How Close to Failure Should You Go?
I used to say you always have to leave one rep in the tank at the end of every set you do. In years gone by that meant one really hard rep that would have gone up slowly, albeit with perfect form. But that’s still a grinder. I’ve seen guys grind an entire set of six reps. That’s a true death set. If you can explode up the first three but grind the last three I would also consider that a death set, nowadays as well.
In order to really keep your CNS fresh, make continual progress and avoid injuries I would always finish your sets so that the last rep looks exactly like the first rep, only slightly slower.
That means that if someone held a gun to your head you could probably grind out another, painfully slow, ugly looking three or more reps per set.
Obviously there’s no easy formula to share here and if I’m not there with you I can’t tell you exactly when to stop your set. But it’s probably sooner than you think. Time and experience are the only things that will help you get this right.
Training “too easy” is far better and safer than training too hard. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if it’s even possible to train “too easy.” Now, granted, what I do only appeals to a certain audience and I attract a certain type of clientele, but most males that I’ve worked with have to be held back rather than motivated to train harder. I would have to imagine that’s the case with most males with two properly functioning testicles.
Of course, you can’t ease up too much. You still need to work hard and need to use an appropriate load and still want the majority of your sets to be in the range of 70-90% of your one rep max. As long as you’re doing that, however, you never want to train to failure on a regular basis. If it happens it happens. Just don’t purposely do it.
How do Different Rep Ranges or Goals Affect Training to Failure?
It’s very important that you don’t go to failure on low rep (1-5), maximal strength work. That seems to be the rep range most negatively affected by doing so. The stress on the CNS is just a bit too much to recover from.
It probably doesn’t need mentioning but just to be safe I should note that you should never come close to failure on speed and power exercises, Olympic lifts, dynamic effort work, etc.
Higher rep hypertrophy work is a different story. If you are training in the 8-15 (and up to 20 for lower body) rep range, with bodyweight or dumbbell exercises that aren’t very stressful you can, in fact, train much closer to failure.
While the deadlift should be crisp and clean, with perfect technique, using a weight you can do five or six times for a triple (ala Ed Coan), the inverted row can be taken very close to failure. The negative effect of doing so will be nowhere near as devastating. I would still finish the set with at least one or two reps left in the tank but feel free to give it everything you have and really push it.
One important note about bodyweight exercises is that even though they are generally less stressful than heavy, compound barbell lifts you still have to be smart when attempting a new movement that requires high levels of skill and coordination.
If you are trying to master the planche pushup, muscle up or pistol squat you are better off doing multiple sets of low reps, far from failure. Once you get to the point where you can do these for sets of ten you can start repping them out to near failure if you so desire.
Maximal Strength Work with Big Compound Barbell Lifts = Stay far from failure
Hypertrophy (Size Training) Work with Bodyweight or Dumbbell Exercises = Near failure but still leaving some in the tank
In Part 4 we’ll wrap up the Training to Failure series with discussions about beginners, things I’ve said in the past (am I contradicting myself or just learning with experience?), athletes, the immune system and the training environment.
Please leave your questions or comments below.