Everything You Need to Know About Muscle Failure

Woman doing Smith Machine Squats
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Muscle failure refers to lifting weights to the point where a muscle can no longer contract concentrically.  That's a fancy way of saying that your muscle is experiencing a momentary failure, the inability to perform another repetition.

Training to Failure

Most of us regular exercisers don't train to complete failure.  Those who do are usually bodybuilders, powerlifters, people involved in competitive strength training or people working to build larger muscles.

What does that mean for the rest of us?  Is the only way to build lean muscle tissue to train to muscle failure?

How We Build Muscle

The way our bodies build muscle is by lifting more weight than it can handle.  In other words, we overload the muscle and, by doing that, our muscles adapt by growing more and bigger muscle fibers to handle that added weight.

The ultimate form of overload is to train to momentary muscle failure, which is why many pros use this kind of training for muscle building, but there's no consensus that this is the best kind of training for building muscle.

What Is Muscle Failure?

So, what does muscle failure feel like? For those of us who don't lift to failure, it probably feels very uncomfortable. The idea is that you do as many reps as you can with good form until you're tired. Then?  You keep going until you can barely get through the last rep. 

You don't want to drop the weight on your head, of course, but recognize when your form is going and stop at that point.

This type of training recruits the maximum number of motor units and muscle fibers you can, which is why it's the choice for people who want to build larger muscles.

The Drawbacks of Training to Muscle Failure

While it's important to lift heavy weights, whether you're a man or woman, a bodybuilder or just an average joe, training to failure isn't always the way to go.  Here are some of the cons of lifting to failure:

  • It hurts! - It's really hard to train to failure every single time you do an exercise.  It taxes your body and your mind and it's very hard to push yourself like that if you're not in some sort of competition.
  • It can lead to overuse injuries - Doing this over and over can put your body at risk for injury and overtraining.
  • It requires more rest time - The harder you work, the more rest you need and the less exercise you can do in general. That means you're not working out as much and volume is another important part of any strength program.
  • It may not be necessary - The jury is still out as to whether going to complete failure is really the best way to build bigger muscles.  Some studies show it does and others don't.

Weaving Some Failure Into Your Training

So, you know the basics...how can you use this information?  One idea is to train to failure on some exercises or during some workouts. 

This might be a way to periodize your workouts, if you're into that kind of thing, and focus on cycles where you sometimes work on training intensity and lifting to failure and then a new cycle where you focus more on volume and avoid working to complete failure.

I also like to weave failure training into regular workouts, picking a muscle group or an exercise and seeing how far I can go.  This is great for exercises like pushups, biceps curls, and triceps dips.  However, even if you don't lift to failure, you're still doing something good for your body when you lift weights.

Learn more about choosing how much weight to lift during your workouts.

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Article Sources
  • Kravitz, Len, Ph.D. "Training to Failure." Dr. Len Kravitz. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.