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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Comments

  1. Great post Tamara & I utilize & have used all of your points above! I agree, people that try to go to failure all the time are asking for issues either now or later.. plus many struggle with form when not going to failure! 🙂

    As you know I do push to failure but many times my love is as you know – drop sets but not to the point of extreme failure.. good thing I listen to the bod! 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Gratitude Monday = ThankfulMy Profile

  2. Yes…I love a good drop set!
    Pamela Hernandez recently posted…The Best of 5 Years of Blogging from Thrive Personal FitnessMy Profile

    • Drop sets are another great plateau-breaker. Clearly I haven’t been doing enough of them lately to have forgotten to include them! Congrats on your 5-year anniversary, Pamela!

  3. Love this! There doesn’t seem to be as much periodization in strength programming as I like, which I guess can lead to things like this. I do failure sets only occasionally, I can’t imagine doing that all the time. Great points on why that isn’t a great idea. 🙂
    Heather @ FITaspire recently posted…Hot Maple-Nut BourbonMy Profile

    • I agree completely with your comment about periodization. It seems that many people prefer to hop from one program to another to keep from getting bored and thinking that all that variety will get them to their goals.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  4. So much wisdom here! I cringe seeing people sacrifice form for the sake of lifting heavier or going to failure. It’s just asking for an injury to happen. <— first hand knowledge. Ha! 🙂
    Melissa Running It recently posted…Fitwall: Fit in 40My Profile

    • I do too Melissa. Some days I have to turn away from people at the gym. If we helped everybody, we’d never fit our own workouts in!

  5. Great tips. I only do TF very rarely and it’s usually transitioning into a new cycle during a periodized plan – if that makes sense. Like Heather, I’m a fan of periodized plans. For some people, I could see how they would get stale, so I do like to add a transition week (occasionally, depending on client). Like Heather also mentioned, I can’t imagine doing TF often though.

  6. This is such great advice. I think the whole lifting to failure approach is so ingrained in the fitness world. It’s fantastic to hear why it’s not necessary.
    misszippy recently posted…Where running and Microsoft intersectMy Profile

    • I agree. There’s far too much emphasis on ‘killing’ it and pushing until you puke. I would like to see more balance in fitness…

  7. cherylann says:

    I like bench to failure-then follow up with two more lighter sets. I like to see how much I can do and am aiming for benching my weight (128-130) if it doesn’t get in the way of my swimming/cycling/running.

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  1. […] Lifting Weights to Failure | Why You Don’t Need To via Fitnitchick – Good information for the less experienced lifter & reminders for those who are more experienced too. […]

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