In weight training, the term “failure” is used to describe what happens when you are unable to continue a set of an exercise due to momentary muscle failure.
Some people think failure is when you just think you can’t do any additional reps. This is wrong.
Failure is when you actually reach the point of being unable to finish a rep. You literally attempt the rep and fail to complete it.
For example, if you were attempting to do 10 reps of an exercise but could only lift the 9th rep halfway, then you failed on that 9th rep. This is failure.
Should you train to failure? Is it good? Is it bad?
As it turns out, one of the many subjects people like to argue about in the weight training world is whether you should purposely set out to reach failure during a set (or during all of your sets), or if you should purposely try to avoid it.
To answer this question, let’s look at the pros and cons of training to muscle failure.
Training To Failure: PROS
If you reach failure during a set, it usually means you are working pretty hard, putting forth significant effort, and generating significant muscle fatigue.
It also usually means you are striving to make progress in some way, and progression is honestly the true key to getting positive results from any weight training routine.
Training To Failure: CONS
What many people don’t realize however is that training to failure is extremely taxing on your body. Not just the target muscle(s) being trained at the time, but your entire central nervous system as well.
This means that reaching failure will significantly impact both your short term and long term recovery capabilities.
Meaning, going to failure on a set (or on multiple sets) will not only impact your performance on later sets of that same exercise AND the remaining exercises in that day’s workout, but going to failure often will also impact your overall performance and ability to recover from one workout to the next.
In addition, there’s also the issue of safety. Sure, going to failure on an exercise like dumbbell curls or leg extensions is fairly safe, but failing (especially without a spotter) during a set of barbell bench presses, squats, or something similar is not a fun place to be.
Now, based on science, real world results, various expert recommendations, and of course my own first hand experience, my opinion is that purposely training to failure does more harm than good.
I (and most experts) most often feel that purposely setting out to reach failure on a set (or every set) is the wrong idea. In most cases, you should try to stop about 1 (or 2) reps short of failure.
So, if you are trying for 10 reps but felt your 9th rep was definitely going to be the last one you were going to be able to do, stop there and don’t purposely go and fail on the 10th. Leave that rep in the tank and try for it next time.
In both the short term (the rest of that workout) and the long term (future workouts), this definitely appears to be more beneficial decision.
But what if it’s unintentional?
On the other hand, if you thought you COULD do the 10th rep and tried it but failed to complete it… then so be it.
Occasionally reaching failure is okay in my opinion, and in order to continue making progress, it’s pretty much bound to happen from time to time.
But, as long as it’s not your goal and you’re not purposely trying to reach failure all the time (and you do it safely of course), then it’s ok if it happens every once in a while unintentionally.
Just try to avoid it by stopping a rep or so before reaching that point the majority of the time.