Exercise and Fitness

Training To Muscle Failure – Why And How To Do This

train to muscle failure
Written by Amy

Muscle failure, in relation to exercise and weight training, is when you can no longer perform a certain exercise as your muscles aren’t able to make one more rep. It’s not just that you’re tired and can’t do more, your body has to literally be unable to perform another rep, even if you try your hardest. Don’t worry, it’s a temporary failure. After a couple of minutes of rest, your muscles will be ready to go again, but at that moment, they’ve done as much as they can do. Fitness experts have varying opinions on training to muscle failure and its benefits. Some believe that it’s the most efficient way to train, while others think that it will lead to fatigue and overtraining. Like with everything, how well it works will vary from person to person.

Why Would You Train To Muscle Failure?

In order for your muscles to grow, you need to push them past their every-day limits. The things that they do all the time won’t cause hypertrophy (muscle growth) because your muscles are used to it. Our bodies are incredibly adaptive and will adjust to whatever we ask of them, whether that’s working harder of functioning with less calories. Change in your activities is the only thing that will create change in your body. So to grow muscles, you need to ask then to do more than they normally would. If you want them to grow faster, you get them to do more. So if you want them to grow as fast as possible, get them to do as much as they possibly can. Makes sense, right?

What Happens To Your Muscle During Failure Training?

train to failure

When you train a muscle group to failure, you use all of that muscle. Usually, the stronger, smaller muscle fibres are used in a lift. These help focus your training on one particular part of the body. However, when you train to failure, these small fibres fatigue and your larger, fast-twitching fibres step in to help out. This means that the entire muscle is working out. You’ll experience more strength development and hypertrophy when training in this way.

As your muscles tire, they start producing more lactic acid as a result of having less oxygen in the process that makes energy in your cells. This is what causes your muscles to cramp if you run too far and causes them to feel tired. It also, however, stimulates the production of intramuscular growth factors, so it also causes your muscles to grow. Training to failure, therefore, increases muscle mass and strength.

How To Train To Muscle Failure

Once you reach failure, although you do recover after a few minutes of rest, your body will still be tired. This applies to both the muscle group that you just worked and your body as a whole. The next set you do will have less reps until you’re done. You’ll also be going into the next exercise with central fatigue, so you may not get as much of a workout as you wanted. Keep the failure training to the last set of each exercise, rather than training each set to failure. This allows you to get through all of the exercises you wanted with good results, but still get the benefit of muscle failure training.

muscle failure arnold

Training to failure is hard. Not just because it’s tiring, but also because our bodies don’t want to fail. Psychologically, we want to feel like we did well, not that we didn’t manage. This is something that takes a good amount of mental control to overcome. Physically, our bodies want to protect themselves. Generally, they stop before they give out. This is great because it avoids injury and we still have some energy left for an emergency. So should the building go on fire or a tiger turn up, we can still run for it and survive. Convincing our muscles to fail takes some practice and dedication.

Arnold Schwarzanegar has said that it's the last few reps that count. Those are the ones that create success, when you keep going past the point that everyone else has given up. This is where the change happens.

Stay Safe

When training to muscle failure, it can be beneficial to have someone with you. Especially for lifts like bench press or squats. Being stuck under these lifts is not fun. I’ve done it on purpose with a lighter weight to see if I could get myself out of these situations. Luckily, I’m small enough and flexible enough that for squats, if I couldn’t make it I can just drop all the way to the floor with good form and the bumpers will take the bar from me. However, with bench press, you have to set the bar and weights down on your chest. You then roll it across your stomach to your legs until you can get into a position to get it off you. I did not like this one bit. I would definitely have someone around for bench press to failure.

The other exercises that might be risky are pressing dumbbells above your head. If you fail near the top, these may fall on you or even on your face. The safest thing to do is to take a training buddy when you decide to do your failure day. Ideally someone who knows how to rescue you.

Alternatives To Training To Complete Failure

If you’re not quite getting the results that you want from training to muscle failure or you don’t feel confident doing it without risking injury, you can try doing forced reps or drop sets instead.

drop set failure training

Forced reps is where you’ve gone past what you can manage, but you do a few more with someone helping you. They take just enough of the weight that you can make it through the motion. Drop sets is something that I experienced for the first time just recently. Wow does it tire you out! You start with a certain weight, do as many as you can then drop the weight and keep going, dropping the weight periodically as you reach your limit. These are great ways to get the same benefits as muscle failure, but they also cause more central fatigue and stress. So you need to make sure that you eat enough to recover and get a good amount of rest.

Recovering From Training To Muscle Failure

Once you’ve done a train to failure session, make sure that you then take adequate rest. Get plenty of sleep and eat some good food to help your body recover. For the muscle growth, a Men’s Health article advises working a muscle group to failure can be done once or twice a week. As long as you have at least 48 hours of rest for that muscle group.

However, training to failure causes stress on your central nervous system as well as on your muscles and doing it too often will result in bad health. You’ll probably see a lack of muscle growth, a lack of energy, irritability and trouble sleeping. This is because your hormones are out of balance as you have far too many stress hormones, like cortisol, in your system. Rest and sleep are very important as this is when your body heals and grows. In my opinion, you should only train one muscle group to failure, once a week. You then need to allow your central nervous system to recover, not just the muscles you worked. It’s a good thing to do on occasion as you get a different biological response from your muscles, but like with everything, do it sensibly and do it safely.


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