Watch Apollo 13 enough and you’ll agree, “Failure is not an option.” Turn your eyes to pretty much any fitspiration video on YouTube and you’ll quickly change your mind. Visions of athletes being “hardcore” and pushing every set to complete failure, trashcan on hand for the near certain barf session, fill training videos. This video popularity consequently fuels the belief that if athletes aren’t pushing themselves to the absolute brink every set, they’re simply betas destined for subpar growth.

Turn off the movies and video and take notice of the actual scientific research behind strength and size progression, and a completely different story is told. For those of us looking to make an impact in our athletic careers, fortunately training programs rarely lend to either extreme, yet require a healthy balance of various intensities and programming strategies to maximize progress. Do those strategies require constant nausea from extreme training intensities, or never being able to unleash the beast in the gym for fear of overtraining? The answer requires several considerations, and man, are we glad you asked!

 

Failure vs. Fatigue Management

Athletes are recognizing the important balance of failure and fatigue management more and more. As that recognition increases, so does the question of whether it’s necessary to, or how often it’s beneficial to train to muscular failure in a program. Anyone that’s trained in that fashion knows hitting failure every set makes it increasingly harder to recover and push our selves as the training program continues. On the other hand, keep too much in the tank, and we leave the gym underwhelmed at our performance. If either extreme leaves us making supbar progress, then what the heck do we do? As with most questions, let’s turn to modern science to get a better insight.

 

The Science of Failure

Over the years, we as athletes have trained to failure (the point where a full repetition cannot be completed with proper form during a working set) with the idea that, by doing so, we ensure all incorporated muscle fibers are completely stimulated and fatigued. Providing enough stimuli that our muscles are sure to adapt and grow in response. Training to anything less, and we feared risking leaving progress on the table, and not reaching our athletic potential.

This rationale is logical enough, however like any scientifically minded athlete, we can’t rely on logic alone to make our decisions. Keeping an eye on current research can help us combine the logical approaches to training with the scientific findings to find the middle ground that can help us navigate the confusion and progress more effectively.

In recent years, research has continued to highlight similar results from periodized training in which complete failure isn’t reached to be just as effective as training to failure. This seems to be the case due to the higher training volume athletes are able to achieve on a week-to-week basis by training just shy of failure; thus better regulating their fatigue accumulation and allowing for more quality working sets. For example, a 2006 study led to a group of participants training shy of failure making very similar progress (during 11 weeks of training) in 1RM squats and bench press, along with repetitions performed with 75% of 1RM compared to participants training to complete failure. In this study, total volume was equal, and a combination of back squat, bench press, shoulder press and some isolation exercises we performed either to failure or just shy of failure. [1]

In another study among untrained women, participants performing training programs varying among 3-15 repetition sets, 4 days per week made significantly more strength and muscle size progress than those training 3 days per week with 1 set of 8-12 reps to complete failure. As many of you may notice, volume wasn’t equal in this study. The difference in volume can be likely extrapolated as one crucial factor in the improved progression in the higher volume group. By following a more periodized program, and training just shy of failure, participants were likely better physically and mentally recovered before each session. This would have lead to more total volume completion while still training at intensities sufficient to produce muscle strength and size. This study can help signify the benefits of not always training to failure in exchange for being able to complete more volume and come into each session fresher over the long run. [2]

Recently, a study published earlier this year showed no additional strength or size development in groups training to complete failure when compared to others training to just shy of failure, while competing the same amount of total training volume. Although the study didn’t directly measure this, it would stand to reason that the non-failure group would likely recover better, and require less de-load weeks throughout the year than those training to complete failure. If this were the case, it may mean greater long-term progression when not training to failure (or training to failure less often) by ensuring efficient recovery rates. [3]

Studies like these are continuing to support the idea of training with intensity, but learning to take working sets to very near, but not quite complete failure. In most situations, this means gaining more and more experience as to what complete failure actually is, and taking sets to 1-2 reps shy of that point. Finding that balance is admittedly a bit difficult at first, which brings me to another important consideration- how experience effects failure-based training.

 

The Caveat is Experience

So research is supporting that, generally, training just shy of failure can be just as effective for muscle development, while also supporting improved recovery. That’s great news for athletes that previously thought hitting failure constantly was the only option but constantly battle burn out and frequent de-loads or low volume training blocks to recover enough. However with one answer comes other questions; namely, the question of what “shy of failure” is, and how to determine that sweet spot. Just like a good wine, the ability to balance failure and fatigue tends to come with age.

Newer athletes often have a hard time determining what “complete failure” actually is. Many unfortunately begin overanalyzing failure vs. just shy of failure, which often leads to them stopping well short of failure and simply not training hard enough. It takes time to properly identify accurate self-assessments of various intensities when weight training. What may be initially felt as “I can’t do another rep” will later be “I’m just getting started.” As pain tolerance (within reason) is heightened and athletes get better at training in various intensities, knowledge of what true failure and just shy of failure is becomes clearer, and athletes are better able to identify when it’s best to, and when not to empty the tank.

For this reason, it’s normally a better bet to error on the side of failure than leaving reps in the tank if you’re a new athlete. The exception being barbells squats, bench press and deadlifts, which can create unique safety and neuromuscular issues, which I’ll cover later in this article. Aside from the big three, pushing each set is often a better strategy for younger athletes (~1 year or less training) in order to gain a better appreciation for how hard they can train and what capabilities are actually possible by learning to train with appropriate intensity.

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