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3 Intelligent Ways to Use “Failure” In Your Training

Posted by Joel Marion

In the second part of our discussion on training to failure, we talked about several very important things.

For starters, we cleared up the ambiguity surrounding the term “failure” and established a simple, clear-cut definition of the term.

Alas, we were all on the same page.

At that point, we went on to discuss the pitfalls of regularly training to failure, including the extreme stress these techniques place on the central nervous system.

The end result: overtraining, burnout, skipped workouts, extreme fatigue, and an overall lack of results. Not exactly the type of things you’d hope to generate by “giving it your all” in the gym.

And that’s the point−training hard without training SMART leads to nothing more than a bunch of futile, wasted effort.

That said, training to failure isn’t all bad, and in fact there are several “intelligent” ways to use the technique to get you the results you’re after, faster.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Method 1 – Gradual Failure

As the name suggests, with this approach you gradually move toward failure, achieving true failure only on the last set of a given exercise.

For example, let’s say you are performing dumbbell bench presses and are aiming to complete 5 sets of 8 repetitions. Instead of choosing a load that you can only do 8 times, be conservative and select a weight that you are able to complete 12 solid repetitions with.

Your first set of 8 will be easy, but with limited rest, your last set should be pretty difficult. Here’s what it looks like:

Set 1 – Somewhat Easy
Set 2 – Moderate
Set 3 – Hard
Set 4 – Harder
Set 5 – Very Hard (failure)

By the end of the five sets, you will have maximally stimulated the working muscles without overtaxing your central nervous system. This method can be used fairly regularly without adverse affects.

Method 2 – Periodic Failure

With this method, you “periodically” schedule periods of full-blown failure training into your training schedule.

For example, you may avoid training to failure completely for 3 weeks and then transition into a full week in which you train most sets to failure. This can be a very useful method to really “shock” the body and achieve rapid progress, but I would not use it more than 25% of the time.

Method 3 – Isolated Failure

With this method, you avoid training to failure during big, multi-joint movements (i.e. squats, deadlifts, bench, pull-ups, rows, etc) and instead only train to failure while performing substantially less demanding “isolation” type exercises (curls, leg extensions, tricep pressdowns, lateral raises, etc).

Typically, you would train a muscle to failure via an isolation movement only after big, compound work has already been completed−a phenomenal way to ensure maximal stimulation without the burnout.

How about you?  Do you have another “intelligent” way in which you use failure training?  Questions/comments about today’s post (or failure training in general) as we wrap up our discussion on the subject?

At least 130 comments and I’ll be back with more exclusive members’ content before you know it!


P.S.  As this post concludes our mini-series on training to failure, let’s ramp up the discussion below!


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108 comments - add yours
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I have always followed the first method (without knowing it was better for me) as I always figured it would be annoying changing the weight after each set so being the lazy person I am I just started with this method of training to failure.

I’m glad to hear it is one of the recommended methods. It seems to work well for me. I can’t imagine training to failure EVERY set as by the end of the workout you would be destroyed not to mention your last few exercises would suffer due to the strain you put you on your CNS previously.

Great post,

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Like it, Joel.
Method One is one of my favorite methods, except take a 15-rep weight and do 8 sets of 8 with 1 minute rest between each. I rotate into that every third 6-8 week routine. Really blasts the muscles and gives ’em that “good sore” the next day, I can tell you!

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Thanks for the post. My workouts mostly resemble method 1. I’m looking to change it up, so I think I will give method 2 a try.

I like the methods here as they are easy to follow. Thanks again,

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For over a year now I have been stopping my sets when the repetition speed slows down and never training to failure (I know you think its bogus). I also stopped doing a planned number of sets for an exercise and instead plan a final rep count.

I’ve continued to progress and stay motivated training this way more than I ever did training to failure. Obviously we disagree but I don’t think people should throw out the thought of stopping a set when repetition speed starts to slow down. It’s one of the most beneficial things I have done in my training and my numbers keep going up. Just a thought.

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Joel, thank you so very much for all your extremely helpful articles. I am doing your Cheat Your Way THin diet, and it has worked wonderfully. I will send before and after pictures. But, I want to build muscle. I already have a six pack, and what I need is to build up my tiny muscles. I have sent two emails to the support center a couple of weeks ago, and a couple of days ago, but I have not been answered. My question is What do I do on the diet to opt it for building muscle? Do I increase my protein or just increase my portions in general? Thank you! You are a genius! Are you related to Einstein?

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what type of exercise could you do on a cheat day.i feel bad not doing anything on that day in particular.
best wishes,sue

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Joel, I want to know if it’s possible to build muscle without EVER going to failure?

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I’m just writing to make you understand what a exceptional experience my girl went through visiting your blog. She mastered some details, not to mention what it is like to possess an amazing coaching spirit to have the rest smoothly gain knowledge of a variety of very confusing issues. You actually did more than my desires. Many thanks for giving the productive, dependable, explanatory and fun tips on that topic to Jane.

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