Lifting weights to failure | why you don’t need to

In the strength training world, ‘failure’ is often seen as a good thing.

Lifting weights to failure

It means that you’ve pushed your body to the point of being unable to perform even one more repetition and is based on the idea that muscle fibres must be broken down in order to get make progress in the gym.

The thing is, while it is necessary to progressively overload your muscles to get bigger and stronger, lifting weights to failure each and every time you strength train is, for many of us, counter-productive.

[Note that occasionally going to failure can be a useful tool for the experienced lifter. But only if proper form can be maintained through the last rep AND there's a spotter available if dropping the weight is likely to result in injury.]

For the less experienced weight lifter (that’s me and you ;) ), regularly lifting weights to failure can lead to:

  • Poor form. I’m a firm believer in the value of perfecting form before increasing load. Perform an exercise with poor form for very long and you’re likely to end up injured. When you push your body to failure, it’s easy to sacrifice form on the last rep or two.
  • Risk of injury. In addition to poor-form-related injuries, pushing to the point of being unable to complete your last rep can result in dropped weights and other equipment gaffes. Ever see somebody pinned by the bar on the bench press? Chances are they attempted to work to fatigue (and without a spotter).
  • Over-training. When you stimulate your muscles by lifting heavy weights the central nervous system (CNS) needs times to recover. The closer you push yourself to fatigue, the longer the recovery time required. For those of us who enjoy our gym time, it can be difficult to stay away from the gym for the extra day needed for recovery. Frequently lifting to fatigue without scheduling adequate rest and recovery can result in over-training syndrome. How can you tell if you’re overtraining? Weight gain, constant fatigue, strength plateaus and even loss of muscle mass.

Rather than lifting weights to failure on each and every set, try one of the following approaches to maximize the benefits of your strength training program without incurring the risks described above:

  • Lift to failure on your last set only. Choose a weight that allows you to perform the prescribed number of good form repetitions plus an additional two or three. Perform the prescribed number of reps for all sets except the final set. On the last set, push through until you can’t perform any more good form reps. Don’t feel you need to do this for each and every exercise in your workout. Choose exercises that are unlikely to result in injury or poor form when pushed to fatigue (e.g., bicep curls, lateral raises, dead lifts).
  • Increase your load from one set to the next. Choose a weight that allows you to perform the prescribed number of good form repetitions plus an additional two or three. Use this weight for your first set. Increase the weight lifted by no more than 10% and perform a second set. Don’t worry if you can’t complete as many reps. Stop before your form is compromised. Increase the weight lifted again and perform a third set. Expect to perform fewer and fewer reps of the exercise as the load increases.
  • Alternate high rep-low load and low rep-high load workouts. Keep your muscles guessing and prevent them from adapting to your workouts by mixing up your reps and weights. Using the same exercises, alternate high and low rep days. High rep workouts (12-15 repetitions) will typically use lighter loads than low rep (6-8 reps) workouts. Adjust your weights so that you can just perform the prescribed number of good form reps. And give yourself a little bit more time between sets on days you’re lifting heavier.
  • Try pre-exhaust super-sets. Combine two exercises for the same muscle group; one that uses the target muscle in isolation and one that lets another muscle or two help out. Perform the two exercises as a super-set (all reps of one followed immediately by all reps of the other). Pre-fatigue the target muscle by starting with the isolation exercise. See this post for examples of the technique (and a photo or two of the results it’s produced for me).

Do you ever lift to fatigue?

What are your favourite exercises to push yourself on?

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