You may be wondering, “Should I be lifting to muscle failure? How do I know if I’ve hit failure?”
In strength training, lifting to muscle failure means performing a specific resistance training activity enough times that the primary muscle cannot perform one more rep of that exercise with proper form.
While this technique certainly has benefits, it should not be used on every set of every exercise, every time you lift.
Lifting to failure is not necessary to make progress. It can even hinder your progress if done too often and increase the risk of overtraining and injury.
Some exercises are also riskier than others when lifting to failure. For example, compound lifts such as the barbell squat, deadlift or the bench press can be dangerous exercises to push to absolute failure, especially for beginners and intermediates.
Lifting to failure is much safer when performing isolation exercises such as bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, or leg extensions where you don’t run as much of a risk of getting stuck under a barbell or blowing your back out.
Where going all the way to failure can be helpful is if you’re trying to achieve hypertrophy (get bigger muscles). In other words, if you’re more interested in achieving a certain look than you are in actually getting stronger or setting PR’s, you should incorporate lifting to failure in your program.
If this is you, I recommend for most exercises and sets in the beginning of your workout that you leave 1-2 reps in the tank, and then at the end of your workout, lift to failure on some of the isolation exercises that work the smaller muscle groups.
Committed To Your Health,
Brian Donovan is a certified fitness and nutrition coach, and the founder of Online Fitness Coach, LLC – an online fitness program where clients get direct coaching and personally tailored training and nutrition plans. Coach Brian was voted Chicago’s “Best Personal Trainer” by Chicago Reader magazine, Best Of Chicago 2014 edition. He has been featured in magazines such as Muscle & Fitness, Chicago Reader, Voyage Chicago, and The PTDC as well various other health and fitness blogs.
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