Training to Failure: Part 2- Lessons From The Old School

How Were the Pioneers of Physical Culture Able to Get so Strong?

People who know about my obsession with old time physical culture and the early days of strength training often ask me why there are so few people today who can perform the feats of strength that the greats were capable of over a century ago.

I mean, science, technology and training equipment must have improved, right? Plus the addition of high tech supplements and steroids has to make a big difference as well, no?

Then why is it so hard in this day and age for people to match the feats of strength performed by guys like George Hackenschmidt? How many people, in 2010, can put up close to 400 pounds overhead with one arm like Arthur Saxon did in 1906?

One of the ways Saxon got so strong was that he practiced his lifts with lighter weights and perfect technique. He always stopped while he was fresh because he knew he had to perform again the next day. It was his job. He traveled around and performed massive feats of strength for audiences on a routine basis, several times per week. The only way that could have ever been possible was by making sure he never came close to failure or “trained on the nerve,” as they used to refer to it.

To more clearly answer the question of why old time strongmen were able to perform feats that would still be impossible for most mortals today we need to address one critically important concept. This is a concept that the old timers understood very well. It’s been long forgotten in the days of “high intensity training” and Rocky Balboa YouTube montages. But in a world where bodybuilding has been confused with strength training this concept could very well be the key to mind blowing gains.

The single most important concept for people to understand is that strength is a skill and you need to treat it as such.

I’m gonna repeat that because it’s so important that you understand it…

Strength is a skill.

Let it sink in for a second.

When you think about it that way the whole thing becomes much easier to grasp.

You are training your nervous system to be more efficient.

That’s why all of the great old time strongmen, like Louis Cyr, Eugene Sandow and Earle Liederman called their workouts “practice.” Lifting was their sport so they understood, as does a good pitching coach, that you can not continue practicing in a fatigued state or you ingrain bad habits. A good pitching or tennis coach would not let you continue on when your speed starts slowing down and your form gets sloppy. They know that you’re done for the day at that point. The same can be said about a good sprint coach.

Lifting a heavy weight is really no different than serving or throwing a ball incredibly hard or sprinting at high speeds. Sure, some people may want to argue semantics, but it’s all human performance and based on the same principles at the end of the day.

You get stronger in one of two ways; improving the efficiency of your nervous system or increasing the size of your muscles. Obviously, you can’t continually increase the size of your muscles forever. But you can steadily make neural strength gains for quite some time if you train properly. That’s how athletes in weight class sports are able to get continually stronger without gaining weight.

Olympic lifters don’t go to failure and they are able to train every day because of it. Gymnasts don’t go to failure, yet they posses astonishing strength and incredible physiques.

In his 1925 book, Secrets of Strength, Earle Liederman described a lifter who trained to failure in the following way, “Literally he has worked himself out, and this is exactly the thing the strength seeker can not afford to do.”

What About the Max Effort Method?

Many of you will be familiar with the Max Effort Method, as popularized by Westside Barbell Club. This method has produced some of the strongest lifters in the world and works quite well for their members who I have nothing but the utmost respect for. They never hit failure but they do sometimes do slow, grinding singles. That’s true sport specific training for them, however. They need to learn to grind a single in competition. I don’t train powerlifters so that’s why I don’t use their exact training methods. Although, I did for many years.

The Max Effort Method was the basis for the majority of my programs for close to a decade. When I originally started incorporating it many moons ago I had all of my guys work up until they hit a true 1-3 rep max that they had to fight to the death to lock out.

For a while people got stronger. After just a few months, however, I found that almost everyone started burning out pretty rapidly and getting injured with this approach. Then they started getting weaker.

In time I modified it so that we would stop further away from a true max. Instead of working up to 100% we would stop somewhere between 95 and 97%. From a science/research perspective there was really no benefit in going higher, anyway. Results were significantly better with this approach.

I had a conversation with Jim Wendler over a few beers back in 2003 or 2004 and he told me that, “Low rep, max effort work is only testing your strength; it’s not building it.” This was an epiphany for me at the time since I had become so obsessed with the Max Effort Method.

It made so much sense I smacked myself for not recognizing it earlier.

In time I lowered the range to 90-95% and added a bit more volume. With this modification the results improved significantly. To this day I may write 3RM or 5RM on a workout for simplicity’s sake, but what I really mean is a top end set that’s about 90-95% of your true max. In addition to the top end set I also like a back off set that’s 90% of the best weight for the day. If you do that and “work up” properly you get an appropriate amount of heavy training in to build strength without burning out your nervous system.

If you like to use the Max Effort method I suggest using the aforementioned modified approach and doing so on no more than two exercises per week; one for the upper body and one for the lower body, preferably a minimum of 48-72 hours apart. The rest of your workout should consist of less stressful assistance exercises done with a lower percentage of your one rep max, stopping each set shy of failure.

This method was practiced by numerous record setting lifters like Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski long before the Max Effort method became so popular. Instead of going to 100% on a regular basis, Ed Coan was known to do triples with his five rep max and do a larger majority of work in the range of 80-90%.

This type of system is also one that many powerlifters and former proponents of the Max Effort method like Jim Wendler and Jason Pegg have switched to and found to be more effective.

That’s the approach I use in Minimalist Training and have used with all of my clients over the last several years. It makes a huge difference. This method also allows you to get more heavy work in without frying your nervous system. As long as you are training with a proper percentage of your one rep max there is absolutely no benefit in training to failure. You still get the same training effect, albeit without the negatives.

This summer I had a chance to work with two former clients, both of whom were 500 pound squatters. They had long since graduated from college and moved to different states. One was back in town for a few months and came to train at Renegade. Another hired me to get him ready for an athletic comeback and I designed him programs and consulted with him via email and phone calls. In the past I always had these guys train a lot closer to failure. This time I held them back. We never hit a true max at any rep range, instead choosing to always leave something in the tank and stop the sets when speed slowed down noticeably.

The result was that both of them made faster progress (mind you they are both in their 30’s now vs. being in their 20’s when we had trained in the past) than they ever had in the past.

If only I knew then what I know now.

That’s why I always keep on learning and experimenting.

I’m always trying to find a better way to help you guys reach your goals faster.

Hope you enjoyed Part 2 and that it all makes sense to you.

There are many questions still to be answered coming up in this series, such as:
•    How different rep ranges affect how close you can go to failure
•    Training for size vs. training for strength and how it relates to going to failure
•    If beginners can or should train to failure
•    Can you or should you cycle training to failure

In the meantime let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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40 Responses to Training to Failure: Part 2- Lessons From The Old School

  1. Raymond - ZenMyFitness December 1, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Hey Jason,

    I began lifting weights a few years ago but only recently started to really enjoy it. I love progressing making the numbers go up (even if its a 1kg), so I want to train for the long term.

    I’m using MGS right now (and yeah that’s helped me enjoy the workouts more) .. I’ve just brought Minimalist Training and can’t wait to get stuck into it.

    My Question is should I have a break to a different (e.g lighter/higher volume) style of training for a while before going hard again, or after 1 weeks break just get straight into Minimalist Training?
    I mean take a de-load or recovery workout period maybe 2-4 weeks+ or whatever.

    Also these articles are golden I’m seriously thinking about printing them all out and making a reference book and your answers to questions is a great FAQ.

    At 47 y/o I believe that lower volume, not training to failure is helping my joints and body recover so I can hit the gym regularly as opposed to when I started out with the complete opposite and did get more injuries.


    • Jason Ferruggia December 3, 2010 at 7:39 am #

      @Raymond – ZenMyFitness: No, just take a week off and then get into Minimalist Training.

      @Ashley- If you are training for enhanced performance, speed, power, etc. a set should rarely last longer than 20 seconds.

      @Christian- Thanks. That’s covered a bit in part 3.

      @Andrew- Get smaller blocks or put a mat under your head to cut the range. Do 5-7 sets of 3- 5 twice a week and gradually lower yourself.

      @Julio G- It depends on the rep range and the percentage of weight used. If it’s maximal strength work, then yes, the weights will slow down for the last couple of reps. As long as the intent is there you’re fine. For Oly lifts or other speed work the reps should always move fast. The assistance work should move fast as well.

  2. markl December 1, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Great article, I’m really looking forward to the next installment.

    The challenge for me is balancing the need to increase weights or reps each workout vs knowing when is is time to back off and accept that this particular week it ain’t gonna happen. It is hard to hold myself back …. it seems like that is the real skill I need to master.

  3. Ashley December 1, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    great article. always found your articles interesting and helpful. hope everything’s going well. do u still recommend people taking up to 20 seconds per set of any weight exercise for the whole explosive thing?

  4. Christian December 1, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    Awesome article Jay!! You are one of the best in the industry!!

    I’m in the military and wondering if you can talk about body weight exercises and how going to failure relates to them.


  5. bruce December 1, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    love this.thanks for sharing.

  6. Andrew December 1, 2010 at 10:47 am #

    Hey Jason,

    How would go about avoiding failure when trying to learn certain difficult bodyweight exercise? For example, I can do 10 reps of handstand pushups and am currently trying to get to 10 reps with my hands elevated on cinder blocks. I can always do one rep with my hands elevated, but the 2nd is almost always a real grind. How would you go about avoiding failure you can only do 1 or 2 reps?


  7. Julio G. December 1, 2010 at 11:04 am #

    In a post time ago you mentioned that to mantain athletic performance while lifting, we should lift explosively (quickly and using the stretch reflex to start the lifting portion) but as a sidenote you also said that it didn’t matter if we didn’t manage to do quick reps just the effort we putted on trying to do them quickly: you can’t complete 6 heavy reps with the same speed, as you progress it turns more and more difficult to maintain the speed.
    What I mean is, are there any problems in doing maybe 2 slower reps (not grinding conciously, just getting slower due to the effort) or should we stay away from this?

  8. Justin December 1, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    I am loving this series. I am looking forward to part 3. Keep up the great work!

  9. louis December 1, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Hey Jason,

    Nice post. I also like learning about the old school guys and there feats of strength. I am with you on your basic approach to training. I like how these guys were really strong and bodybuilders back in the day had great physiques and they didn’t have what all we have today. Most “gurus” will tell you that you need all the supplements, this crazy diet, this complicated routine, and this fancy machine to get the goals you want. Its jusyt nice to see a no bs approach to training! Thanks!


  10. Matt December 1, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Hey Jason,

    How do you go about testing your clients 1RM so that you know you are working in their 90-95% range? What lifts would you use? Thanks!!


    • Jason Ferruggia December 3, 2010 at 7:42 am #

      @Matt: We use the squat, some sort of deadlift, overhead press and some type of bench, incline or floor press. You test their 1RM and base the percentages off that. If you don’t know their 1RM an experienced coach will know when someone is in the 90-95% range as will an experienced lifter.

      @Steve- Wow. Thanks a lot. Great to hear of your progress.

      @Charlie- Thanks a lot for sharing.

      @Kevin- Great example.

  11. Steve December 1, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Nice work Jason.

    Man, if I only knew this 20 years ago… Until I started reading your blog and your material, I would have never considered NOT training to failure. The difference that this alone has made to my training has been huge. My joints don’t hurt anywhere near as much, I get far fewer colds (probably exhausted my CNS and immune system with 15+ death grind sets, 3 times per week), I’m making serious strength gains and I actually enjoy training these days.

    Plus I gotta say, I’m loving your Minimalist Training. I guess over the years of on again, off again training, I convinced myself I was an intermediate to advanced lifter. After reading Minimalist Training, I decided to go right back to the beginning and do a basic program – 3 exercises per workout, 3 times per week. In four workouts (ie. just over a week), I’ve made more progress than I had in the last few months on more advanced programs. And it’s so freaking simple – but I guess that’s the idea…

    Can’t thank you enough! Cheers!


  12. Charlie December 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    Awesome post. I’m really thankful that you and other top trainers and educators are working to clear up the hype around high intensity training. People treat their training like an all-you-can-eat buffet where unless they feel trashed, they feel that haven’t gotten their money’s worth. Then they get jacked up on stress hormones put a ton of reps on their joints they and wonder why they look and feel like crap and are predisposed to injury.

    I trained that way for years and all I managed to do was to stay underweight and fry my adrenals. Replacing those MMA style workouts (Read 3 Triplexes, and going though each of them 3 times) with 2 to 6 multi-joint movements has made a world of difference. My clients are also a lot happier and are seeing better results since I’ve steered clear of that training mentality.

    My strongman lifts have made some serious progress as well.

    Thanks again.

  13. kevin December 1, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    Another great example is American Weightlifting legend John Davis.

    Davis talked about how he felt 8×2 was a great set ,rep scheme for building strength. He spoke about leaving training sessions fresh.

    Jason you nailed it with how the media, has created the notion we must be laying in a pull of sweat, with quivering muscles or we didn’t train.

    How the idea of pain being superior to progress is puzzling.

  14. John December 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    Raymond, I keep all the good articles I come across and was thinking of doing what you suggested. LOL

    Hey at 49 I have to remind myself that I am not 20 or 30 and can’t train like it. I already have issues with tennis elbow on both arms, two messed up shoulders that am nursing and yesterday blew back doing RDL. First time hearing a pop in my lower back. Finding that getting back into shape I was in my 20′s 30′s is not as easy especially after not working out for 17 years.

    I am finding a lot of B.S. being thrown around by online trainers which makes me want to scream.

    These are great reads and learning as no matter how much I know its never enough.

    Great article as always.

  15. Steve Lund December 1, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    “Training to Failure” always makes me chuckle. What other sport but bodybuilding would come up with this concept? Can you imagine a 100 meter coach having an athlete sprint until he/she can no longer stand? Shot-put Coach pushing an athlete to throw until they can no longer raise their arm? Would the trainees come back the next day? Would the coach have a job by the end of the week?

    • Jason Ferruggia December 3, 2010 at 7:48 am #

      @Steve Lund: Great point, Steve.

      @Gudmundur- Always try to get better. Beyond the beginner level this may not happen at every workout. But you must strive to add weight and reps. Don’t get overly concerned about the speed at your level. Just keep pushing the weights, but accept the fact that you won’t go up at every workout.

      @peter- Thanks. There are a few ways to do it based on your level of experience. What I would usually end up doing is working up. Then if I overshoot it on the third set I will drop back down on the fourth. Beginners should do straight sets. The way you’re doing it is fine. As long as the sets are strong and you’re not doing slow grinders you can go up or down. At each workout you just want to make sure you are trying to do slightly more than you did the previous time. So multiply the reps you got times the weight to get your total tonnage. As long as that’s up next workout it doesn’t really matter how you get there.

  16. Guðmundur December 1, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    Confused !!
    Up til now you have talked about maximum weight, …and keeping diary, … and anything short of last exercisies result is a falure … lift maximum 8x reps and if u get 8x then add more weight ?!?
    But now u want to speed mesure the lifts ;-) ?!

    Im not saying this is the wrong way …. actually im for it …cause i have constantly tryed to go heawier or more reps upto 8x for quite some time and as u say it wears me out.
    You have to make up your mind Jason ;-)

  17. peter December 1, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    Jason, another great post brother, how would you use this approach to a 4×8 set rep scheme? would you do some work up sets then do the 4 sets at 60-70-80-90% of max or keep the weight the same and add lbs the following week, i find that i can do set 1,2 but 3 and 4 i hit 6-7reps and start to slow down (fn confused man) or should i drop the weight so i am not burning out in set 3-4set?, sorry if i confused you just trying to get on the right track.
    Be Well.

  18. Chris December 1, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    So how explosive and fast should I be doing squats? I am concerned I may be doing them too slow. I don’t do ugly, grinding reps…but all of my reps are somewhat at a slow, controlled pace. I tried to speed up the reps and be more explosive earlier this evening, and had to drop the weight nearly 40 lbs to be faster. I still wouldn’t consider the reps explosive…but they were faster. Is this much a drop in weight seem right? Is it too much? Or are slow, controlled reps okay??? I want to try to do what you are suggesting lately and be explosive and fast, yet the large drop in weight is freaking me out a little.

    • Jason Ferruggia December 3, 2010 at 7:50 am #

      @Chris: You need to control the descent and explode up while staying as tight as possible. As long as they aren’t slow, ugly, grinding death reps I wouldn’t worry about the speed too much.

      @Jason- Good point about the male ego.

      @Matt- That’s aimed at skinny hardgainers and beginners. They need to go to failure in order to know what it is. Only then can you know how to stop shy of it.

  19. Stephen December 1, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    I would trade 20 lbs. of muscle for that mustache.

  20. Tim December 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    Part 2 of this post was certainly better than part 1….
    @Steve Lund- I think you put it best in your comment, when looking at it that way you have to shake your head dont you

  21. Jason - Fitness and Workouts December 1, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    great post. I think you hit a major point when you talk about bodybuilding being confused with strength training.

    We are always hit with bodybuilding magazines. When I first started to weight train that was all I had to go off of. Power lifting and strength training information was not around or easy to find.

    I think another problem we run into is the male ego. Stopping short of failure is often looked at as being soft.

  22. Matt December 2, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    I’m a bit confused now.

    I just finished reading your Muscle Gaining Secrets, and in there you say that you should go to failure.

    Is this a revision of that based on newer information, or is this a difference between training for max strength vs. training for mass?

  23. Guðmundur December 2, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    2 confused over the same thing… Guðmundur and Matt
    Can u clarify this dear Jason ;-)

  24. Jimmy December 2, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    I love these series as they show what has worked for you in detail and how you have grown as you experiment on your athletes. As I get older, I have realized that hitting max out sets are unecessary for most trainees. Why not keep progressing and staying injury free? I am more strong than I have ever been and my clients are getting better results as well. I think when I was younger competition to lift the largest amount of weight got to me. Look forward to the upcoming series.

  25. Fred Hahn December 3, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    Interesting article.

    You said:

    “We never hit a true max at any rep range, instead choosing to always leave something in the tank and stop the sets when speed slowed down noticeably. The result was that both of them made faster progress (mind you they are both in their 30’s now vs. being in their 20’s when we had trained in the past) than they ever had in the past. If only I knew then what I know now.”

    Could you be more specific? What do you mean by “made faster progress?” Can you give specific examples? Without examples I have no idea what you are talking about.

    By contrast, we train our clients to failure all the time and I have never, ever seen a problem. When discussing CNS overload, perhaps it is not the training to failure aspect as much as too much training over all.

  26. Jason Ferruggia December 3, 2010 at 7:51 am #

    I think the rest of this series will answer some questions many of you still have.

  27. Chris December 3, 2010 at 9:50 am #

    Thanks for the input Jason!

  28. Vaclav Gregor December 4, 2010 at 5:08 am #

    This made me think for a while. Interesting ideas about the strength and muscle gains. For some people it may seem contrary, but I think it’s logical not to completely crush your muscles in the gym, while still train hard every day.
    I noticed this on myself, I started training my shoulders four times a week about 10 months ago, while it may seem really hard, in reality it’s not. I just do few exercises after every regular workout. With this approach I don’t have fatique or muscle soreness and I experience much grater gains.
    Keep up the good work, I can see on your articles that you are a true expert with a lot of experience.

  29. Alejandro December 5, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    I cant wait to hear about begginers and failure. I am still very beginer and I work to failure (watching good rep form though, I consider it done when the rep is off) and for now the least my PR have been going up. I am really excited to hear your opinions about it to maximaze my gains!

  30. Daniel December 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    The spread of valueble information is rare on the Internet, good stuff, things I’d wish I had picked up on sooner, now I’m big and unstable but working on that…I comprimed what I thought was strength for structural integrity and it’s been a process trying to undo years of bad lifting

  31. Jonathan April 27, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    This concept is new to me, it always seemed like common sense that the way to expand your limits was to push your limits, i.e. training to failure. But you have made a convincing argument and I will try it the way you describe.

    BUT ONE QUESTION: How does this apply to calisthenics? For example, I can currently do around 50-80 push-ups, my rep max seems to change frequently and this feels wrong… I’ll make amazing gains in short term, and them immediately fall back and take weeks to get it back! I now wonder if this is because I always do as many push-ups as I can. Maybe I’m supposed to quit when my pace slows down considerably. Same thing for sit-ups, but with less extreme differences. Any thoughts about this? ( also… When sprinting, I always sprint until I’m out of breath, is this the same as training to exhaustion?)

  32. Wyatt June 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Hey, I’m a 14 year old who does a lot of pull-ups, and i’ve been training for the 9th grade record. I’ve been doing the workout you suggested, but some wierd things have been happening in my pullup count. Training hard about 6 months ago, I could do about 27. Then I hurt my leg, and stopped working out. When I started again, I could only do about 15-20. Training off and on for the last couple of months, I had gotten back up to comfortably doing about 22 or 23. But in the last week, I did a 5 day workout, never going to failure, and gave myself 3 days rest. When I went to do them again this week and see if I had improved, I found that I could only comfortably do 10-15. I’ve also noticed a feeling of weakness in my biceps. Do I need more rest, or did I possibly hurt myself? I would greatly appreciate any insight, thanks.

  33. Anirban August 30, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    Hi Jason,
    My question to you is that stalwarts like Louie Simmons, Dave Tate propose to hit your max(3RM or 1RM) every time you lift, only that you change the lift every 1,2 or 3 weeks. Now the results they have had are spectacular. So, I am really confused. Can you help please?

  34. RAMBO March 21, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    Pretty awesome stuff… I think another benefit from not going to failure is the fact that soreness levels are very much reduced, giving you the opportunity to train day in and day out for your other sports other than just focusing on power or strength… Because there is nothing worse then being so sore you can’t even get up to do a session of skills or technique training… I’m now learning how to increase quality training over quantity, I still get sore but its mainly from being to anxious that I just tend to do to much because it feels so good lol.

  35. Sam April 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    do u have any workouts i could have to use with this training

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