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Training to Failure
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Zen and the Art of Training to Failure

Following on from Gloria’s blog post a few weeks ago about the role of the mind in training, I just wanted to talk a little bit about training to failure, since the mind is very closely tied up in this.

Training to failure isn’t something you necessarily do in each and every set of your workouts, but you do it often enough (depending upon your own personal program, of course) to warrant understanding what exactly it means and how it’s done.

Now, you may be thinking, it’s very simple – you just keep going until you can’t do anymore!  And you would be pretty correct.  But the problem is that the failure point for any given exercise isn’t always that clear cut.

For example, is failure the point at which you absolutely can’t do anymore repetitions of an exercise while maintaining strictly perfect form?  Or is breaking from perfect form just a little quite acceptable, for the sake of being able to do another few reps?  How many more reps?  Is a little bit of “cheating” OK just to finish off a set, and if so, how much can you cheat?

Added to that, you’ll also find that the failure point can involve a lot more “grey area” for some exercises than for others.  In many cases your limit can be largely a mental one in that it depends heavily upon your mindset and your tolerance to pain, whereas in other cases it’s more a physical limit that depends on your strength.

Understanding failure and how to achieve it is paramount for getting the most out of each set of your workout.  Below is an outline of how I like to approach a typical failure set to get the absolute maximum benefit out of it, assuming my objective is hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Internal Focus

First of all, start off the set with what Gloria described in her blog post as an Internal Focus.  This means forming that mind-muscle connection by focusing on the muscle group you’re targeting with the exercise, and visualizing it working as you perform each rep.

What this does is it causes the target muscle group to activate maximally, and do as much of the work as possible, with as little assistance as possible from assisting muscles.  As Gloria mentioned, studies have shown that focusing in this way makes a dramatic difference to the amount of muscle activation you achieve in the target muscle.

Just be aware, however, that focusing internally in this way is so effective at maximizing the working of the target muscle that you’ll need to use less weight than you otherwise would.  So if your goal is to impress people in the gym by working out with big weights, you should probably ignore this advice.  But if results are your goal, then focusing internally is one of the best things you can do to improve the quality of your workouts.

External Focus

Once you feel you can go no further in the set, switch to what Gloria described in her blog post as an External Focus.  This means focusing on the completion of the movement itself, as opposed to the target muscle group being worked.

This shift in focus causes your body to automatically recruit assisting muscles to aid the major working muscle group, making the movement somewhat easier to continue.  Just how much more you can complete using this technique depends on the exercise and muscle group being trained.  In some cases it may allow you to complete several more repetitions, and in others perhaps only one.


Once you feel you can’t go any further using an external focus you have, strictly speaking, reached your failure point.  Bear in mind that up to this point, you’ve maintained strict form and haven’t relied on any deviations to make the movement easier for yourself in any way.

To have any way of continuing the set further, therefore, you’re going to have to “cheat”.  That means breaking from perfect form in some way to allow either other muscles, or momentum, or some other factor, to assist the target muscle group further and therefore allow one or more additional reps to be performed.

Opinions are divided as to whether such cheating is a good thing or a bad thing.  In my opinion, cheating is fine, with the following conditions:

1. It’s done safely and doesn’t create the possibility of injury.

Jiggling or rocking your body backwards and forwards to get through a sticking point or to lock out a heavy deadlift, for example, is just plain scary and should be avoided at all costs.  Rocking your body slightly to facilitate one or two more bicep curls, on the other hand, is quite safe.

2. It’s kept to a sensible level.

Cheating ceases to be sensible when it becomes necessary to compensate for using way too much weight, and/or where an exaggerated amount is necessary.

We’re all familiar with the practice of swinging one’s body slightly during Lat Pull-Downs to get some assistance from momentum.  When done moderately for a repetition or two as a cheat, that’s fine.

Just two days ago in the gym I saw a guy performing Lat Pull-Downs and swinging so hard that his body was literally 30 degrees from horizontal at the bottom of each movement, making the exercise look more like a row than a pull-down.  That exaggerated a movement simply isn’t sensible, in this case so much so that it actually diverted a major part of the effort away from the target muscle group.  Added to that, because he was using far more weight than he could handle, he needed to use this “cheat” for the entire set.

3. It’s only used for a sensible number of repetitions.

In my opinion, a cheat is only really acceptable when used to complete a partial repetition and maybe perform one additional one.  In a longer set of say 18 reps or more, completing a repetition and perhaps two additional ones is okay.

Incorporating a small cheat into the end of a failure set allows you to get a few additional reps from the set, which means a little more volume and therefore more overall benefit.  It does this simply by lightening the load slightly on the target muscle group for those extra few reps to make them achievable.

As I mentioned earlier, cheating is different for each exercise and each muscle group.  In some cases you won’t be able to cheat safely, in which case you shouldn’t at all.  Sometimes cheating will make a minimal difference to your set and other times it will make quite a bit.  The important thing is to keep it safe and not overdo it.

By using this 3-step approach to getting the most out of your failure sets you’ll maximize the effectiveness of your training by ensuring as thorough a workout on your target muscle groups as possible.

Give it a try!

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Fabian Colussi is a women's Bikini and Figure competition coach for natural athletes, certified personal trainer and gym instructor, and women's fitness consultant. He also has a background in martial arts, is an NLP Master Practitioner, and has a certification in Hypnotherapy. Fabian is a co-owner and co-founder of Million Dollar Baby Fitness.

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