What is Training to Failure?

The phrase “training to failure” is used often, but not very precisely.  When you are trying to maximize...

The phrase “train to failure” is used often, but not very precisely.  When you are trying to maximize every set, it’s important to know the desired outcome you have.  This allows for consistency and overall better results. If you nearly gauge the level of failure by your perceived level of fatigue, it will be extremely variable depending on the exercise, your energy that day, nutrition status etc.  

It also makes it very difficult for coaches to prescribe a training level based on your perceived level exhaustion.  

A better way is to have a set of principles that outline the process of training to failure.

Defining Terms of Failure

Positive Failure

Defined as the the last rep you can complete before losing any execution or range of motion at the given weight you started with.  Execution includes tempo, so you must be able to control the speed of the weight, as well as controlling what muscles are doing the work.

When programming for tempo failure you simply go until you cannot maintain the prescribed tempo for that exercise. Whether that is not being able to hold an isometric in the short position for a full 1-2 seconds (depending on the exercise) or if the eccentric starts getting faster as they begin to fatigue and lose the ability to control it for the full duration (usually 3-4 seconds).

This is most often used in metabolic workouts and certain hypertrophy stimuli.

Complete/ROM Failure

Defined as pushing past the range of motion barrier to where you can no longer move the weight in the desired exercise even with some changes in tempo or loss of range of motion.  There is grey area into how much loss of execution is allotted for, but the only acceptable complete failure methods I suggest are loss of range of motion, and maybe a minimal amount of tempo or recruitment.

In other words, if you are doing a set of bicep curls, it is better to force some reps where you can not get the weight all the way up and just go back down and do a few more controlled partial reps than it is to swing the weight from the bottom and then drop it fast.  Losing some range of motion but still contracting the working muscle, and controlling it allows you to fatigue that working muscle further. Adding your hips and back into a bicep curl may increase the amount of mechanical damage due to more eccentric work but it also increases your risk of injury.

When programming for clients we will sometimes define a percentage range of motion failure.  For example, a 50% ROM failure on a leg extension would be when you can no longer get 1/2 way through the concentric portion of the rep.

This can be used in most metabolic and hypertrophy phases, depending on the stimulus you’re after and how good the execution of the individual is.

Eccentric Failure

This is not one that should be used very often, especially without a spotter or in a very safe exercise where you are less likely to injure yourself.

Eccentric failure takes you to the point where you can no longer concentrically move the load on your own and need assistance. You then control the eccentric portion of the rep on your own and repeat until you can no longer lower the weight under control.

For obvious reasons, there are certain exercises where this is a terrible idea (squats or leg press for example) because the risk of injury is so high.

This type of failure also creates a significant amount of mechanical damage so your training frequency will be much lower if you choose to progress to this for a short period.  You will not need multiple sets of this degree of failure for a given body part. Just one will do the trick.

Extended Failure

Defined as following the rules of positive failure, but repeating efforts without rest,  after decreasing the resistance. A classic example is a drop set. The form, and range of motion should not decline.  The resistance is just decreased once positive failure is reached, and then more reps are perfumed until positive failure is reached again.  There is not a limit on number of resistance drops you can use, but there is a point of diminishing returns where you reach a resistance that is too low to provide any physiological benefit.

It also depends on what the desired stimulus of the set is. Continuing to drop weight and perform reps will push you into an oxidative training stimulus. This is usually evident by a sudden increase in the number of reps you are able to perform at the reduced resistance relative to your first drop in weight. That is not always bad, but something to be aware of if that is not the goal of the workout.

Neurological Failure

Defined as the point where your nervous system performance and the intensity of your contractions begins to decline.  This is usually marked by a decrease in concentric speed as your sets progress. It is absolutely essential that execution of each rep is at its best when training for a neurological-focused goal.  If your execution or the speed of contractions begin to decline, chances are that you’ve tapped out your nervous system for that workout and further work may be counterproductive.

You are not always going to be training to failure, but it is important that each set you know how far you are going to take it when you do.  This leaves you mentally prepared, and physically because you will choose the correct amount of resistance, and get the correct number of reps every set.

For more tips on upgrading your training, be sure to check out the 400+ other articles and videos in the member’s area.

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