Training to failure or failure to train?


This is the final post in the Strength Training for Kayaking mini series. So far we have looked at;

This final post is another short review of how hard we need to push ourselves and will attempt to answer the question of whether each set should be done to failure or not.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about whether we should be pushing each set of exercises to muscular failure. So if you can do 10 pull ups, should you be doing 10 pull ups (or aiming to) on each set?

So I decided to look into the research a bit more…..

Summary – It appears that similar increases in muscular strength can be achieved with failure and non-failure training. Furthermore, it seems unnecessary to perform failure training to maximise muscular strength. – Davies et al (2016)

Training to failure is likely safe.  Or, at the very least, there’s no direct evidence that it’s particularly dangerous.

Why training to failure is used

Training to failure may make you feel like you have had a good workout, but is it really needed?

Its often used in science. Good research into strength sports uses two groups, one is a experimental group and the other a control group. The two groups must be treated the same in all aspects other than the intervention being looked at. For example, if we want to see if  eating an apple before training helps performance the two groups would have to do the same exercises, to the same level of difficulty, the same number of times with the same rests etc. The only thing that should be different is the eating of the apple. One way that research teams make sure everyone is trying their hardest and not wimping out is to make sure everyone trains the failure. This is led to most people reading the research is that training to failure is the best way to get things done.

Its a good way to make sure you are working hard enough. In order to achieve greater muscle size or strength we do need to reach a certain stress on the muscles. Training to failure is a good way to make we reach that minimum intensity.


Everyone needs to rest now and then. Training to failure may make you more tired and give you no extra benefit.

Why not train to failure?

Firstly its hard, but secondly it can make you so knackerd that you may not be able to perform the next set/session at a high intensity. This could actually reduce the quality and the volume in your training. So if we can reach the intensity needed for strength/muscle growth without overtiring our muscles, this could result in a long term gains or at least make the workouts less painful.

Some people also say that training to failure increases the risk of injury and as an injury can seriously effect your training, it is something to consider.

What does the science say.

When people views are different…. and in this case there are lots of opinions, I find science gives a clearer view of things, or at least gives a place to start looking.

Davies et al (2016), conducted a review of the research and found that strength gains are the same whether we train to failure or stop one or two reps short of failure.

Sampson et al – studied muscle growth and strength and after a 12 week training program. They found that volume was actually higher in the group that trained to failure but despite this, there where no differences between the group that trained to failure and the group that did not.  One-repetition maximum strength increased 30.5%, along with isometric maximal voluntary contraction of the elbow flexors (13.3%) over the 12 weeks, with no differences between the groups. Similarly, alterations in elbow flexor cross-sectional area were not different between groups. To make a long story short, training to failure meant completing more work for a comparable amount of growth. 

For a full review on the science behind training to failure I would recommend this article. 

So whats the alternative to training to failure?

There is a fancy term called Auto-regulation, this is nothing new and has been around and used widely after Borg developed an scale in 1982. This scale was based on perceived exertion and gave a rating from 6 to 20.

One of the main issues with using perceived exertion is that its very subjective and people are not very good at judging the correct level.  This is why Borg used a scale that is anchored on heart rates. So level 6 is a heart rate of 60, whereas 20 is a heart rate of 200. This makes it a bit less subjective and helps people understand the scale.

A scale based on heart rate does not work well for lifting weights though, as heart rates not correspond with how hard you are working. A new method called Reps in Reserve was developed by Dr Eric Helms,  both the Borg scale and Reps in Reserve method are shown below.

Full details on Auto-regulation can be read in this article.

Reps in Reserve Description Borg Scale Description
10 Cant do any more 20 Maximum exertion. Max heart rate
9.5 Cant do any more reps but could do slightly more load 19 Very Very Hard
9 Could do one more rep 18
8.5 Could definitely do 1 more rep, maby two 17 Very Hard
8 Could do 2 more reps 16
7.5 Could do 2 more reps, maybe 3 15 Hard
7 Could do 3 more reps 14
6 Could do 4 more reps 13 Somewhat hard. Heart rate around 130 bmp
5 Could do 5 more reps 12
4 Try harder 11 Fairly light
2 Come on now…stop looking at yourself in the mirror and lift some weights 10
1 Have not got to gym yet! 7-9 Very light

So it seems that training to failure is not necessary for building strength but it can help people make sure they are doing enough work at the gym to avoid being lazy.

An alternative is Auto-regulation, but this does require a bit of experience as you have to know what it feels like when you are 1 or 2 reps away from failure. Auto-regualtion does not work very well if you are using heavy weights and only aiming to lift between one to 5 reps in total. It is best used in in the typical 6 to 12 rep ranges.

How I am going to us this information.
I will mainly using the Reps in Reserve method during my strength training cycles as I feel this will allow me to be fully recovered for any kayaking sessions (which should always be a priority).

If I was ever to do more hypertrophy training using low weights and high reps I will be training to failure as Auto-regulation does not work that well when doing high reps

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