Training Beyond Failure
Author: Adam Headland - Team T-Rex Head Coach
Training to muscle failure (when you cannot complete another rep by yourself) is essential for maximum growth, and will give great results when used appropriately. For more experienced lifters who have already built a great deal of muscle, trainers looking to increase the intensity for short periods, or those dealing with a stubborn muscle group – training beyond failure is the next step.
We must be wary when using these techniques. Diet, sleep, supplementation and recovery must be on point, and the mental state should be considered. Are you stressed, distracted, or relying on stimulants to get you through the workout? Save it for another day, when you are fresh. Even then, beyond failure training should be used sparingly as it will cause more muscle damage than normal training, which can tax the entire metabolic system.
There are also techniques that are great for certain exercises, and not so good for others. Adding resistance to the negative portion of the rep works well for exercises like machine presses, preacher curls, and hamstring curls, but try it with leg extensions and you’ll likely hurt your patella tendons. In that case, assisted reps would be a better technique to employ, and drop sets even better. Here I will break down a few of my favourite techniques and the exercises they are appropriate for.
Beyond failure training should be used sparingly as it will cause more muscle damage than normal training, which can tax the entire metabolic system.
This is the technique of having a spotter help you complete the concentric portion of the rep, after you’re unable to perform any more strict reps on your own. You will most commonly see this used on the bench press, and usually poorly! Correct form here is essential: shoulders back and down, chest elevated, maximizing use of the pecs, and maintaining this form as the bar gets heavy. Then, the goal of the spotter should be to help keep the bar travelling at close to the same speed as the regular reps, for 2-4 more assisted reps. The same rules apply for squats and shoulder presses - if form isn’t perfect, forcing more reps is a fast way to get injured. Exercises not suited for assisted reps include any kind of deadlift or lunge, or free weight row. Exercises best suited include bicep curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, ham curls, pec fly, cable pulldown and rows, and most machine and isolation exercises. Two spotters may be required if loading up the leg press or hack squat.
Here we go to failure and then lower the weight for subsequent sets until failure is reached again each time. These will test your willpower and stamina and can be pretty painful, but are among the safest intensifiers. They can also be used on practically any exercise. Pin select, stacked weight machines really lend themselves to this technique. One of my favourite ways to utilize these is to do three drops sets, trying to hit 20 reps on the final drop for maximum pump.
Running The Rack
This technique also falls into this category, and using it for lateral raises is one of my client’s least favorite ways to exercise! Take 4 sets of dumbbells, with the heaviest being a pair you can usually get 10-12 reps with. Do 8 reps with the lightest pair, and then 8 more with each heavier pair. Once you get 8 reps with the heaviest dumbbells, go back down sequentially doing 6 reps with each lighter pair, for a total of 50 reps. If you’re not struggling to complete the reps, go 5 lbs heavier on every pair until you are. By the end of these you will not be able to maintain perfect form, which brings us to the next category!
are utilized by employing a little momentum or body english to get a few more reps when you can’t do any more with strict form. Again, these are for trainers who already have excellent form, and aren’t cheating from rep one! The inexperienced will use cheating to make the exercise easier, instead of more taxing. Using the aforementioned lateral raises, correct form would be to stand with chest up and shoulders back and down (to keep the tension on the lateral delt head and not the traps), lifting the dumbbells from touching the hips to just above parallel to the floor. Once failure is reached, correct cheating form would be to then bend forward a little so the dumbbells touch in front, and return to the exact same upper body position as you complete the rep. That few inches of movement will help get several more reps. Going from seated lateral raises to standing to cheat reps is another killer way to cap out those delts. If you look like a salmon swimming upstream though, feel free to go lighter. Barbell curls are also great for cheat reps, using a little hip thrust, but they’re a lower back killer if you overdo it. Again, compound movements are not appropriate movements for cheat reps. You might get away with bouncing the bar off your chest or bouncing out of the bottom position of a squat for awhile, but it won’t be a long while, and you won’t see any results.
If you’re one of those trainers who gauge workout productiveness by DOMS, you will love these. You are strongest on the negative or eccentric portion of the rep, so even when you have hit concentric failure there is still untapped strength left in the muscle. You can further tax it by having someone assist with raising the weight to the top position, and then controlling the descent yourself. These are mostly for isolation, cable and machine exercises, but also fantastic for pull-ups. Set a bench or step under the pull-up bar, and once you can’t get any more reps, kick off the bench with your feet to the top position, and lower yourself under control, until you can’t hold yourself anymore. These will fry your lats, and the truly masochistic can add weight. You can also self-spot with concentration curls, or some chest press machines that have a foot lever. Plate loaded machines in general are great for these when you do have a spot.
occur when your spotter applies pressure to the eccentric portion of the rep while you resist. The key here is to apply pressure gradually, and only for about the first 2/3rds of the negative. You do not want to apply extra pressure to any muscle in the fully stretched position, or force a trainer to lock out their joints, for obvious reasons. These are great with lying ham curls, preacher curls and lat pulldown.
is a beyond failure technique where you rack the weight, take a few breaths and then attempt to get anywhere from 3-7 more reps. This can be effectively applied with pressing exercises, but make sure you have a spotter handy if using free weights.
are self explanatory and good for burning out the muscle with isolation-type exercises. After you hit failure with full range of motion, strict reps, you would continue the set for another 3-5 reps in the part of the rep where you are the strongest (i.e. on a curl this would be the bottom 1/3 of the range or on a press it would be the upper 1/3 of the range.)
Keep safety first in mind, especially with compound movements that tax several muscles at once. Going beyond failure with squats is not recommended, and not pretty if your lower back fails first! Try one technique per workout for whatever stubborn muscle group you have, train smart, and let us know your results!
Adam headland is a National-Level competitor and one of the head coaches at Team T-rex Training contest prep specialists. Adam has trained multiple athletes to professional status.