Training to Failure

nrg500nrg500 Posts: 1,233B-Class
I have found a 4-part article by Jason Ferruggia about training to failure.

It's a long article but I think it's worth sharing and helpful to anyone into weight lifting



If I had to pick one thing that holds people back more than anything else it would probably be training to failure. Of course, proper program design, a good diet and a lot of sleep are the three biggest keys. But, assuming those bases are covered, I firmly believe there is nothing more detrimental to your progress than training to failure on a regular basis.

After nearly two decades in the industry I’m at the point where I can watch someone train for 30 minutes and instantly spit out on-the-money predictions about what kind of progress they will make in the next 12-16 weeks. And I’m no brain surgeon.

If they routinely use extra psyche techniques before sets, do slow, grinding reps, let their form get sloppy, scream their way through the end of a set, or really do anything less than technically perfect, explosive reps throughout the course of a workout I know for a fact, exactly what’s going to happen. I’ve just seen it way too many times.

The end result is they make minimal gains, their central nervous systems get fried, their joints get beat up and they always feel like shit.

Those Who “Get it” & Those Who Don’t

In my gym we have some people who get it. Because they get it they make continual progress and never get injured. Those that don’t get it make gains at a snails pace and accumulate nagging injuries over time.

This week we’re testing maxes. We do this no more than four times per year because doing so is too stressful on the CNS. What we will see this week is that the ones who get it will make fantastic progress. Those that don’t will only be up a few pounds, if at all. Some will be weaker.

Now, trust me; I wish it wasn’t like this. I love to train insanely hard. Cranking up some Black Flag and head butting a wall before every set used to be a way of life for me. Nothing sounds like more fun, in fact. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. And that makes me sad. I really wish it did because I love high intensity training in theory. It also makes for a hell of a training atmosphere.

You have to ask yourself, though; do want results or do you want to have fun?

I want both but at the end of the day if my numbers are climbing that’s a lot more fun to me than doing the same weights I did three weeks ago and grinding them up with shitty form. Which is exactly what happens when you go to failure all the time; you make zero progress or you get weaker.

Then you get injured.

It all sucks.

Trust me; I experienced it for years.

So What Do You Do?

For starters, you decide that results are the most important thing. When you accept that you have no choice but to ditch the training to failure routine. I did it a while ago and it’s made a world of difference. Everyone I’ve convinced to do the same has experienced similar, outstanding results.

This is not an excuse not to train hard. You always have to train hard. On a side note, be on the lookout for my inevitable follow up article coming out in a few months entitled, Train Like a Man, You F*cking Pussy.

Every rep you do should be performed as explosively as possible with ONE HUNDRED PERCENT effort. A lot of people don’t get this. They leisurely cruise their warm up sets while whistling Dixie. This is a HUGE mistake.

Always treat light weight like it’s heavy. Warm up and “work up sets” are practice sets. Do them exactly like you will do your heaviest sets; with maximal tension throughout your body and maximal acceleration throughout each rep. When you do them slowly and sloppily you are missing out on the CNS arousal benefits, losing an opportunity to perfect your technique and are more likely to get injured.

The fact is more injuries occur with light weights than do with heavy weights. That’s because people don’t respect a light weight like they do a heavy weight.

When you get to your work sets be sure you always crush every single one of them with explosive speed and power. Make that set your bitch. Don’t ever let it get the best of you and start squirming and slowly grinding your way to the finish.

When you do that you’re fucked.

Plain and simple.

Never do slow, grinding death reps. And NEVER, EVER miss a rep in training or have a partner assist you in getting the weight up.

Never, ever, ever? (Andre 3000 asks)


When you miss a rep you may as well take the rest of whatever training cycle you’re on off. Because your chances of going up next workout after a missed rep that actually came back down on you are pretty dismal. My advice would to take a week off and start something new.



How Were the Pioneers of Physical Culture Able to Get so Strong?

People who know about my obsession with old time physical culture and the early days of strength training often ask me why there are so few people today who can perform the feats of strength that the greats were capable of over a century ago.

I mean, science, technology and training equipment must have improved, right? Plus the addition of high tech supplements and steroids has to make a big difference as well, no?

Then why is it so hard in this day and age for people to match the feats of strength performed by guys like George Hackenschmidt? How many people, in 2010, can put up close to 400 pounds overhead with one arm like Arthur Saxon did in 1906?

One of the ways Saxon got so strong was that he practiced his lifts with lighter weights and perfect technique. He always stopped while he was fresh because he knew he had to perform again the next day. It was his job. He traveled around and performed massive feats of strength for audiences on a routine basis, several times per week. The only way that could have ever been possible was by making sure he never came close to failure or “trained on the nerve,” as they used to refer to it.

To more clearly answer the question of why old time strongmen were able to perform feats that would still be impossible for most mortals today we need to address one critically important concept. This is a concept that the old timers understood very well. It’s been long forgotten in the days of “high intensity training” and Rocky Balboa YouTube montages. But in a world where bodybuilding has been confused with strength training this concept could very well be the key to mind blowing gains.

The single most important concept for people to understand is that strength is a skill and you need to treat it as such.

I’m gonna repeat that because it’s so important that you understand it…

Strength is a skill.

Let it sink in for a second.

When you think about it that way the whole thing becomes much easier to grasp.

You are training your nervous system to be more efficient.

That’s why all of the great old time strongmen, like Louis Cyr, Eugene Sandow and Earle Liederman called their workouts “practice.” Lifting was their sport so they understood, as does a good pitching coach, that you can not continue practicing in a fatigued state or you ingrain bad habits. A good pitching or tennis coach would not let you continue on when your speed starts slowing down and your form gets sloppy. They know that you’re done for the day at that point. The same can be said about a good sprint coach.

Lifting a heavy weight is really no different than serving or throwing a ball incredibly hard or sprinting at high speeds. Sure, some people may want to argue semantics, but it’s all human performance and based on the same principles at the end of the day.

You get stronger in one of two ways; improving the efficiency of your nervous system or increasing the size of your muscles. Obviously, you can’t continually increase the size of your muscles forever. But you can steadily make neural strength gains for quite some time if you train properly. That’s how athletes in weight class sports are able to get continually stronger without gaining weight.

Olympic lifters don’t go to failure and they are able to train every day because of it. Gymnasts don’t go to failure, yet they posses astonishing strength and incredible physiques.

In his 1925 book, Secrets of Strength, Earle Liederman described a lifter who trained to failure in the following way, “Literally he has worked himself out, and this is exactly the thing the strength seeker can not afford to do.”

What About the Max Effort Method?

lMany of you will be familiar with the Max Effort Method, as popularized by Westside Barbell Club. This method has produced some of the strongest lifters in the world and works quite well for their members who I have nothing but the utmost respect for. They never hit failure but they do sometimes do slow, grinding singles. That’s true sport specific training for them, however. They need to learn to grind a single in competition. I don’t train powerlifters so that’s why I don’t use their exact training methods. Although, I did for many years.

The Max Effort Method was the basis for the majority of my programs for close to a decade. When I originally started incorporating it many moons ago I had all of my guys work up until they hit a true 1-3 rep max that they had to fight to the death to lock out.

For a while people got stronger. After just a few months, however, I found that almost everyone started burning out pretty rapidly and getting injured with this approach. Then they started getting weaker.

In time I modified it so that we would stop further away from a true max. Instead of working up to 100% we would stop somewhere between 95 and 97%. From a science/research perspective there was really no benefit in going higher, anyway. Results were significantly better with this approach.

I had a conversation with Jim Wendler over a few beers back in 2003 or 2004 and he told me that, “Low rep, max effort work is only testing your strength; it’s not building it.” This was an epiphany for me at the time since I had become so obsessed with the Max Effort Method.

It made so much sense I smacked myself for not recognizing it earlier.

In time I lowered the range to 90-95% and added a bit more volume. With this modification the results improved significantly. To this day I may write 3RM or 5RM on a workout for simplicity’s sake, but what I really mean is a top end set that’s about 90-95% of your true max. In addition to the top end set I also like a back off set that’s 90% of the best weight for the day. If you do that and “work up” properly you get an appropriate amount of heavy training in to build strength without burning out your nervous system.

If you like to use the Max Effort method I suggest using the aforementioned modified approach and doing so on no more than two exercises per week; one for the upper body and one for the lower body, preferably a minimum of 48-72 hours apart. The rest of your workout should consist of less stressful assistance exercises done with a lower percentage of your one rep max, stopping each set shy of failure.

This method was practiced by numerous record setting lifters like Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski long before the Max Effort method became so popular. Instead of going to 100% on a regular basis, Ed Coan was known to do triples with his five rep max and do a larger majority of work in the range of 80-90%.

This type of system is also one that many powerlifters and former proponents of the Max Effort method like Jim Wendler and Jason Pegg have switched to and found to be more effective.

That’s the approach I use in Minimalist Training and have used with all of my clients over the last several years. It makes a huge difference. This method also allows you to get more heavy work in without frying your nervous system. As long as you are training with a proper percentage of your one rep max there is absolutely no benefit in training to failure. You still get the same training effect, albeit without the negatives.

This summer I had a chance to work with two former clients, both of whom were 500 pound squatters. They had long since graduated from college and moved to different states. One was back in town for a few months and came to train at Renegade. Another hired me to get him ready for an athletic comeback and I designed him programs and consulted with him via email and phone calls. In the past I always had these guys train a lot closer to failure. This time I held them back. We never hit a true max at any rep range, instead choosing to always leave something in the tank and stop the sets when speed slowed down noticeably.

The result was that both of them made faster progress (mind you they are both in their 30’s now vs. being in their 20’s when we had trained in the past) than they ever had in the past.

If only I knew then what I know now.

That’s why I always keep on learning and experimenting.

I’m always trying to find a better way to help you guys reach your goals faster.

Hope you enjoyed Part 2 and that it all makes sense to you.



How Close to Failure Should You Go?

I used to say you always have to leave one rep in the tank at the end of every set you do. In years gone by that meant one really hard rep that would have gone up slowly, albeit with perfect form. But that’s still a grinder. I’ve seen guys grind an entire set of six reps. That’s a true death set. If you can explode up the first three but grind the last three I would also consider that a death set, nowadays as well.

In order to really keep your CNS fresh, make continual progress and avoid injuries I would always finish your sets so that the last rep looks exactly like the first rep, only slightly slower.

That means that if someone held a gun to your head you could probably grind out another, painfully slow, ugly looking three or more reps per set.

Obviously there’s no easy formula to share here and if I’m not there with you I can’t tell you exactly when to stop your set. But it’s probably sooner than you think. Time and experience are the only things that will help you get this right.

Training “too easy” is far better and safer than training too hard. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if it’s even possible to train “too easy.” Now, granted, what I do only appeals to a certain audience and I attract a certain type of clientele, but most males that I’ve worked with have to be held back rather than motivated to train harder. I would have to imagine that’s the case with most males with two properly functioning testicles.

Of course, you can’t ease up too much. You still need to work hard and need to use an appropriate load and still want the majority of your sets to be in the range of 70-90% of your one rep max. As long as you’re doing that, however, you never want to train to failure on a regular basis. If it happens it happens. Just don’t purposely do it.

How do Different Rep Ranges or Goals Affect Training to Failure?

It’s very important that you don’t go to failure on low rep (1-5), maximal strength work. That seems to be the rep range most negatively affected by doing so. The stress on the CNS is just a bit too much to recover from.

It probably doesn’t need mentioning but just to be safe I should note that you should never come close to failure on speed and power exercises, Olympic lifts, dynamic effort work, etc.

Higher rep hypertrophy work is a different story. If you are training in the 8-15 (and up to 20 for lower body) rep range, with bodyweight or dumbbell exercises that aren’t very stressful you can, in fact, train much closer to failure.

A twelve rep inverted row to failure is an entirely different animal than a three rep deadlift to failure. They’re almost incomparable.

While the deadlift should be crisp and clean, with perfect technique, using a weight you can do five or six times for a triple (ala Ed Coan), the inverted row can be taken very close to failure. The negative effect of doing so will be nowhere near as devastating. I would still finish the set with at least one or two reps left in the tank but feel free to give it everything you have and really push it.

One important note about bodyweight exercises is that even though they are generally less stressful than heavy, compound barbell lifts you still have to be smart when attempting a new movement that requires high levels of skill and coordination.

If you are trying to master the planche pushup, muscle up or pistol squat you are better off doing multiple sets of low reps, far from failure. Once you get to the point where you can do these for sets of ten you can start repping them out to near failure if you so desire.

Bottom Line:
Maximal Strength Work with Big Compound Barbell Lifts = Stay far from failure

Hypertrophy (Size Training) Work with Bodyweight or Dumbbell Exercises = Near failure but still leaving some in the tank

In Part 4 we’ll wrap up the Training to Failure series with discussions about beginners, things I’ve said in the past (am I contradicting myself or just learning with experience?), athletes, the immune system and the training environment.



Can Beginners Go To Failure?

trainingtofailure4 Training to Failure: Part 4 Beginners, Athletes & the Training EnvironmentNo. Raw beginners should never go to failure. That ingrains bad habits. They need a lot of repeated efforts to learn lifts and improve coordination. Let’s say a beginner could squat 95 pounds for 10 reps. I would much rather see him do eight sets of five with 95 than four sets of ten with that same weight. More sets with low reps further away from failure would give him a much better shot at mastering the exercise and making sustainable progress.

What About What I’ve Said in the Past?

In the original version of Muscle Gaining Secrets I explained training to failure much in the same way I have in this series. The problem was that ended up confusing the hell out of everyone and I got far too many emails asking what I was talking about. So I rewrote it.

Most people need a concrete answer and I decided to give them one. Being that the majority of the customers emailing me seemed to be at a beginner to early intermediate level with very little proper training experience I thought this was the best way to simplify everything for them.

When do you stop your set? When you can’t do another rep with good form and you have one more in the tank. That’s the current version of MGS. Pretty simple.

The funny thing is I wouldn’t change that. I even still push some people in my gym closer to failure than they should go because they need to learn what hard work is. In order to know how to stop shy of failure you have to have actually experienced training to failure first. At that stage of someone’s training career I would rather them work too hard than train like a pussy. You can learn all the stuff we’re discussing here with experience.

But everyone’s gotta get under the bar and bust their f*cking ass some time.

How Training To Failure Affects Athletes

dolphins1 Training to Failure: Part 4 Beginners, Athletes & the Training EnvironmentIf all you want to do with your life is lift hard and heavy, three days per week and are willing to do no more than 6-10 total work sets per session, you can train to failure regularly. Your joints and CNS will take a beating but since you are doing nothing else but sitting on the couch all day you should be alright.

If you’re an athlete, however, this won’t cut it. Athletes need to do speed and agility work along with sport or position specific preparation in addition to their strength training.

If your CNS is always shot and your body feels like shit how can you do all of that extra training?

You can’t.

At least not at a highly proficient level.

If you have practices or games the day or so after one of those CNS draining workouts you will likely be less explosive. Your training should be making you faster not slower.

Even if you don’t routinely put on a jersey with your number on it I still consider you an athlete, as I do everyone I train. Constantly training to failure puts a damper on your athletic activities because the workouts take so much time to recover from. They’re neurally, physically and mentally draining. This means that you are almost always less explosive than you should be, and rarely in a fresh, ready-to-play state.

“Hey man, wanna jump in on this pick up game of beach volleyball?”

“I wish I could but I did too many sets to failure yesterday and my CNS is shot. My vertical will be severely compromised. Sorry, bro. Check back with me tomorrow.”

As athletes we should always be fresh and ready for any and all challenges, whether they be pick up games, practices, bar fights, or near death situations. Continually overtaxing your nervous system makes that impossible.

So lift and sprint hard, but never to your max. Heed the great Charlie Francis’s advice and always leave a little in reserve, shying away from doing anything at 100% all out effort.

One side note here that needs to be addressed is that training to failure regularly causes a decreased immune system response, leading to more frequent colds and serious illnesses. When you’re sick you can’t train or play at 100% capacity. Something all athletes should think about.

What About the Training Environment?

If you run a training facility you may be wondering how these changes might negatively impact the atmosphere of your gym. This was a major concern of mine for years. However, there are other ways to keep motivation and intensity high than routinely making every set a death march.

But you will have to instill some type of competition regularly. Just don’t do too much of it. As long as you’re smart and innovative you’ll figure it out. If you want that real badass, competitive atmosphere in your facility you have to take things up a notch from time to time. When you do be sure to lower your overall training volume accordingly.

Remember what I said earlier, though; it’s a hell of a lot more fun and does far more to enhance the training atmosphere when everyone’s actually getting stronger and setting new PR’s on a regular basis.

I’ve been in the gym when guys got weaker or made zero progress and that aint fun. It makes for a horrible training atmosphere in which everyone is uncomfortable and wants to leave.

Trust me; there’s a lot better vibe when numbers are going up than when they’re staying the same or going down.

So keep your maximal strength work far away from failure and try to keep the challenges and the failure work relegated to higher rep, less stressful exercises.

Stimulate, Don’t Annihilate

So what’s the bottom line here with this whole series? Coming from the guy who likes to simplify things as much as possible a four part dissertation on training to failure might seem a bit excessive, you’re thinking…

I can definitely see your point. However, strength and conditioning is my life. I’ve spent the better part of the last 17 years in a gym experimenting and studying. I have found this concept to be so important and so critical to your long term strength gains that I thought it deserved to be examined in full detail.

The goal with strength training, as you’ve heard me say for years, is to stimulate, not annihilate.

Other great coaches and strongmen have instructed us to train, not strain.

Yet another well known saying says that when you’re training to failure, you’re training to fail.

The bottom line is this:

When you’re doing maximal strength or power/speed work on big, compound barbell lifts like snatches, cleans, presses, squats and deadlifts, the range of 1-5 reps you should steer clear of failure. With the Olympic lifts you have no choice. You can’t do a slow, grinding Olympic lift. With the other big lifts you never want to load on so much weight that your form breaks down even slightly or that the weight comes up at an excruciatingly slow, grinding pace.

That’s the way you get injured, weaker or both. So stick with strong, powerful sets, always stopping while you’re still killing the reps with perfect technique.

With higher rep (7-20) assistance exercises, performed with dumbbells or bodyweight you can come closer to failure without having as much of a negative effect. You still want to leave a bare minimum of one perfect rep in the tank, but I prefer 2-3. The choice is up to you and really depends on your training volume and training age, so I can’t give a concrete answer. You’ll figure it out in time.

As long as you feel fresh and motivated, are staying injury free and getting stronger on a consistent basis you’ll know you’re on the right path.

If that’s not the case, chances are you need to scale back the high intensity stuff a bit.

More often than not, that’ll do just the trick.

Good luck.


  • kulafu25kulafu25 Posts: 292C-Class
    good read, wait ko lang din ang mga opinion ng mga veterans sa pagbubuhat regarding dito... =)
  • StannisStannis Posts: 1,377B-Class
    Wala bang TL;DR version? Hahaha.

    Pero lately, di ako ganun ka bilib kay Feruggia.
  • DregPittDregPitt Posts: 987
    Stannis wrote:
    Wala bang TL;DR version? Hahaha.

    Pero lately, di ako ganun ka bilib kay Feruggia.

    same. haba masyado. :D
  • nrg500nrg500 Posts: 1,233B-Class
    Pasensya na, guys :)

    Mahirap kasi pag nag-paraphrase

    Naisip ko lang i-share baka kasi may iba tayong members na naka-experience or experiencing overtraining/CNS fatigue pero di sila aware

    2 weeks ago, nag-deload ako at re-learning all the movements (squat, DL, presses). pero syempre, may challenge pa rin yung weights pero di tulad ng dati na I grind the last reps

    kaya pala dati, pagkatapos ng top working set ko done to failure, I feel very very exhausted. kahit binawasan ko na ng 20% ang weight for the 2nd set (back off set), sobrang bigat pa rin ng pakiramdam.

    ito rin yata dahilan kung bakit sira ang sleep ko. isa kasi sa symptom ng overtraining ay sleeplessness
  • DSmallDivideDSmallDivide Posts: 4,565B-Class
    kamusta na recovery mo nowadays nrg?
  • Big DawgBig Dawg Posts: 645
    I always give a workset all I've got. One must understand the true meaning of failure, which is mostly regarded as positive failure. That means that you take a set to the point that you cannot complete the rep. I rarely go to that point, but occasionally I will get a spot on bp or inclines to have a spotter help me with a couple forced reps. But overall, I usually go to the point that I know I cannot get 1 more rep if I try. Many n00bs might not know when they reach that point bcoz they don't know their body well enough yet, however after being in this game for 35 years, I know mine very well haha. :)
  • nrg500nrg500 Posts: 1,233B-Class
    @ DSmallDivide

    Sir, under observation pa po pero masasabi ko na I don't like crap anymore after my workout

    Dati, sa training to failure every workout, sobrang pagod ako after ng workout ko. Nanglalambot ako.

    Frustrated lang ako ngayon dahil I lost most of the strength I gained.

    Bumalik rin po ako sa regular DL. I switched to sumo DL before because nag-plateu ako sa 170 lbs @ 3 reps sa regular DL. I thought I can work around my weakness.

    Inaaral ko po uli ang back squat at regular DL. 5-lb increase per workout at nagtitira na ako ng 1 or 2 reps in me para sigurado maayos pa rin ang form ko on the last rep

    Sana makabalik ko sa dating strength level at malagpasan ko pa. I have wasted too many years :(
  • badass_vinchbadass_vinch Posts: 4,466A-Class
    I always train to failure. If i aint failing, i aint training haha! You can look at failure in a lot of different ways but unless you've REALLY REACHED FAILURE you wont overtrain. I always see heavy lifters in the gym but i know they are not going all out and they can still up their intensity a bit more. Its very easy to create a hardcore atmosphere in your head but the important thing is the body's response to the training. You can also feel like you've reached failure although you are not there yet. I've learned over the years that our body is really good at adapting.

    If you reached failure on the 9th rep @300lbs, what will you do? Drop the weight coz you might overtrain and think you've reached failure? or try failing at 320lbs? It's a personal choice for me.

    I'll go for the 320lbs! (but ask for a spot hehe)@nrg500: stop ka na muna magDL bro. try ka muna ibang exercise. pattern overload na siguro yan. pahinga muna kahit 1 month sa DL


  • nrg500nrg500 Posts: 1,233B-Class
    stop ka na muna magDL bro. try ka muna ibang exercise. pattern overload na siguro yan. pahinga muna kahit 1 month sa DL

    anong exercise ?
  • badass_vinchbadass_vinch Posts: 4,466A-Class
    uhmmm pull ups, para vertical pulling naman or rows na horizontal ang pull. Accustomed na masyado katawan mo sa DL not necessarily nanghina ka. Based sa experience ko on all exercises, once nagkaron ako ng pattern overload sa isang exercise i always do the opposite motion. in the case of DL your pulling from the ground, so pulling vertically/horizontally will freshen up the back muscles. pag balik sa DL after a month usually mas lumakas ako. Most ng kilala ko na malakas sa DL mahina naman sa pullups.


  • Big DawgBig Dawg Posts: 645
    You can look at failure in a lot of different ways but unless you've REALLY REACHED FAILURE you wont overtrain.

    Bro one can still overtrain without training to failure.
  • badass_vinchbadass_vinch Posts: 4,466A-Class
    uhmmmm yes, looking at other factors also. its very possible. thanks big dawg :)


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