Should You Lift to Failure?

Should you lift to failure? Is it more beneficial for your muscles? What is “failure”, anyway?

You’ll learn all that and more in this newsletter.


Original source: here.

What is “Failure”? 

To lift to “failure” means to lift a weight until you can’t lift it any more. Sounds like a simple definition, but it gets more complex, because there are different definitions of failure.

One definition is what’s called “technical failure.” That means that you lift until you can no longer lift with proper technique, but you could squeeze out a few more repetitions if you “cheat.”

Another definition is “concentric failure.” That means lifting to the point where you can’t lift the weight at all anymore, even if you cheat.

The last definition is “eccentric failure.” That means lifting to the point where not only can’t you lift the weight, you can no longer lower it either under control. So let’s say you’re doing biceps curls, and you’ve reached concentric failure. Your training partner helps you lift the weight, and you just do the lowering portion. At the point where you can no longer do the lowering portion under control, you’ve reached eccentric failure. Translation: your muscle is toast.

Should You Lift to Failure? 

By now, you know my motto: it depends. What does it depend on? A number of factors:

Your Goal

If your goal is to build muscle, and you’re training a muscle once a week (you’re doing traditional body part splits, like chest/back, arms/shoulders, legs/abs), you need to dig yourself into enough of a hole so that in your next workout, you recover to a level higher than where you were in your last workout. To do that, you may need to go to failure.

If your goal is to build muscle, but you’re working the same muscle group more frequently than once a week, then you may not need to go to failure. How do you know? If you can go to failure, and your performance continues to improve in subsequent workouts, keep it up. But if you go to failure, and your performance is either stagnant, or actually regressing, don’t go to failure. This will vary person-to-person.

If your goal is fat loss, chances are you’re working the same muscle group 2-4 times per week, in which case, it’s probably best not to go to failure. You do a few more reps, but you drastically slow down your recovery, without a proportionate increase in the results. So in my opinion, going to failure if your goal is fat loss isn’t worth it.

The Type of Exercise

With some exercises, there is a high risk of injury if your technique deteriorates. For example, deadlifts, squats, the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean and jerk), and others. With these exercises, you definitely should not go to failure.

With other exercises, there’s no risk of injury if your technique deteriorates. For example, triceps pushdowns, squats (when you get tired, you just start to limit the range of motion), etc. With these exercises, it’s fine to go to failure. 

The Type of Failure

As you read earlier, there are 3 types of failure:

  • Technical failure
  • Concentric failure
  • Eccentric failure

Each one happens as you get progressively more fatigued. Eccentric failure will drain you a lot more than technical failure. Likewise, it will take you much longer to recover from it. In my 9.5 years of personal training, I’ve only recommended going to eccentric failure once or twice. Although you should keep in mind who the majority of my clients are: men and women, between 45 and 65, looking to lose weight and have more energy. I seldom train bodybuilders or athletes (although a few of my clients do some sports recreationally, like golf and tennis). 

Your Recovery Capability

Different people recover from exercise at different speeds. If you can go to failure, and be recovered by your next workout (the way you know you’ve recovered is if you can exceed the performance of the previous workout), then by all means, go to failure. If you find that doing the extra 1-2 reps to get to failure dramatically slows down your recovery, you have to seriously consider whether the extra stimulation is worth the reduced training frequency.

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