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Lifting To Mechanical Failure
The Case for Lifting to Failure
“Failure” sounds like such a scary word in the gym. Taking a set to the point you can’t do another clean rep—it’s intimidating to some.
At the end of the day, it’s really not and can be done very safely (I’ve been lifting this way for over 5 years, so have my clients, zero injuries).
Many people hear this and envision some hardcore old school Dorian Yates video or other bodybuilders lifting like animals, slinging around weight , screaming and grunting to squeeze out that last rep…
The reality is you don’t need all those theatrics and it’s largely anti-climatic. You are simply just allowing momentary failure while the lift is in the concentric (the push if you were benching).
We can also characterize total failure being both concentric and eccentric (the lowering part of the lift) - this is something I use more sparingly as you’re going to need a proper spotter and it’s very taxing on the muscle. You’ll likely only need one set per exercise or even your entire workout for that specific muscle to stimulate growth.
Much of the literature coming out will range in how often you should go to failure, but as we know a lot of literature is garbage (there are almost zero jacked exercise scientists). Some suggest never, some suggest 10-20% of the time, some suggest nearly all the time.
Great, thanks guys… tons we can conclude from that specific information…
Have no fear, Cartoon Ox (who actually lifts) will help guide us to the right answer. Not through theories and some controlled lab (you don’t lift in a controlled setting), but rather through true, hard results and experience of working with hundreds (if not thousands) of clients.
(Please note, the context of this is muscle growth or hypertrophy - for a powerlifter or other athlete, this is not necessarily the method I’d use—this is for gainz).
Defining Mechanic Failure
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first define what mechanical failure is.
The textbook answer is:
In weight training, training to failure is repeating an exercise (such as the bench press) to the point of momentary muscular failure, i.e. the point where the neuromuscular system can no longer produce adequate force to overcome a specific workload. Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment states that training to failure is necessary for maximal hypertrophic response.
Ox’s answer: You have to push the weight or get another rep—until you can’t. This is momentary/mechanical/etc muscle failure. This is different from complete/total muscle failure, but that isn’t how I suggest to train most the time.
In the simplest terms, failure is whenever you cannot push another rep, AND you cannot get another rep without breaking form.
***DO NOT BREAK FORM TO PUSH ANOTHER REP. ***
Benefits Of Lifting To Failure
Now, the meat and potatoes - why this is a great tool to incorporate or even completely base your training around.
Trust me, if this didn’t work as well as it does, I wouldn’t do it. If I found or believed there was a better way, I would do it. As a competitive bodybuilder, this is my quest—any edge that makes me better and grow faster than the next guy.
Better Muscle Growth
Our proximity to muscle failure largely determines how effective a set was.
Simply put, the closer we get to failure, the more muscle fiber (motor unit) recruitment we have to complete the set. This means we are using absolutely everything the muscle has to complete the rep.
We are ensuring we are checking the boxes for the various processes that contribute within the muscle and cells (mechanotransduction).
In layman’s terms, if we don’t get close to failure, we are leaving it up to chance that we’ve done enough to grow. If we train to failure, we can absolutely be sure we have done everything we need to do to provide the stimulus our muscle needs to create an adaptive response (grow).
What I mean by “standardize” is we have a fixed point on which we can continue to progress our training. This is important because to progressively overload (the driver of growth), we need to progress from a base point. *Explained in this post.*
Common methods outside of training to failure are Reps in Reserve (RIR) or Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Now I am absolutely not saying these don’t work; however, I am saying the average person is relatively bad at gauging effort (intensity) and how many reps they have left.
This can vary day-to-day depending on your mood, recovery, etc.
Instead, if our set point is muscular failure, it is a very simple and easy method to ensure we have reached the same standards and conditions every week from which we can build (progressively overload) from.
If intensity is higher, volume must be lower. Meaning we are doing harder sets, so we must do less sets to accommodate recovery. This means you’re in and out of the gym faster. *Explained in this post.*
If we were to use a system where we shied away from failure, we would require more sets to achieve the same stimulus. Instead of needing 8-12 sets per body part, we only truly need 4-6, potentially even less, by working at a higher intensity to failure.
This means in terms of time, that we are saving 20-30+ minutes doing 10 total sets a workout vs 20-30 sets per workout.
This becomes very important as well when we factor things like hormones into lifting—as we go over 60-75 minutes of training we are elevating cortisol (the stress hormone) which then will lower testosterone. This is going to negatively affect our rate of recovery.
Arguments Against Training To Failure
Though I am HIGHLY biased (because it works so well) on this subject, I will provide counterpoints so we can see both side of the argument. *(Disclaimer, I will also be debunking these arguments).
Taxes Central Nervous System
All training creates CNS fatigue—training to failure in theory creates more CNS fatigue than training away from failure.
BUT… again note, because intensity is higher, we are doing less volume in the gym, thus even if we are creating more stress per set, we are likely reaching similar levels vs training with higher volume.
A good training program that manages recovery and has scheduled deload weeks is going to mitigate CNS fatigue anyway as CNS fatigue happens over a longer time horizon.
It’s Less Safe
If we are talking about taking deadlifts, back squats, or lifts like bench where failure means you are pinned under a bar, then of course this is dangerous and we should opt to shy away from failure. This is rather a mute point.
When it comes to actual safety on the muscle, joint, etc., again we are not going to run into any issues as long as form is good.
Mechanical failure means the you can’t get another rep without breaking form. This is simply not going to cause any undue stress + we also have to consider the inverse again—less total volume per workout, so theoretically less strain on joints, ligaments, tendons, etc.
To be completely honest, I’m out of arguments “against” this method I can make in my head and even after searching around the web.
Again, the main takeaway is we do not sacrifice form to achieve failure, this puts us at risk for injury and really will not help us in any way.
You don’t necessarily *need* to go to complete failure-especially on riskier movements—but the closer we get to this point, the better result we will have.
Machine, dumbbells, and cables are really going to be your bread and butter to push movments to failure and even beyond, safely.
Please have a spotter if you’re going to be doing any movments where this could compromise you and put you at risk. People die all the time benching without a spotter and pinning themselves to the bench—you cannot grow if you are dead!
Putting It All Together
Training to failure vs stopping at some arbitrary number is what really took my growth (and many others) to the next level.
Vast amounts of literature point to the proximity to failure, and the closer you are produces a better result in terms of muscle growth.
You really cannot create a more reliable system to ensure you are absolutely checking the box on everything you need to do to elicit a growth response from your training.
Progressive overload happens when we build upon what we have done in previous workouts, this ensures we are consistent where we stop sets, so the number we need to beat to grow is cut and dry and very clear—removes guessing.
It’s also very hard to put a value on something that allows us to achieve an optimal result with less time actually spent in the gym.
Again, be smart, use your head, and be safe with this. When done right, this is just as safe as any other type of lifting is.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.