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Lifting To Failure: What The Science Says

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways:
  • Proximity to failure is defined as the number of repetitions remaining in a set prior to momentary muscular failure
  • Gone are the days of taking each and every set to failure with the delusion of maximizing strength and hypertrophy gains
  • While going to failure each set isn’t recommended, there isn’t a well defined landing area for how close you should get to failure
  • Leaving a few reps in the tank is more conducive to long term consistency

What is proximity to failure?

Proximity-to-failure is hot in the strength training world. There have been a couple of papers¹⁻² that have really changed what we know when it comes to training for muscle hypertrophy and strength. The days of going to failure to maximize gainz are potentially over. 

Proximity-to-failure is defined as the number of repetitions remaining in a set prior to momentary muscular failure. The extended definition includes the clarification that momentary muscle failure is when an individual cannot complete the concentric portion of a given repetition with a full range-of-motion without deviation from the prescribed form of the exercise.²

This idea of failure may sound familiar if you have been keeping up with our other resources, specifically the ones involving subjective intensity or RPE. As a refresher, RPE is a simple subjective measurement system in which the lifter or athlete rates how close to failure they feel that are after a certain number of reps with a certain amount of weight. RPE 7 indicates about 3 repetitions until failure, RPE 8 indicates about 2 repetitions until failure and so on in both directions. 

RPE is making an appearance in this article on proximity to failure because the higher the RPE, the closer the lifter is to failure.

The reason that you should care about how close you or your lifters get to failure is because it has an influence on both hypertrophy and strength. The closer in proximity you get to failure with any lift, more reps are completed, more mechanical tension is applied to the muscle fibers, and there is an increase in muscle fiber activation. All things we think of when we think of muscle hypertrophy and strength.  

Stepping into the modern world

Proximity to failure has a somewhat rocky past. Lots of new lifters (myself included back in the day) would read magazines and articles on the internet about the benefits of going to failure on each and every set and lift. In fact, you can still see a number of fitness influencers and prominent names in the strength world championing this practice. But the art of selling boloney is nothing new in the strength and conditioning world.

Historically, going to failure served almost as a signal to other lifters in the gym that we were working hard and getting after it. Now that we have more information from articles like the two I’m referencing today, we know that there are some downsides to going all the way to failure that don’t necessarily provide extra benefit for the everyday lifting session. The main question being “is the juice worth the squeeze”?

The downsides that come with training all the way to momentary muscular failure are a couple important things. First, there is a non linear accumulation of neuromuscular fatigue during that last little stretch before getting to failure. If you’ve ever taken a lift to failure, you’ll know what the term “smoked” means. You have an inability to produce even close to the same amount of force as prior to taking that lift to failure, and it doesn’t go away quickly. This is much more pronounced with high skill or compound lifts like the snatch or squat, but can be applied to any lift.

Second, there is an increase in muscle discomfort and damage. This may impair one’s ability to apply sufficient mechanical tension to promote muscle hypertrophy over time via their influence on post-RT recovery and subsequent RT performance, as well as potentially long-term adherence to RT.¹

I know that muscle damage is something that folks seem to gravitate towards, with the idea that the more damage they can inflict, the bigger their muscles will grow, but we know that too much muscle damage has the opposite effect. Shuttling energy away from muscle building properties and more towards “putting the fire” of excessive muscle damage out.³

Both of these phenomena hamper muscle fiber contractility for the remainder of the session as well as subsequent sessions. So while you are lifting hard in the single session, there is an inability to perform to that same level for the remainder of the day, if not the week.

So how hard should you go?

In short, we aren’t sure, but we know it’s not all the way to failure. In both of the papers that I’ve been referencing in this article, there is a gray area when it comes to “optimal” proximity to failure. These two graphs show that there seems to be an inflection point around RPE 6-8 where things are still difficult enough, close enough to failure and have high enough velocity losses to “get the job done” while still skirting the negative effects of going all the way to failure


The idea being that without the neuromuscular fatigue, muscle damage and discomfort, you can simply train more. You can perform more volume while producing more force than you would have if you went all the way to failure.

When is it a good idea to go to failure?

I know I just spent the whole article denouncing going to failure, but there are times where it can and should happen. We know that the specific adaptation to imposed demands or SAID principle still applies here, so if you’re a competitive strength athlete and need to build skill in really close to failure scenarios, there’s no avoiding working to or really close to failure. 

The authors do make a few recommendations if you are still interested in going to failure:

  • The loads are lower, under 50% of a 1RM
  • The movements are lower in complexity like single joint movements or with machines
  • The last set of a given movement or muscle group
  • Resistance trained vs untrained adults

While going to failure looks great on IG, you are and always should be in this for the long game. Training consistency over decades is what you are shooting for, not only for yourself but for your patients and athletes. Does running yourself or your patients into the ground on a daily basis sound like something that can be done consistently for decades? Unlikely.

References:
  1. Refalo et al. Towards an improved understanding of proximity-to-failure in resistance training and its influence on skeletal muscle hypertrophy, neuromuscular fatigue, muscle damage, and perceived discomfort: A scoping review. J Sports Sci. 2022 Jun;40(12):1369-1391. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2022.2080165. Epub 2022 Jun 5. PMID: 35658845.
  2. Refalo et al. Influence of Resistance Training Proximity-to-Failure on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2023 Mar;53(3):649-665. doi: 10.1007/s40279-022-01784-y. Epub 2022 Nov 5. PMID: 36334240; PMCID: PMC9935748.
  3. Damas et al. Resistance training-induced changes in integrated myofibrillar protein synthesis are related to hypertrophy only after attenuation of muscle damage. J Physiol. 2016 Sep 15;594(18):5209-22. doi: 10.1113/JP272472. Epub 2016 Jul 9. PMID: 27219125; PMCID: PMC5023708.

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