What Exactly is “Training to Failure”?

Like every other great idea, training to failure is kind of a double-edged sword: it can either promote fantastic anabolic growth or it can destroy your gains completely, depending on how you use it, which is the reason why the training community is so divided on this topic.

As any ambitious bodybuilder knows, failure occurs when the muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to continue moving the weight upward and training to this point or even beyond it is seen as the ultimate stimulus for maximum muscle growth. While this phenomenon may be considered as an especially powerful tool in your training regime, supported by many scientific studies, not getting it right could also lead to some drastic consequences in the form of, well, high levels of cortisol and deflated muscles. Needless to say, this dreaded outcome is usually associated with those of us who have the habit of taking every single set to absolute failure. But if you learn how to use it wisely, training to failure can be the best addition to your routine you could ever make. So what is the optimal way to incorporate failure into your strategy for success?

Let’s see what one of its most noted proponents and six-time Mr. Olympia winner Dorian Yates has to say about it!

Dorian Yates’ tips on training to failure

So what exactly is failure? Yates describes it as a term that contains several different points along the scale of muscular exhaustion caused by exercising. In that context, we can differentiate between positive failure – the point when you can no longer perform another rep with proper form and full range of motion and negative, or total failure – the point when after a few forced reps, you can’t even lower the weight without assistance from a spotter anymore.

Both types of failure are extremely effective for muscle building, and yet both can be damaging to your gains if overused. For best gains in terms of training to positive failure, Yates recommends stopping just before reaching failure most of the time and actually reaching failure every third of fourth cycle of your routine.

As you can imagine, reaching total failure taxes your muscles and entire nervous system in a highly brutal way and allows maximum hypertrophy, which means that this method should not be taken for granted and Yates recommends going past positive failure only to advanced lifters, but even then, it should be employed rarely and very carefully. Training to total failure too frequently has a major downside: it contributes to catabolism and it dramatically increases your risk of muscle and tendon tears and serious injury, thereby hindering your gains in the long term.

In other words, regardless of your current level of strength and prowess, we urge you to never underestimate the power of this advanced technique and carefully plan its introduction to your routine. According to Yates, it’s highly recommendable to have a training partner on your failure sets to help you squeeze out an additional rep or two by reducing the resistance.

Good luck and keep on training smart and strong!