Training to failure: a complete guide to the pros and cons

Training to failure is not always good.

But that doesn't mean you should never push your limits either!

Finding the right amount of hard, moderate and easy work in your training to get the balnce between progress and recovery is a crucial skill in strength training. Read on to learn the science on training to failure, how you can use RPE/RIR and barbell velocity tracking to monitor and modulate the exertion in your training for maximum gains and without the risk of overtraining.

There is a misconception in strength and hypertrophy training that more is always better.

Push your limits, max out on every set and the rewards will follow. However, the relationship between how close how often you go to failure and the gains you make is not that clearcut.

We have to train hard and smart.

Sometimes going to failure is a good thing — pushing hard in the gym is essential — but training to failure every workout, and every set is a sub optimal way to get stronger. The accumulation of fatigue and strain placed on your joints, and nervous system will not only compromise your strength, power, and hypertrophy gains, but also lead to injury, overreaching, and maybe even overtraining.

Let’s explore the pros and cons of training to failure, why it's not a necessary strategy when it comes to making long term gains and some of the best ways to incorporate failure into your training program.

What does training to failure mean

Training to failure refers to performing a single set of an exercise for as many reps as you can until you can no longer physically lift the wight for another rep, you fail.

The number of reps you complete is often called a repetition maximum (RM) — the maximum amount of reps you can do for a certain weight. An RM could be at any number; 1RM, 3RM or even a 10RM.

Exertion, intent and intensity

It's essential to differentiate between intensity, exertion and intent when strength training. Exertion is a term that explains proximity to failure, for example, I said to complete failure would have maximal exertion. Intent on the other hand refers to the quality of our effort, how hard we work to lift the weight explosively for each individual rep - this is often determined by trying to lift the weights as fast as possible and then tracking bar speed.

Finally, intensity in strength training refers to how close we are to our absolute maximum load in strength training, this means 100% of our one rep max. However, intensity can be a complicated metric as both exertion and intent will increase the intensity of our training. Slow eccentrics, explosive fast moving power movements and plyometric contractions can all also contribute to training intensity in varying dimensions.

Technical failure versus volitional failure

There are many ways to define failure in training.

Most commonly, failure is described as Volitional failure. The point in a set when you physically cannot complete a single further rep and either you collapse and drop the weight or your spotter is forced to step in and assist. No matter how hard you tried, you were not able to perform another, full repetition.

A less intense definition, and safer definition of failure is technical failure. The point where a lifters form "breaks" beyond an allowable (usually subjective) threshold, this moment is often audibly called by a coach or training partner watching on, and can sometimes also be detected internally by experienced lifters.

The third and lowest failure point is psychological failure, the point at which we mentally give up on a set. The gap between psychological failure and true technical or volitional failure can vary widely, many novice lifters can have low psychological limits meaning they struggle to accurately gauge how close to the limit they really are.

I think for most intermediate and above lifters, true failure exists somewhere between technical and volitional failure, depending on the lift, depending on your spotting situation, and your experience.

Continuum of proximity to failure

Training to failure is not a yes or no question. It's a scale that we can go up and down with granularity.

As an athlete pushes their set closer to the point of failure, the stress and fatigue accumulated with each rep increases exponentially. We use the term proximity to failure to describe how close to this point any given set is.

A chart showing the effect of training to failure on stress and fatigue
The exponential stress of working in proximity to failure

Measuring proximity to failure in the gym

By measuring just how close you are to your point of failure we can control and program strategically using failure as a powerful weapon — working closer to, or further from the point of failure, depending on our goals and training phase.

There are two key methods for doing this, the subjective RPE method and the objective velocity base training method.

RPE / RIR and measuring failure in the gym

RPE - Rating of perceived exertion and RIR - Reps in reserve are scales used to subjectively score how close to failure we went for a given set.

RPE uses a 10 point scale, working upwards in 0.5 increments with RPE 10 being a maximal exertion set and anything below 5.5 is considered a warmup. In the RIR scale the scoring is flipped with zero (0) being a maximal exertion set, meaning no more reps to be given. An RIR of 4 means that you have four reps remaining before failure.

A conversion chart for RPE and RIR values in strength training
A conversion chart for RPE and RIR values in strength training

Both RPE and RIR are effective and easy to implement for trained individuals with experience strength, training, however they can be less useful for less experienced lifter, who prone to bias and do not have a well calibrated subjective ability to assess their exertion.

Barbell velocity as a measure of failure

An alternative or complementary method to the subjective RIR/RPE methods of assessing proximity to failure is to use for measuring proximity to failure is to track barbell velocity with a velocity based training device or app such as Metric VBT.

iPhone velocity based training device showing an athletes VBT data and autoregulation insights
Metric VBT a workout tracking and velocity base training app

VBT technology can provide valuable insights and data about how well you are performing across a set. This data can be used to measure intensity, intent and exertion with numbers such as velocity loss and last rep velocity, both of which offer an objective and accurate way to measure proximity to failure.

Velocity loss

Measures the drop in bar speed over a set from the fastest rep to the last rep. A higher velocity loss indicates greater exertion in the set. For instance, 40% velocity loss is often considered the point of failure, while 10% loss is considered an easy set for many exercises.

Last rep velocity

As the name suggests, this metric gauges the speed of the bar for the final rep of a set to calculate proximity to failure. Across exercises and across weights, the velocity of your last rep in a set of failure is called the minimum velocity threshold (MVT). With this MVT in mind, we can calculate how close the last velocity of any set is to the velocity of an RM set to calculate exertion and proximity to failure.

The slower last rep velocity is indicates the set got closer to the athletes point of failure. Last rep velocity can be combined with RPE data or used as a standalone method for programming in velocity zone and target based plans

A conversion chart for RPE, RIR velocity loss and last rep velocity VBT values in strength training
A conversion chart for RPE, RIR, velocity loss and last rep velocity values in strength training. (Values are example only)

What’s the best way to measure proximity to failure?

I recommend a hybrid approach, using two strategies simultaneously, with VBT and RPE.

Typical conversion values in strength training between RPE - RIR, Velocity loss (%Typical conversion values in strength training between RPE - RIR, Velocity loss (%), & Last rep mean velocity (m/s)), & Last rep mean velocity (m/s)
Typical conversion values in strength training between RPE - RIR, Velocity loss (%), & Last rep mean velocity (m/s)

This dual approach ensures they're not just relying on feel or raw numbers but benefiting from a blend of both, giving a comprehensive understanding of the actual strain they're under.

The science of training to failure

There is plenty of evidence and academic research that supports using train to failure as a small dose component of your program, and avoiding going to failure in every single workout. Let's explore some of this research specifically in relation to hypertrophy, strength and power. I have also included links below the article in the references.

Is training to failure necessary for muscle growth & Hypertrophy?

A prevailing belief in training circles is that training in proximity to failure is essential for achieving significant muscle growth. But is this belief backed by science?

Training closer to failure may be beneficial for muscle growth in certain contexts. When you push your muscles to their limit, especially with rep ranges of 5 to 15, the high level of muscle fibre recruitment, and higher levels of metabolic stress in these intense sets can be beneficial for gains in muscle size over time.

A great study by Landyn Hickmott in 2022 sheds light on this topic. Their study revealed that when training volume was matched, a lower proximity to failure of 20% velocity loss proved to be just as effective for hypertrophy as training done above 30% velocity loss. This challenges the widely held notion that training to the point of absolute exhaustion is essential for optimal muscle growth.

It seems that while proximity to failure and metabolic fatigue may have some benefits for hypertrophy and muscle growth, the negative compounding effect of residual fatigue may outweigh the benefits. It seems that similar results in muscle growth can be seen as long as volume is matched when switching to a submaximal training program.

Is training to failure good for strength

Taking your main compound lifts to the point of failure with high frequency (weekly) is an especially poor strategy when it comes to building strength in the short and long-term.

This is well supported by research.

A number of velocity loss VBT studies have shown that training submaximally, (even without matching volume) resulted in greater strength gains than when subjects trained to failure.

Chart showing the impact of training to failure (40% velocity loss on performance gains - Adapted from Pareja-Blanco 2016 study
Medium term impacts of training to failure on strength, power and muscle type profiling - Submaximal training led to superior results despite less total training volume.

A meta-analysis from Peterson, 2005 is it greater when summarising these results. They looked at the data from 25 different studies on training to failure and found two key insights. Overall, athletes who performed more sets saw greater strength gains gains, showing that four or more working sets is optimal for developing strength. The second key takeaway was that across all set numbers, performing these sets sub maximally submaximally — that is with a lower RPE or velocity loss percentage — resulted in the most strength gained across the studies reviewed.

Training to failure - multiple working sets done not to failure is the best approach to develop strength -Peterson, 2005
Doing more work sets leads to greater strength gains. But doing those sets submaximally is the ultimate way to train.

⁠⁠So whether you are a time efficient lifter squeezing in a quick workout before work, or you bring a cut lunch to the gym for a six set squat super session, leaving a few reps in the tank for each set is going to lead to greater strength improvements.

Performing three sets submaximally is better than performing six sets to failure for building strength gains.

Training close to failure suppresses explosive power

For athletes, particularly in field sports, developing explosive power in the gym is key reason to lift weights. Training too close to failure when trying to develop power, not only leads to inferior results, but can even suppress power in the short term.

Short-Term Impact

A study by Gonzalez-Badillo (2016) showed the effect of training to failure on short-term power performance. Performing a squat workout of three 3x8 led to a substantial and immediate decrease in jump height. Compared to a more submaximal workout of 3x4 the higher exertion training athletes had lower vertical leaps even 48 hours post-workout.

This more challenging workout led to longer recovery, which for athletes in-season would be incredibly problematic. On the other side, the athletes performing submaximal sets actually increased their vertical jump by the 48 hour mark post workout.

Training to failure and the acute effects on jumping ability - chart showing the results from Gonzalez-Badillo, 2016 study
The short term effects of training to failure vs not to failure.

Long-Term Effects

Long-term power development is also at risk when training to failure. Izquierdo-Gabarren (2010) found that kayakers training to failure (40% velocity loss) made 80% less progress in upper body power compared to those training with 20% velocity loss on the same program, despite the 40% group doing almost twice as many reps during the eight weeks.

Effects of training to failure or not failure on kayak performance - izquierdo-gabarren, 2010 with concurrent training not to failure
Comparison of 4 sets done to 40% (failure) or 20% (submaximal) velocity loss during upper body strength and power training

The benefits of training to failure

Although the results above suggest training to failure is mostly a negative - these studies don't necessarily reflect real world training.

In all studies mentioned above, the groups either trained completely to failure (every set, every workout), or never to failur. In reality, we can do a bit of both! Sprinkling in sets taken closer to the point of failure strategically and sparingly.

The key is in the frequency, timing and volume of the work you do close to the point of failure. Never pushing yourself and only  doing easy training a long way from failure is just as bad for making progress in the gym as trying to failure too frequently can be.

Breaking through plateaus

For those who are experiencing plateaus in their progress, including training to failure in your program can provide a new shock the body might just need to break through these stagnations.

By introducing max effort work such as AMRAP sets (as many reps as possible), or occasional 1RM/3RM tests can shake you out of a rut, potentially leading to improved strength and muscle gains.

Pushing your mental limits

Training to failure not only challenges the body but also the mind. It requires a high level of mental fortitude and resilience to push through the discomfort and fatigue of reaching failure. This can enhance your mental toughness, which is beneficial not just in training, but in other areas of life as well.

This use of training to failure can be wonderful for coaches to challenge athletes who might have self-doubt in their abilities in the gym.

Calibrate your RPE/VBT system

Working to the point of failure, on occasion can also be incredible useful for powerlifters. Aside from the obvious sport specificity side of lifting with maximum loads, it also helps calibrate RPE scaling, and provides valuable data for your velocity based programming. Working to failure should be strategically incorporated into your program on both main lifts and accessories.

The negatives of training to failure

Inferior performance gains

As previously discussed, whether it be for strength or power or speed, working to the point of failure every session is usually not ideal and will lead to fewer gains for more work. along with less, there's also an impact on your body, stressing the joints and challenging your body in a way that may cause burnout, injury and fatigue

Joint stress

Regularly training to failure can put excessive stress on your joints. This is due to the high load and intensity required to reach failure, along with potentially compromised technique which can strain the joints and tendons, leading to overuse injuries.

Muscles are able to recover quickly from workouts usually being fully recovered within 48 hours joints, ligaments, tendons and bones however take longer maybe 72 or four or even 96 hours to fully recover from certain training stressors.

I particularly like this quote that speaks to longevity when lifting:

"If you trade your joints for muscle, you will end up with neither." - Dr John Rusin

Lifting safety

Training to failure increases the risk of losing control of the weight, especially in the final reps where fatigue sets in and form may break down. This can lead to accidents and injuries, particularly when lifting heavy weights or without proper spotting.

Neural fatigue and overreaching

The closer you get to the absolute point of failure the higher the exertion experienced in the set, the higher the fatigue, and the longer the time to full recovery.

Training to failure can lead to significant neural fatigue. Just like our bones and ligaments, the nervous system takes a long time to recover, with 72 hours needed between intense and high exertion bout of training. With that full recovery, a fatigue nervous system will need to reduced power strength and lifting performance in future sessions.

When training to failure regularly, Fatigue will accumulate faster than you can recover. This is how athletes can become overreached, or even overtrained/underrecovered.

Should I train to failure every set?

On any individual set, it makes the most sense that giving it your all and training every set to failure is the best strategy, but no one got crazy strong doing just one set — every rep set and work is only as good as the sum of of its parts, each set we perform has consequences for all future sets we do too.

Let's look at this with a specific example. Say a typical training week has three workouts, giving us an average of 55 hours of recovery between sessions (48 , 48, 72).

Training as hard as we possibly can in ~150 workouts a year is not physically possible with three workouts a week. One option could be to train maximally each session but increase the rest time training 2.5 times per week on a 72 hour cycle. But this would mean 17% fewer workouts every year.

The better option is to maintain a 3x a week frequency, and vary the exertion and intensity of our workouts. Train hard(ish) but not all out, playing the long game to better recover between workouts and make consistent strength, hypertrophy, and power gains while avoiding injury and burnout.

While pushing your limits is an essential and valuable part of the training process, failure is a potent stimulus, and you should be programming and training with its strategically. It's about training hard and training smart.

My advice when programming with set to failure

At the bottom of this article you'll find a list of frequently asked questions about all things training to failure with some more specific details how to incorporate failure into your training program. Here are some general guidelines.

Track bar speed regularly. VBT is a scientifically proven, objective, and easy to implement method for understanding your proximity failure, optimising your performance, and calibrating workouts. You can even you can even do this for free with the Metric VBT app and a basic account.

Multiple sets, lower exertion, higher bar speed. Craft the majority of your program to have sessions that include multiple sets done further from the point of failure - allowing you to accumulate lots of great quality training, without completely frying your nervous system.

For example: 3x4 @ 20% velocity loss is better than 2x6 @30% velocity loss. Cluster sets are also a great strategy for this.

Do the bulk of your training with moderate exertion to allow recovery between workouts and avoid the accumulation of fatigue across the training week. This allows you to hit the vast majority of your 150 annual sessions in a well recovered state ready to put in another hard(ish) session. What is moderate exertion? well…

The higher your training frequency, the lower your proximity to failure. If you plan on training more often (4-5 times a week), this shortens your average recovery time, so you also need to lower the average exertion or volume for your work sets.

Think of your exertion as fitting into three buckets; high, moderate, low. The best approach is to have a high-low approach your training week to modulate exertion between sessions. Across a longer periodisation phase you will shift how much of your training is done in each of the buckets based on your goals and training phase.

Remember: these three buckets are only referring to exertion/proximity to failure, intent, and intensity (as percentage of your one RM) can still be high or low in all three exertion buckets.

Low exertion - easy sets

Use this for easy, technical workouts, when tapering, or if doing high frequency training.

  • RPE under seven
  • RIR above 3
  • Velocity loss under 15%
  • Lost velocity at least +0.25 m/s above MVT

Moderate exertion - the sweet spot

This is the Goldilocks zone, the training that is most productive for building strength. Most of your training volume should probably be in here.

  • RPE between 7.5-8.5
  • RIR above 2-3
  • Velocity loss under 15-27.5%
  • Lost velocity at least +0.15 m/s above MVT

High exertion - use sparingly and strategically

This training is really high value, but also comes with a high cost so use strategically and sparingly.

  • RPE above 8.5
  • RIR below 2
  • Velocity loss above 27.5%
  • Lost velocity less than 0.15 m/s from the MVT

Tolerance to high volumes of training to failure improves with experience

How much work you can handle in proximity to failure is highly individual, but it is also highly trainable. As you get fitter and stronger you will be able to tolerate and recover from gradually higher volumes of training done close to the point of failure across your training year.

Thanks for reading! I hope this article is valuable, if you found this article helpful be sure to join my newsletter, I share all the latest news from velocity based training and the world of sport science on a semi-regular basis.

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References and resources

  • Tufano, JJ, et al. 2016. Maintenance of Velocity and Power With Cluster Sets During High-Volume Back Squats
  • Peterson, 2005. Applications of the Dose-Response for Muscular Strength Development: A Review of Meta-Analytic Efficacy and Reliability for Designing Training Prescription
  • F. Pareja-Blanco et al, 2016. Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains, and muscle adaptations.
  • Izquierdo-Gabarren et al. 2010. Concurrent endurance and strength training not to failure optimizes performance gains.
  • Gonzalez-Badillo, 2016. Short-term Recovery Following Resistance Exercise Leading or not to Failure.
  • Hickmott L, 2022. The Effect of Load and Volume Autoregulation on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

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