Muscle for life

How Training to Failure Can Help You Build More Muscle (And How It Can Hinder It Too)

How Training to Failure Can Help You Build More Muscle (And How It Can Hinder It Too)

Many people think you’re not training if you’re not training to failure…but it’s not that simple.


You know the guys:

DO YOU EVEN LIFT stringers…Waffen-SS haircuts…Oompa Loompa tans…hell, lip gloss (yeah, I’ve seen it)…barking “ONE MORE REP!!!” and lifting bars off each other when they finally run out of juice (get it?)…

We might think they look ridiculous, but maybe the joke’s on us? Maybe training to failure is the secret to gains? (Or is it the lip gloss or horrible taste in clothing?)

Well, like optimal rep ranges and training frequency, the subject of whether to train to failure (the point at which you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set) or not is a contentious one.

Experts disagree left and right, legit-sounding scientific arguments can be made for a variety of positions, and many people report success with many different approaches.

Looking around the gym won’t help you either.

You’ll find some bodybuilders and powerlifters training to failure regularly while others seem to rarely push themselves to that limit.

Well, in this article, I’m going to discuss some scientific research that lends insight on the matter as well as what I’ve learned through my experiences in my own training and with the thousands of people I’ve worked with.

The Theory of Training to Failure

The logic of training to failure usually goes like this:

As progressive overload is the primary drive of muscle growth, if you don’t take each set to failure, you’re not telling your muscles to grow. You’re telling them they’re strong enough to handle the load. If you want to tell them to grow, you need to push them to do what they can’t…i.e. to the point of failure.

This line of thinking seems sound, but plenty of elite powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and bodybuilders rarely train to failure and they’re huge and strong. What gives?

I hate to sound cynical, but you have to remember how much drug use occurs in those sports, and steroids change everything. You can build large amounts of muscle following training programs that would be quite ineffective for natural weightlifters.

Some people will point to “pre-steroid” bodybuilders like Reg Park, Steve Reeves, and John Grimek, who didn’t train to failure regularly, but I don’t think we can be so sure they were drug-free. Testosterone was first synthesized in 1935 and was being using in Olympic weightlifting circles in the 50s, and those early bodybuilding legends were carrying quite a bit more lean mass than a natural weightlifter should be able to build.

So, if we can’t draw any meaningful conclusions on training to failure from what we see among the best weightlifters, maybe scientific research can help?

The Science of Training to Failure

You can find plenty of studies that claim to involve training to failure, but in many cases researchers didn’t determine if failure was truly achieved, and there’s a dearth of research involved volume-matched training protocols. That is, it’s hard to find studies that have two groups do the same exercises and number of sets, with one group training to true failure in those sets and the other not.

That said, there are three studies I know of that meet this criterion.

Training to Failure Versus Not…Which is More Effective?

The first study was conducted by researchers at the University of Tsukuba (Japan), and it investigated the effects of training to failure on a few exercises performed in the 10RM range: the Lat Pulldown, Shoulder Press, and Knee Extension.

One group of subjects followed a straightforward protocol of doing a set, reaching the point of muscular failure, resting 60 seconds, and doing another. The other group did half of a set, not reaching the point of muscular failure, rested 30 seconds, and then finished the second half, again not reaching the point of muscular failure.

Both groups did the same number of sets and reps, but the group that achieved muscular failure each set built more muscle than the group that didn’t. Scientists weren’t sure why, but their research indicated that muscular failure is an important factor in hypertrophy.

The second study was conducted by researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport. Elite basketball and soccer players did Bench Press training three times per week for six weeks, performing a total of 24 repetitions, with one group performing 4 sets of 6 reps to failure (100 to 105% of 6RM) and the other 8 sets of 3 reps not to failure (with no less than 60% of 6RM).

The result? The group that trained to failure gained about 5% more strength and power than the group that didn’t.

The final study to review was conducted by researchers at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School (UK), and it had subjects performing isometric leg contractions with one group following a protocol of shorter contractions (less fatigue) and the other longer (more fatigue).

The result was the group performing longer contractions built more muscle than the short-contraction group. While I feel this study is worth mentioning for the purpose of discussing training to failure, this type of research is often used to sell people on “super-slow training,” which is not more effective than traditional rep tempos.

The evidence is limited, but it does indicate that training to failure is superior for building strength and size.

That said, I actually don’t recommend that you train to failure every set, every workout…

The Benefits and Risks of Training to Failure

Training to failure seems to have benefits in terms of building muscle and strength, but that doesn’t mean we should always train to failure every set of every workout.

The biggest risk is the fact that training to failure often leads to a breakdown in form, especially in higher rep ranges, which increases the risk of injury.

One of the reasons this occurs is because as our muscles become fatigued, we lose the ability to accurately feel what we’re doing with our bodies. We think we’re keeping our form in, but we’re not.

This is especially true in the case of certain exercises like the Deadlift, Squat, and Military Press, which are very hard to do properly when pushed to the point of absolute failure. Your last couple of reps often get sloppy, and it doesn’t take much to tweak a muscle or joint.

 The other notable risk is the fact that the more you train to failure, the more likely you are to overtrain.

Research shows that training to failure causes marked amounts of muscle damage and neuromuscular stress that can, over time, reduce the effectiveness of training or even cause muscle shrinkage. This can be managed with proper deloading, however, which involves reducing training intensity for periods of time.

My Recommendations on Training to Failure

The science is clear: we should be training to failure, but not so much that we risk injury and overtrain. Exactly how much that amounts to will vary from person to person, however.

Personally, I never train to failure for more than 2 to 3 sets per workout, and never on the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, or Military Press as this can be dangerous. Furthermore, I don’t recommend you train to failure when you’re using very heavy loads (1 to 4 rep range).

If you’re following my Bigger Leaner Stronger program, which focuses on the 4 to 6 rep range, you can include some training to failure (but I still don’t recommend more than 2 to 3 sets to failure per workout).

The majority of your sets should be taken to the rep preceding failure (the last rep you can perform without assistance).  If you’re new to weightlifting, finding this point will be tricky, but as you get used to your body and your lifts, you’ll get a feel for it.

Training to Failure Doesn’t Replace Intensity

Many guys mistakenly think that lighter, higher-rep training is equally effective to heavier, lower-rep training if sets are taken to failure.

This simply isn’t true.

Training to failure doesn’t override what researchers call the “strength-endurance-continuum”, which explains why natural weightlifters must emphasize heavy, compound weightlifting to achieve optimal strength and muscle gains.

If you want to read more about this, check out my article on the science of muscle hypertrophy.

What are your thoughts on training to failure? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Jeremy Witkowski

    I am often able to complete one more rep on bench press or military press with just a small amount of assistance from a spotter to keep momentum. Is this training to failure or do you mean the point at which your muscles have almost nothing left?

    • Michael Matthews

      That’s the rep before failure. 🙂 Failure is when the weight starts moving backward, haha.

      • Jeremy Witkowski

        That makes a lot more sense. Here I thought you were telling me to be a slacker in the gym haha. By the way, THANK YOU for your new book! I’ve gained 20 lbs on bench press, 40 lbs. on deadlift, 15 lbs. on military press, and 30 lbs. on squat over the last 8 weeks. I didn’t think I could make steady gains like that anymore but am glad to be wrong!

        • Michael Matthews

          Haha no laziness allowed. 🙂

          That’s amazing man! Really glad to hear it. Keep up the good work and keep me posted!

          P.S. Would you mind taking a minute to write a blurb about the book where you bought it (Amazon, Apple, etc.)? You don’t have to write much if you don’t want to and I’d really appreciate it. 🙂

  • ben

    Its definitely a fine line between pushing yourself to complete a set and training to absolute failure. Personally I think training to failure on deadlifts and military press are the most dangerous. The other lifts should be ok if you’re in a squat rack or have a spotter

    • Michael Matthews

      Deads and MP are definitely a no-no. Squats aren’t a good idea either if you can avoid it.

  • Sven

    My two cents: Personally I like to train to absolute failure on certain exercises. I dont really see how you can go the progressive overload road without seeing what your point of muscle failure is. Unlike your advice Mike I do Bench Press and Military Press to the point of failure. BUT! and here is the big BUT – I use a Smith machine. Mike is totally right in doing those exercises to failure without a spotter is highly dangerous. With a Smith machine you can really go to the point of failure because even not being able to lift as high as would be needed to rest the bar, will not make you rest the bar on your body but just on a lower part of the Smith machine. Maybe I am wrong but as a result I dont train Bench Press and Military with free barbells. Sorry to ramble. Out.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for sharing brother. I RARELY go to absolute failure on the big lifts and it’s really only by accident (I think I can get another and I’m wrong), and yes I have a spotter.

      Smith Machine just doesn’t build muscle like free weights. I think you’d see better results by switching and not going to failure so often.

      • Thanks for the info Mike. BTW – I truly enjoy your podcasts.
        Its coming up to the time where I should alter my routine a bit again. I ll keep your advice in mind. Another thing: can I PM you anyway? I have a question that has no place openely. Dont worry. Nothing weird 🙂

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  • Jamie

    I’ve seen more gains performing all compound exercises to failure. I never perform these exercises without a reliable spotter who knows what there doing.

    • Michael Matthews

      Keep up the good work brother.

  • Al

    I’m following the Stronglifts programme which pretty much guarantees you train to failure 3 times in a row on deadlift squat and press before deloading. Would you recommend avoiding this programme for these reasons?

    • Michael Matthews

      Stronglifts has plenty of success stories to prove its value BUT many people do run into overtraining issues when they try to progress up in weight as frequently as they’re supposed to.

  • rob

    you don’t need to train to failure to get results, however its all about recovery, including proper nutrition, Your body changes while recovering, not while doing the workout. Studies can be so manipulated and there are way to many variables that aren’t taken into consideration. if you do train to failure. I wouldn’t recommend more than 1x per week. Following a good periodized progam is the easiest and best route as suggested by the NSCA and used by all great strength coaches. It seems like people like to make things more complicated than they really are when it comes to getting results. good topic of discussion though. you always have good things to think about.

    • Michael Matthews

      Very true. Thanks for the comment!

  • George Flay

    I agree with this philosophy. I do have a question/ issue. I recently strained my back doing RDL ‘s . I have rested and thought I was out of the woods. About a week after I was deadlifting and felt strong and in the clear and on my last rep I tweaked it again. I was not pushing to failure, I was trying to play it safe, I backed off 20lbs from my previous weight which was not my 1rm but my all time high for three sets of 6. Should I take more time off from these two moves or should I back the weight off more to gain confidence? I really don’t like skipping sets or days.

    • Michael Matthews

      Arg I’m sorry to hear that. Hate back tweaks.

      Yeah lay off movements that aggravate it and do mobility work for the area. Annoying, I know, but necessary.

  • Loren

    Hi Mike- another great article. Can you please expand on the issue of tempo when performing reps? I’ve finished Chad Waterbury’s Huge in a Hurry and he seems to agree with most of the concepts you support, like heavy weights and compound exercises, but he really emphasizes SPEED when performing reps, which “recruits the most muscle fibers to generate the most force”. As such, his workouts specify a total volume per exercise and he tells you to lift the weight as fast as you can with proper form until you hit failure. That is set 1 of your total volume. Does this approach have any merit? I feel like you’ve written an article on “slow training” but not the opposite. Would love to have an article from you on this point. Thanks!

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  • Jason Mitchell

    For doing an exercise like the bench press on a weight machine (flat chest press), do you think it’s safe to go to failure? Meaning, would it be beneficial to go until I can just barely push the bar forward all the way? In other words, should I stop at the last rep I can complete at normal speed or should I go until the last rep I can fully complete (which would be slower than the first few reps due to the fatigue)? I know training to failure would be a bit different in this case since the machine would basically force me to still use correct form.

    • Michael Matthews

      It’s safe but you don’t have to go to failure every set. The advice in this article still applies…

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  • Jay

    Amen to this article. I have gone through TLS, and recently decided to hop aboard the DailyBurn train and do Ben Booker’s Live to Fail program, which is based on the train to failure principles. First 6 weeks was 4 sets of 10-12 reps, second 6 weeks is 4 supersets with 12-15 reps. At first I was skeptical but I went through the program anyways. I am now on the final week, and I have definitely noticed increase in muscle mass and definition, especially in my upper body, but the weight I can lift has not changed significantly.
    One thing I can say is I definitely agree on NOT training to failure for compound lifts, I hurt my back trying to squat to failure, and I won’t be making that mistake again! However, I noticed that I got fantastic results doing the smaller isolation moves to failure. After a week’s rest I plan to go back to my 6-8 rep ranges and see what happens 🙂
    Thanks for the article.

    • Thanks Jay! I’m really glad to hear you’re doing well.

      Keep up the good work and keep me posted!

  • Steve Jakobs

    you don’t need to get stronger to get bigger, that simply is a fact. I know guys that have been doing the same weight for years in arm exercises, yet their arms are continually getting bigger. Going to failure is the only stimulus needed for growth. If you desire strength, then train a different way.

  • David Dietsch

    So on bench press on the 4 to 6 rep range. I give 90 percent effort? I leave the one last grueling shaky rep alone? But obviously still pushing yourself.

    • You do as many reps as you can do with proper form and without assistance. So, if you have the energy to do another rep do it. If you know you’re going to need help or use bad form to get the next rep, don’t do it.

  • For instance in the squat, I find I can’t do one more. But then I wonder if it’s all in my head and maybe I *could* do one more without assistance. Any thoughts on the all-in-my-head phenomenon? i.e. I’m not sure if I’m training to just before failure or if I could squeeze out another rep safely.

    So it’s okay to train to failure on the less dangerous exercises, such as dumbbell bench presses, lateral raises, face pulls, or cable crunches where I’m not at risk of being pinned under a bar or breaking my back?

    • That’s something that you’ll become more aware of as you train more and become more familiar with your limits. Regardless, I wouldn’t recommend pushing for that last rep that you’re not sure about on lifts like squat, deadlift, bench press or military press.

      Yep, it’s fine to do on those exercises 2-3 times per workout.

      LMK how it goes! Talk soon.

  • peter

    Hey mike!
    Today I hit failure on my skull crushers in the last set. Am I fine or will this negatively interfere with my recovery?

  • Salah El Mackawi

    If I decide to make two sets of biceps curls to failure.how much i suppose to rest between the sets?

  • Tyler

    Usually I do my compound lifts following a program(not to failure) but most of my accessory lifts I train to failure every set. For example for chest : bench 3×8, chest press 4×12 to failure each set, pec deck 3×12 to failure each set etc. Will this make slower gains?

  • sakib800

    Mike You should write an article about “grinding reps” where you get that last “shaky” rep in. Many natural powerlifters say to never grind reps and many people said they noticed improvements when they stopped grinding their reps.

    Also some other people claim instead of going to “Failure” you should go to “Technique failure” where you know you cannot get the next rep with proper form…and they tell you to avoid that…with the main goal keeping the reps smooth. so you can progress every workout.

    They claim grinding reps leads to not progressing in your workouts..

    • Hey! That’s a great suggestion. My general stance is that’s true on the big lifts, but for things like accessories (biceps curls, for instance), it’s less of a concern.

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