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How To Use Muscle Failure To Stimulate More Muscle Growth?

Muscle failure! One of the all-time favorite growth techniques used for decades by all weight lifters. We all remember scenes from Pumping Iron where Arnold Schwarzenegger is training to failure and beyond despite the immense pain. On top of that we keep hearing that if you don’t train to failure that you’re not stimulating your muscles for growth properly (which is partially true). Today I decided to dive in to the topic of muscle failure and break down some of it’s benefits and negative side-effects both from my experience, studies and from the effects I’ve seen in other successful athletes. I’ll also be revealing how and when I personally train to muscle failure.

Reason behind writing this article was that for years I keep reading conflicting advice on this topic both from magazines, blogs, community websites, forums and even some personal trainers telling me 2-3 different ways they apply failure that totally contradict each other. Time to clean this mess up!

What Exactly Is Muscle Failure And Why Is it Such a Big Deal?

Basically muscle failure is when you reach a point in your set that you are unable to do any more repetitions, the muscle just doesn’t contract any more. What actually happens is that from the start of the set till the end you are recruiting muscle motor units as the repetitions go on, on that last repetition at muscle failure you are actually recruiting the maximum motor units and specifically you stimulate the fast twitch fibers.

Training To Failure benefits

Awesome Benefits of Muscle Failure

Even without knowing this trainees and trainers have soon noticed a lot of benefits with training to failure and this type of training has been around for ages. It’s one of the best ways ways to stimulate maximum hypertrophy and it’s pretty much applicable to any exercise or workout routine. No matter what kind of workout routine you’re on, which exercise you’re doing, rep-range, weight or type of exercise you can always go to failure. This makes it one of the most commonly used tools in the gym, any gym you enter you’ll see at least 2-3 guys yelling at each other “push it, you can do it, try harder” 🙂

The most frequent use of failure is on Bench Press where even beginners use this tool to make rapid gains, you’ll see most of them training even past failure with a help of a spotter.

Related studies

Training Leading to Repetition Failure Enhances Bench Press Strength Gains in Elite Junior Atheletes

Negative Side-effects of Training to Failure

It does sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? 🙂 Well yea, training to failure has it’s drawbacks and they are not so nice. Sets where you train to failure are extremely taxing on the body, not only the target muscle group but the entire CNS (Central Nervous system) gets affected. If used incorrectly Training to failure inhibits both short term and long term recovery, this means it can hinder your growth massively if you don’t know how to incorporate this tool in your workout routine.

Related studies:
Concurrent endurance and strength training not to failure optimizes performance gains

Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains

How to Use Muscle Failure Correctly To Shock Muscles Into Growth?

As you’re read above failure is a really good tool if used properly so I want to share some guidelines with you guys how I’ve used it successfully over the years.

Biggest Mistake I’ve Seen People Using Training To Failure

This one is huge, I see it all the time in gyms around the world. Guys would warm up nicely, start putting on the weights and start going to failure on the first and second set which then causes so much fatigue that it limits the TOTAL volume of the others sets both for that exercise and all the exercise after that, limiting the total volume of the entire workout!

For example lets say you can do a maximum of 5 reps with a 100 kg (220 lbs) on bench press, if you put that in a 3-set rep scheme: 1st set is 6-10, 2nd set is 5-8 and on the last set you do 3-5 reps. You put 80 kg (176 lbs) on the first set which fits in your rep scheme and you go to failure on that set which I see in most gyms, that’s 10-11 reps and you’ve went all out to reach that. What actually happens now is that your 2nd and 3rd set of the ENTIRE exercise suffers so overall your total volume for bench press on the first exercise is lower due to having failure on the first set. I see this happen EVERY time, especially with groups of guys flocking around the bench press and cheering for each other to lift more than they can handle.

Secondly if you use failure on the first exercise even in the last set if the next exercise targets the same muscle group now that 2nd exercise suffers from overly fatigued muscles. Again total volume in the set and workout is suffering.

Total volume is one of the biggest simulators of growth and it’s extremely important for natural athletes. If you are going to use failure you have to place it strategically in your sets so you get both the benefits of failure and the higher volume.

Best Time to Train to Muscle Failure REVEALED!

Basically what you need to do is hold off from going to failure except on the last set of the exercise, this means stopping the sets 1-2 reps before failure. Not only will this improve your recovery between sets it will allow you to hit that overall volume to get the maximum benefits.

One other thing which I personally use is I would go to failure only on those cross-over exercises which after I don’t have another exercise targeting exactly the same muscle group. For example if I’m doing flat barbell bench press and my exercise after that is an Incline press I won’t go to failure on the first exercise because I know that will destroy the volume of my 2nd exercise. However if after the Incline presses I have Cable cross or Flyes I will go to failure on the last set of presses or on the last 2 sets of presses as Cable cross or Flyes won’t suffer if my triceps or shoulders are fatigued, plus the assistance exercises are easier to recover from than big compound lifts.

So to summarize is basically use failure when it’s not gonna interfere with the total volume of the workout!

Why People Fail at This? – Ego Issues

Yep, ego is holding you back from your full potential even on this. You have to realize that the cumulative work load of the entire workout is more important than taking that one single set to absolute failure. You’ll hear this a lot in the gym “If you haven’t given all you go on that one set it doesn’t count as a set”. Tell me please How the f doesn’t it count.. What happened with those 8 reps out of 10, they just disappeared? I really hope you get my point and this helps you get better results.

Very often in the gym it comes down to working smart vs. letting your emotions control you, every set serves a purpose and you should be programming your workouts to get the maximum benefits of tools like muscle failure without sacrificing other aspects of your workout.

Thanks for reading, if you have any questions about this topic or any other topic for that matter leave a comment below!

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  • Jonathan DeCollibus

    100% agree man. Training to failure is a great tool to stimulate amazing growth. That’s how I grew my shoulders out a few years ago.