Did Arthur Jones have it right when he essentially devoted his life to convincing people they needed to train to failure? Or was the Nautilus inventor and High Intensity Training (HIT) pioneer just an angry, dissenting crank whose primary goal in life was to upset the order and sell more products? Time will tell, and maybe it already has. Either way, there are myriad considerations to take into account when examining the practice of training to failure – points that, once you’ve given them some thought, might just make you reconsider your position and change the way you train.

“When everything else is managed properly with your training volume, nutrition and rest,” says nutritionist Shelby Starnes, the overall champion at the 2009 NPC Central States, “training to failure is the best way to elicit growth. I always aim to beat my last workout with progressive resistance, and training to failure is an easy way to track that. If you’re getting stronger, and you’re supporting your training outside the gym, your muscles will have no choice but to grow.”

When undertaking an analysis of the pros and cons of training to failure, it’s readily apparent that there are some massive gaps in our collective training knowledge. Most people have no idea what “training to failure” means in the first place, and it’s a concept for which we need to find an accurate definition before we go any further.

To gain a better perspective on what training to failure really is, envision performing a simple bicep curl. Most people – even serious bodybuilders – aren’t training to failure even when they think they are. They’ll pick up a barbell and perform five clean reps with perfect form, and then things begin to break down. The next few reps will be done “cheat” style, and the last few after that will be nearly impossible to differentiate from a hang clean.

Given this scenario, at what point did you truly fail? Was it when you stopped isolating the movement’s prime movers – your biceps? Or when the rest of your body fatigued and you could no longer raise the barbell at all?

“One thing you need to consider,” says renowned strength coach Jim Wendler, who consults for numerous college and professional strength and conditioning programs, “is whether you have a goal in mind before you start a set. Are you really training to failure? Or are you just reaching a predetermined number of reps, then just giving up?”

In order to understand when failure really occurs, we need to know what stage of development we’re in as lifters. For beginners, true “failure” is considered to happen once technique breaks down. After that fifth rep, when you start to cheat, you’ve not only reached failure, but passed it. This is going to affect the way you recover and regenerate tissue, which is something we’ll address later. For now, simply understand that failure occurs when your exercise form has deteriorated to the point that what you’re doing is no longer the exercise you started out intending to do.

“Beginners don’t necessarily need to train to failure,” says Wendler, “but they do need to find out where it is. You may not want to step over the edge, exactly, but if you’re going to avoid the edge, you’re going to have to know where it is. You need to test it a little.”

For advanced lifters, things work somewhat differently. The experienced bodybuilder has a solid understanding of proper form, and he’ll easily maintain it through those first five reps. After that, he’ll loosen things up and cheat, but he’ll know exactly how to do it in order to isolate his biceps and milk every last bit of benefit out of a set. What you won’t see him do, however, are those last two or three “hang clean” reps where he’s going so far past failure that he’s negatively affecting his ability to properly recover from a workout in time for his next session. “Older, experienced lifters need to be especially careful with this,” says Starnes, “and it’s advisable for them to add this training very selectively if they’re not recovering the way they could when they were younger.”

“What you need to know,” says Elite Fitness Systems CEO Dave Tate, who consults with numerous top-level bodybuilders, “is how far you’re taking things, and to be able do this on demand during a set. You need to learn exactly how to take a movement to, past and shy of failure. This is where most people go wrong. It’s all undefined for them.”

According to Tate, most people do this on a completely random basis without taking these three “positions” into consideration. “With pretty much everyone,” he says, “training is done instinctively and recovery isn’t taken into consideration. This can work very effectively for experienced lifters who know their bodies, but your average beginner is going to overtrain if he doesn’t understand these concepts with regard to failure.”

When training to failure, recovery is something to which you’ll have to pay attention, because your need for recovery becomes crucial – you’re seriously lengthening the time you’ll need – once you hit a point of true failure, as defined above. Recovery time frames aren’t linear – they differ for everyone and there are other “outside the gym” variables involved - but the effects of training to failure can be described using something of an exponential scale. When you train to a rep or two shy of failure, you’ll obviously need a period of rest between workouts. Removing all other variables – we’ll get to this in a moment – you can think of this in terms of a set period of rest for each rep you perform until you’re just short of failure.

Once you reach failure, however, the reps you perform at the top end of a set – the actual failure rep and the reps you squeeze or cheat out after failure – hit your central nervous system (CNS) and your muscle fibers much harder than the ones you do with perfect form at the bottom end, so the more you train to and past failure, the more recovery time you’ll need.

“Beginners don’t manage this correctly,” says Tate, “because they don’t know they need to. The best thing you can do for a beginner is to start him out with the understanding that failure occurs when form and technique break down. The other problem beginners have with recovery times is that they’re simply not in good enough shape to be training to failure.”

Your ability to recover from workouts where you train to failure is dependent upon a number of factors, but it’s primarily a function of your general physical preparedness (GPP) or work capacity. The better shape you’re in, the harder you can work without needed extended recovery periods to repair what failure breaks down.

“The amount of work you can do inside the gym,” says Wendler, “is directly proportional to what you do outside the gym in terms of your cardiovascular shape. You need to get in shape to lift, especially for this type of training.”

The biggest factor affecting recovery from failure, however, is mental, which is ironic because the mental aspect of training to failure is one of this technique’s main advantages. Psychologically, this works in a variety of ways. Training to failure is advantageous because it builds a sense of accomplishment. If you’re always leaving the gym thinking you had more to give, it’ll eventually stall your progress, so these “hard effort” days are vitally important from a mental toughness standpoint.

There are very few feelings in life as satisfying as walking out of the gym knowing you’ve given your all – that you picked up a barbell and gave every last bit of yourself to your workout with nothing left “in the tank.” This is important when you train on your own, because it builds confidence and helps you figure out what your limits are and how to push through them. It’s also important for trainers on a professional level, because this feeling of accomplishment is what keeps clients coming back.

The flip side of this, however, is where you’ll encounter problems. Let’s say you’ve just performed a particularly brutal lower body workout. You did so many squats or leg presses that you can barely walk, and you’re having trouble working the pedals in your car. Now, you’ll feel great because of what you just put yourself through, but what happens when you have to do it again the following week? You’ll remember what it was like to push yourself to – and perhaps past – failure with these difficult exercises, and you’ll find that talking yourself into doing it again is a bit of a challenge, to say the least.

“The psychological part of this is why you have to keep your volume low,” says Tate. “That’s why, with programs like Doggcrapp and HIT, the volume is so low. It’s also why, with programs like FST-7 that have much higher volume levels, most sets won’t go to failure.”

This feeling of dread before a set is mental fatigue, and it can be every bit as debilitating as physical and CNS fatigue in terms of getting the most out of your workouts and making progress. What good is scheduling a ridiculously taxing group of sets to failure if you’re afraid to even pick up a barbell?

“People too often take a myopic view of training,” says Wendler. “You have to look at the bigger picture with this, instead of just living in the moment and worrying about what you’re doing that particular day. Training isn’t a one day or one week process. You have to think in terms of months and even years, so in the long run, is getting that one extra rep or that one extra set really going to do that much for you?”

The recovery solution for training to failure is twofold. First, you need to understand the exercises you’re selecting and the effect they’ll have on your recovery. Compound movements like the bench, squat, deadlift and military press are much harder to work to failure with because they take so much more out of you, both physically and mentally, than isolation exercises like bicep curls or lat pulldowns.

“I look at it this way,” says Wendler. “You have to be very cautious about training to failure with compound, multi-joint exercises. If you have to psyche yourself up to do a set, like you do when you squat or deadlift, you have to be much more careful about training that lift to or past failure. You can get away with much more on your smaller accessory lifts that don’t require that level of mental preparation.”

It often makes more sense to train to failure using machines than it does to train this way using free weights. This is because you won’t run into form and technique breakdown as easily with machines as you will when using barbells and dumbbells. For beginners especially, being locked into a machine groove virtually eliminates form breakdown altogether, so your last rep will be your true point of muscular failure, and not the start of a cluster of forced or cheat reps.

Next, think about the frequency with which you train to failure. Since this type of training breaks down more muscle tissue and requires such extensive recovery, it’s potentially counterproductive to do it every week. As with any form of training, however, variety is a key component to long term progress and development. Adding some sets to failure every few weeks or so can shock your body into progressing just as effectively as any other program adjustments or changes you might make.

“If you haven’t trained to failure in a while,” says Tate, “a six week cycle of selectively and intelligently doing so will give you gains beyond belief.”

Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at www.EliteFTS.com.