Should We Train To Failure?

Should We Train To Failure? 1
The Co-Founder of Yanre Fitness, Sales Director, Amateur Writer About Fitness Business

To build muscle and increase strength, we must sufficiently challenge our muscle fibres to promote adaptation and growth.

Does this mean we have to grind every set out at the gym, or can we leave a little more “gas in the tank”?

In this article, I explore what the science says about training to failure, as well as using anecdotes from 15 years in the gym and knowledge from the lifting community.

Should we take our exercise sets to failure or stop a few reps short?

Are there exercises that can be taken to failure and some that shouldn’t?

How close to failure should we train to maximize strength and muscle gains?

All these questions will be answered!

What is training until failure?

When should we finish a set of a given exercise in the gym?

Have you ever truly considered whether the endpoint of a set should be a prescribed number of reps, or when you can no longer perform another repetition?

The endpoint of a set is truly down to the individual lifter.

The reality is that most people follow the prescribed repetition route regardless of how much fatigue their choice of weight creates — and that’s a key reason people fail to progress in the gym!

True repetition failure is taking a set to the point where we cannot perform another single contraction/repetition without compromising our form and the duration of a rep.

“The most appropriate conceptualization of momentary failure is that it occurs at the point where, despite the greatest effort, a person is unable to meet and overcome the demands of the exercise causing an involuntary set end point.”

— Steele et al., 2017

It’s not at the point where we think we feel tired or bored of that set. That’s a pretty strong sign you’re not lifting heavy enough.

I’m not going to debate exactly what failure is. There are different definitions in the literature of what point is failure.

Is failure when we cannot do a true rep with perfect form, is a little bit of momentum on the last few reps okay?

We just don’t definitively know. So, look at failure as the point where you try hard to do another rep, form regardless. If you care, look at Dr Mike Israetel’s take on defining failure (it’s more complex than you think) and optimal training volume. If you think you can handle it, give this article a read!

Should we train to failure?

Quick question — Should we train to this point where we can no longer physically perform another repetition without waiting excessive time and/or using momentum and bad form?

Or, should we avoid failure at all costs during our workouts?

Unfortunately, the answer to whether we should train to failure isn’t as simple as yes or no.

Without being completely objective, it’s probably most beneficial to avoid training to failure most of the time.

Training close to failure should provide equal if not better strength and muscle gains in the long term when compared to failure training.

What are the issues with training until failure

Training until failure consistently tends to impact the quality of our workouts because we just cannot complete the same volume (total sets) at a sufficient training intensity to stimulate results.

We fatigue faster, impairing our ability to train hard during a given session.

Moreover, training to failure has long-term implications. Constantly pushing our body to the extreme ultimately results in overtraining — again impairing our ability to train hard enough to stimulate adaption and build muscle.

Overtraining impacts our central nervous system (CNS)/neuromuscular system to perform at our full ability. Ultimately reducing our ability to recover.

Training to failure increases recovery time between sessions. So, people in the gym 3+ days a week will struggle to recover from this style of training in the long term.

How close to failure should we usually train?

We’ve just learnt that it’s probably not worth the risk of regular training to failure. We’ll get comparable results from stopping short of failure, if not better long-term results, due to the reduced physical toll on our bodies.

Fatigue and/or injury — which nobody wants.

And consistency is essential when it comes to making long-term muscle and strength gains.

So, if stopping short of failure provides benefits over training with absolute maximum effort, just how close (proximity) to failure should we train?

Two recent studies look at the exact question, so we’ll look at those before providing an answer.

Recent research on proximity to failure

According to a 2021 study by Andersen and colleagues, leaving approximately 5 reps in reserve (RIR) should produce similar strength and muscle gains to training much closer to failure.

The research participants performed single-leg unilateral leg presses and leg extensions twice per week over nine weeks.

The closer we train to failure, the more velocity loss we experience — so, the study compared a 15% loss on one leg to a 30% velocity loss on the other leg, with muscle gain and strength compared. A 15% velocity loss leaves approximately 5–10 RIR and a 30% loss 1–4 RIR.

There were no statistically significant differences in increases in strength and muscle gain.

More recent research on repetition proximity to failure

A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis looked at randomized human control trial studies directly comparing strength and hypertrophy when carried out to muscle failure versus not to failure.

“Training to muscle failure does not seem to be required for gains in strength and muscle size. However, training in this manner does not seem to have detrimental effects on these adaptations, either.”

— Grgic et al., 2022

The researchers didn’t find a statistical difference in results between people training to failure and those versus stopping short of failure. However, there may be a small benefit to training to failure for gym newbies — but it’s a small difference that perhaps isn’t significant.

We don’t really know yet.

Discussion: failure training

How close to failure should we train to maximise our gains in the gym? Should we ever train to failure?

It’s hard to provide a definitive answer, so here are some guidelines for training until failure.

As discussed, recent research suggests that leaving five or so reps in reserve will produce similar muscle and strength gains to training closer to failure

However, we also know that we need to train at an intensity level that stimulates adaption. If we go into the gym with the mindset that we’re leaving 5 reps in the tank on each set, we’re more likely to be leaving 10 sets in the tank.

Research suggests that many of us underestimate the maximum number of repetitions we can do for different exercises at a given weight. Check out the article below for an in-depth look at training intensity.

As a general rule of thumb for how close to failure you should push in the gym, leave 2 or 3 reps in reserve on each set. However, there are some variables that I’ll discuss below.

Variables that dictate proximity to failure

Should we vary the proximity to failure that we take sets, or should we always stop approximately 2–3 reps short of failure on every exercise?

The science in this area is scarce, but I can provide some recommendations based on my experiences and those of some knowledgeable people who have trained many strength athletes and bodybuilders (a shout-out to Brad Schoenfield in particular).

First, age impacts how close we should train to failure because our ability to recover declines as we age.

Secondly, we can train closer to failure on isolation (single-joint movements) exercises as they induce less stress on our neuromuscular system than compound (multi-joint) movements.

Thus, we should avoid sets to failure on compound movements such as squats or deadlifts to occasionally test our 1RM. I recommend stopping 3–5 reps short of failure on heavy low-rep compound exercises.

Thirdly, machine-based exercises are less taxing from a neuromuscular standpoint than free-weight exercises so can be taken closer to failure more often.

Is there a case for taking any exercises to failure?

The answer is yes for most people.

We should take some sets to the point of failure where we cannot physically do another rep.

But there are some strategies that we should follow so that by taking some sets to failure, we don’t negatively impact our workout or recovery.

First, failure sets should be limited to the last set of a given exercise or workout. If we train to fail at the beginning of a workout, we’ll compromise our energy/strength output for the rest of the workout.

Secondly, we should be selective with the exercise choice for any sets taking to failure.

Choose exercises that minimise the physical and mental impact on our body — isolation exercises on smaller muscle groups are perfect, such as bicep curls or calf raises. Because Isolation exercises typically only work a single joint and general muscle group, they don’t require the same effort as a compound lift working multiple joints and muscle groups.

Like squats.

Thirdly, reserve training to failure for high rep sets. You might think higher reps are more fatiguing, but it’s the opposite — training at low reps of a high percentage of our one-rep max (strength training) is very physically demanding.

Recent research suggests we need to exert more effort and train closer to failure on low-weight, high-rep exercises.

Finally, we could use failure sparingly over certain blocks/cycles of training intensity, called periodisation.

Final Words

In conclusion, although we need to train hard in the gym to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains, we shouldn’t go completely all out.

Training to failure increases fatigue and our likelihood of injury without providing additional benefits to stopping just short of failure.

So, I posed the question, just how short of failure should we stop exercises without negatively impacting our results?

I summarised the recent research on training to failure, which indicates no variance in results between stopping approximately 5 reps short of failure or 1 or 2 reps from failure.

I recommend stopping 2–3 reps short of failure on most exercises. You can take one or two sets a session to failure to ensure that you create a stimulus for adaption and growth — but it should be reserved for the final set of an isolation exercise or workout.

For context, you should do approximately 15–25 total working sets during a single workout. So, as a general guide, we might take 5% of our total sets to failure.

If you take this advice on board and incorporate these recommendations into your training, you should feel fresh for each workout whilst also experiencing muscle and strength gains.

Good luck!

Thank you for reading.


Original post is published on:, and we have gained repost access from Daniel Hopper.

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