-12 reps for weeks, can’t we merge them in single workout and get benefits of strength and size gains simultaneously. Asking you this because, squatting heavy made my core really strong but because of some injury I had stopped heavy squatting for 2 months and did in 10-12 rep range and suffered from strength loss.
With all respect for your work :
Also, to add up here when all the folks are reading this content, I would like to mention that in my lifting experience of 3.5 years, I had the best gains using THT program. It might look simple in front of many fancy and advertised programs out there, but it nails it when comes to strength and size gains.
Mark, I did look at your POP diagram, only thing is under time you don’t state how many days or hours before you should do the next workout for full recovery and over compensation to take place.
@Michael Harnden. The best cadence is about 1 second for a positive and 2 seconds for a negative. The best rep range for growth with this cadence is 8-12 (to failure).
@Wayne. I train alone and I train to failure every set. You can buy something to rack the bar on for squats. Everything else is easy.
@Twitch. In that scenario, keep going until failure.
@Kyle Haupt. Yes, you are fully recovered/overcompensated when you can complete more reps and/or use more weight in your next session. That’s how you know. Please get the full THT manual and read to have all these issues cleared up for you.
@Siddhartha chowdhur. Yes. You are doing 2 sets, but you get 300% more frequency than the 5-day plan. Please read this post https://musclehack.com/is-3-days-really-enough-to-build-muscle/
and download the full THT manual.
@Saurabh. It makes more sense to stick with 1 rep range for 10 weeks as your strength and gains will continue upward in a straight linear fashion this way.
@Ty. Download and read the THT manual
I went back to my T.H.T material to re-read your definition of “training to failure”. I think I now understand what you mean. Somewhere I had gotten the idea that “training to failure” was needing a spot on your last one or two reps of each set. Yeah I feel stupid…