Train to Failure in Weight Training

man doing chest press with spotter
Colin Hawkins/Cultura/Getty Images

Weight training and bodybuilding training programs often use the term "train to failure." You see it in exercise instructions for lifts. It may also be noted as AMAP — as many as possible. What exactly does it mean?

While you will read different definitions of this, here is a general interpretation of this term. It means performing an exercise repeatedly until you experience discomfort or muscle weakness so you can't perform the last repetition or you know it is unwise to do another repetition.

Example: Let's say your program says three sets of barbell arm curls for ten repetitions, that is 3X10 arm curls in weight training program language. Simply, training to failure means selecting a weight that is heavy enough so that the last exercise repetition (physical movement) taxes you such that you have difficulty completing the last one or two exercises in that set.

Example: In the barbell curl, number 10 of each and every set should be performed at an intensity such that you have to struggle to raise the bar with good form. This is training to failure.

Why Is Training to Failure Used?

Some trainers believe that training to failure leads to more muscle growth. Advanced trainers might use training to failure to break through a plateau. Many believe, "No pain, no gain," and think that the discomfort of the failure point is a signal of the stress on the muscle that will drive increases in strength and muscle size.

Drawbacks and Risks

Overuse of training to failure may result in using a poorer form in performing the exercise. If you are struggling with the move with a challenging weight, you may not be able to focus on the correct technique. A poor technique as well as overtaxing the muscles might lead to injury. It may lead to overtraining, especially when used over long periods rather than for a shorter cycle of training.

Training to Absolute Failure or to Technical Failure

Here is where some trainers differ. In my view, this does not mean absolute failure — that you can't lift that bar and do that curl at all. It should mean technical failure, in that the last few repetitions are difficult but not impossible to do. You should then rest until you can do the next set to failure as well. You can manipulate the rest period between sets or the weight you lift to reach the ideal failure point for you.

The "failure" point is the intensity at which lactate/hydrogen ions accumulate and provide your muscles with the stress required to promote muscle growth.

Train to Failure With Heavy or Lighter Weights

You can select a weight that results in failure at a low number of repetitions, such as five. Or you can select a lighter weight that will result in failure after a higher number of reps, such as 15.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Willardson JM "The application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance exercise programs." J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):628-31.
  • American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults.Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):687-708. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670.