Should You Train to Failure?

The single biggest mistake of my early training career was training to failure.  I was eager for results and like many others, I assumed harder workouts meant faster progress.  Training sessions were all-out wars that left me totally fried at the end.  Thankfully, I made this mistake in my early twenties when my body was resilient enough to recover from these apocalyptic workouts.

At some point while grinding out epic two and three hour workouts five days a week, I realized it was near impossible to work much harder.  I couldn’t sustain this amount of volume if I wanted to keep my job and maintain some semblance of a social life.  That’s when I turned my attention to training smarter.

My current approach to training is a strategic focus on maximum return for minimal effort.  Now, I get better results in shorter workouts and have more time to do the things I love, like play with my daughter.   Plus, I don’t wake up feeling like I got run over by a cement truck.

If I could go back and have a five-minute conversation with the 21 year-old version of myself I’d say: Tanner!  Stop training to failure!!!

Let’s start by defining two kinds of failure. 

Total failure literally means whatever you are lifting comes crashing down on you.  You NEVER want to work to total failure.  Using total failure to complete the rep sacrifices proper technique and embeds improper, ineffective and unsafe movement patterns into your central nervous system.  The more you work to total failure, the more likely your body will default to that flawed movement pattern.

Technical failure is the point at which performing another rep with perfect technique would be impossible.  Training to technical failure on the right lifts at the right time allows you to push yourself without creating bad habits.  Although you’ve “failed” to complete a rep with technical perfection, working to this point of failure still allows your body to experience quality movement patterns while limiting your risk of injury.

Avoid Training to any kind of Failure on the Following:

  • Olympic lifts
  • Plyometrics, jumping and sprinting
  • Releases (on the bars) and throws
  • Ab wheel rollouts
  • Any new skill you are trying to learn
  • Any lifts you haven’t mastered
  • Lifts or movements that require a high degree of technical mastery
  • Lifts that could compromise your lower back or shoulder health
  • Kettlebell snatches
  • When the weight is at/ above 85% of your 1RM, or when you are working in the 1-5 rep range

It’s OK to Work to Technical Failure On:

  • Bodyweight and DB exercises done for 8 reps or more
  • Presses when you have mastered technique and are working 8 reps or more with a focus on hypertrophy over strength
  • Suspension and DB rows (not Bent rows!)
  • Grip work: Pinching, grabbing and finger extension
  • Conditioning exercises with a low degree of technique or movements that you have mastered when done with light weight and a focus on conditioning, not strength.  Example: Barbell Thrusters and Front Squats
  • Battle ropes
  • Loaded carries, except the overhead variety
  • Sled pushes and drags

As a general rule most training sessions should include at least few sets that get you close to technical failure.  But when in doubt, play it safe.  Everyone’s tolerance to intensity and volume is different.

With experience comes an understanding of your own personal limits.  The key is to remember that optimal results come from training smarter, not harder.

Be strong, move beautifully.