To Succeed, We Must Fail.
During my first year of training, I experienced tremendous results due to beginner neuromuscular adaptation (aka beginners luck). Propelled by weekly gains, my motivation was probably the highest it’s been in my entire training career.
I continued working out hard and consuming a protein rich diet. I was doing everything right. By month 8, my momentum started fading. I had reached a plateau, and was frustrated.
One session, as I was resting on a bench in-between a set of military presses, I was approached by an older guy wearing a raggedy Gold’s tank top from the 80’s.
With giant, swelling muscles, that made him look 20 years younger, I pulled out my headphones and listened to what he had to say. After all, this guy was from the Arnold era. A time where people were strong well before whey protein powder, pre-workout shakes, or CrossFit.
He told me to lift until I couldn’t lift anymore, rest, and repeat.
That lesson he drilled into my head proved to be the most important piece of training advice I’ve received in my entire training career.
Enter Muscle Failure:
Popular bro-science defines muscle failure as:
“not being able to finish a repetition, so the brain gets a signal from the muscle that it’s not strong enough, and is forced to adapt, bro”
A more technical definition would be:
“the point during a resistance exercise set when the muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to control a given load.”
As accurate as bro-science may be, theres a bit more to it than adaption. Working to failure causes a number of muscle-building and fat-burning reactions in our bodies.
We Get Stronger, Faster.
Working to failure recruits our fast-twitch muscle fibers (1).
These fibers cause the greatest increases in strength adaptations, and rapidly propel muscle growth.
Working out at less than 80% of our one rep maximum (1RM) does not recruit our fast-twitch fibers, slowing our ability to get stronger and grow.
We Grow, Faster. A lot faster.
Study after study shows that working to failure is responsible for an increased secretion of important hormones like Testosterone and Human Growth Hormone.
These hormones increase our lean muscle mass, energy levels, sex drive, and even our moods, all while decreasing our body fat.
Testosterone – Also known as the ambition hormone, Testosterone is the force behind the male sex drive. This hormone controls our energy levels and makes our muscles and bones (and boners) bigger and stronger (3).
It’s also proven to get you laid more (4).
Growth Hormone – GH sets us up for muscle growth and fat loss. It increases protein synthesis in our body, which helps muscles recover and grow. It also promotes lipolysis, which switches our body into fat burning mode, especially in the love handles and stomach where insulin is primarily responsible for fat storage (5).
Side Note, For The Ladies:
Working to failure and increasing your testosterone is not going to make you grow a mustache and turn into a beastly she-male (but it’s totally cool if you are one).
Even guys who are doing everything in their power to increase testosterone are having trouble gaining muscle.
Lifting wont cause you to look like a female bodybuilder. Unless you’re lifting heavy, ingesting a massive amount of calories, and injecting growth hormones.
Women have significantly less plasma concentration of testosterone (about 8 times less), but they’re also more sensitive to the hormone (6).
This means that a smaller increase in testosterone can have a more powerful fat loss and “muscle toning” effect for women (7).
So, How do I Start Failing?
The good news is that you don’t have to have to dangle life-threatening weight over your head in order to achieve muscle failure.
We can manipulate the failure of the muscle and optimize our hormones by lifting heavy, and resting lightly.
The shorter the rest, the higher the lactic acid levels in our blood, and the more growth hormones our body releases to regulate that acidity.
If you can do more than 8 repetitions of an exercise with perfect form, the weight is too light, or you are resting too long.
You should really start to feel “it” by the 6th repetition, your form should start to suffer after your 8th repetition, and you should be unable to properly complete the 12th.
Here’s an example of a growth-optimizing workout. I recommend throwing in a “growth day” once a week for my hard-gaining clients looking to pack on serious muscle mass:
A1) BB Squats 5 sets 5 reps 120s rest
A2) BB RDL 4 sets 8-12 reps 30s rest
B1) DB Incline Bench 4 sets 8-12 reps 60s rest
B2) Standing Overhead Press 3 sets 8-12 reps 60s rest
C1) Bent Over BB Row 3 sets 8-12 reps 45s rest
C2) Wide Grip Chins 3 sets failure 30s rest
FIN: Low Cable Straight Bar Curl 1 set 100 reps
This workout begins with major compound movements that maximize strength and hormone production. Moving onto the second and third block, we still work with powerful compound movements, but with shorter rest times to optimize growth hormone production. The low-weight finisher produces tons of lactic acid, which causes the body to respond with acid regulating growth hormones that continue working on our behalf well after the workout.
I recommend completing your workouts in 45-60 minutes, excluding a ten minute full-body warm-up.
Bro-Science (and old-school Bulgarian strength coaches) tells us that testosterone levels return to baseline around 45 minutes, and after 60 minutes the body starts to produce cortisol, a stress hormone that eats muscle tissue and stores more body fat.
While there are no studies backing this claim, a shorter workout usually means pinpoint focus, more intensity, and fewer distractions, bro.
Before You Start Failing:
Training to failure can be your one-way ticket to shredsville, crushing even the most stubborn strength plateaus. But just like any piece of online fitness advice, there are some considerations:
This post was written for those who have been lifting for at least 6 months. If you are just starting to train, focus on perfecting your form and building strength with powerful compound movements. If you failure-train as a beginner, the hormonal results could be counterproductive, and you will most likely injure yourself.
Failure-Training comes with a high potential for overtraining and overuse injuries.
Lift at your own discretion, learn to listen to your body, and remember that getting proper rest is a bigger variable for muscle growth than lifting.
One study even showed that long term (16 week) failure-training decreased growth hormones, and increased stress hormones. This caused a loss in size and strength (5).
To avoid this you should alternate failure weeks with non-failure weeks, and vary different workouts and intensities weekly .
A Word of Advice:
While this post covers the essentials of failure-training for rapid muscle gain, it’s only one pillar in the tripod of fitness success. If you’re not getting wholesome nutritious food, or quality NREM sleep every night, your results will suffer.