Plateau in the Gym? Shatter it with Failure Training for Muscle Growth!

by Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., CSCS*D

February 10, 2017

Failure Training Introduction

I keep hearing conflicting advice. Is it good or bad to incorporate failure training into your program?

Arnold Schwarzenegger once said “The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain, no matter what happens.” Thus according to Arnold and many champions, a critical element in bodybuilding is finding your limits. One way athletes define their boundaries is the point at which they reach failure in a set. Failure occurs during the lifting phase of a repetition when the muscles cannot produce sufficient force to continue to move the weight. In this article, we will discuss how to optimize failure training. We will also discuss a new technique called, forced rep training, which is the opposite of failure training

The Drawbacks to Failure Training


The first thing I want you to realize is that while failure may be a powerful tool in a bodybuilder’s training regime, it does come with a cost when used too frequently. For example, many bodybuilders take every single set they perform to absolute failure, but this may hinder long-term growth. For example, Dr. Izquierdo (2006) found that training to failure every set drastically increased resting levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol and suppressed anabolic growth factors such as IGF-1. In another study, Dr. Gorostiaga’s lab (2012) found that failure training ramped up AMP levels quite drastically compared to nonfailure. AMP is a sign that the cell is drained of energy, and when this occurs protein synthesis or muscle building is decreased. The take home message is that athletes need to be aware that this tool is taxing and should be programmed properly into a given training program.

How to Optimize Failure Training

Even though there are drawbacks to failure training, are several benefits as well. In fact, failure training can be quite anabolic. According to Brad Shoenfeld, a world authority on muscle growth, greater increases in lactic acid in the muscle is critical for muscle growth because it triggers increases in intramuscular growth factors (Shoenfeld 2013). One advantage of failure training is that it increases lactic acid more than nonfailure training (Drinkwater et al. 2005). The second benefit to failure training is that near the end of a set all of your smaller muscle fibers have become fatigued, and your nervous system is forced to use your body’s larger fast twitch muscle fibers.


The only problem is that once you have taxed the nervous system on a set to failure you develop “central fatigue.” When your nervous system is fatigued all following sets will be performed at a much lower capacity. For example, if on set one you can get 10 reps at complete failure, you may only get six the second set. However, if you stopped at 9 reps on set one, you likely will be able to get 8 or 9 on set two. This is because you have less central fatigue. For this reason, I recommend training to failure on the last set of a given exercise. And this is supported by research showing that failure on the last set of each exercise results in greater muscle growth and strength (Drinkwater et al. 2005).

Forced Repetitions


Forced reps occur when an individual reaches failure, and they are assisted by their training partner to continue the set. The benefits with forced reps are similar to failure training but to a greater extent. This means greater metabolic stress and muscle fiber recruitment. However, forced reps and even drop sets cause far more central fatigue than do normal failure training ( Therefore, I suggest you use this as a finisher on your days centered around muscle growth. I also suggest that you plan an adequate amount of rest following beyond failure training. This means proper nutrition and proper sleep.

Failure Traininig Conclusions

To sum up this article I will leave you with 3 important points.

1. Failure training should likely not be used on every set.

2. If you use failure training, wait until the last set per exercise to incorporate it.

3. Individuals using beyond failure techniques should factor in their rest when doing so. Partying and drinking don’t mix well with failure training.