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Training to Almost Failure

by Gary F. Zeolla

There are different philosophies on hard one would work when lifting weights. Should one continue doing a set to failure, stop at a specific number of reps, or something in-between? This article will discuss these different options.

Training to Failure

By training to failure is meant to use an all out effort, continuing a set until one is not able to complete the final rep. So this means that one always “misses” the last rep of the set. But some claim that doing one set to failure in this fashion is all that is needed for ultimate strength development.

When working to failure, a range of reps is needed rather than a specific number of reps as one can never be sure of just how many reps it will take to reach failure. Once the top number of reps is reached the weight is increased for the next workout. And just a five-pound increase can make a difference of as many as 4 reps. So the range for the reps is usually something like 8-12 or 6-10.

Now there is no doubt one will get stronger this way. But personally I have found that after a period of time I cease to make progress doing one set to failure. Of course, one could do two sets to failure. In such a case the lifter will probably not be able to do as many reps for the second set as for the first as the first set.

However, regardless of the number of sets, working to failure on all sets all of the time can easily lead to overtraining. It is also taxing psychologically. One could “burn-out” trying to push that hard on each and every set.

Moreover, it can be draining emotionally to always miss the last rep of a set. Missing a rep is an emotional “downer” while completing the full number of reps in a set can give one an emotional “high.” It just feels good to complete the full number of reps one planned on doing. So there are several potential problems with the working to failure philosophy.

Specific Number of Reps

The next philosophy is to use multiple sets and go for a specific number of reps, like 3 sets of 5 reps. And again, there is no doubt one will gain strength with this method. But again, there are potential drawbacks.

It is possible that in going for a specific number of reps the lifter might not work hard enough. Sometimes it can be hard to gauge how exactly many reps one will be able to get with a given weight. So if a lifter plans on going for five reps, he will probably stop at five even if the fifth rep is not that difficult.

So what usually happens is the lifter starts adding additional sets to get some in real work. But once lifters start doing 4 or more sets usually they do not push very hard on the first couple of sets. So they are often just glorified warm-ups and not real work sets. But even with the lower intensity, such a volume of sets can lead to overtraining. At the very least, it makes for very long workouts.

My Approach

What is needed in training is a balance between working hard enough without working too hard or too much. To accomplish this, my approach is as follows.

I use a range for my reps rather than a specific number, but I use a smaller range than the one set to failure range. I usually only use a range of 2 reps. Right now, for example, I am doing 6-8 reps for the powerlifts and other major compound movements. Also, I am doing two sets rather than just one.

For the first set I will work very hard, but I will hold back from going “all out.” IOW, if it would take an all out effort to get the eighth rep I will stop at seven. The reason for this is I want to be sure I have enough strength left to get at least 6 reps on the second set.

For the second set I will work as hard as I am able, but I will stop the set when I would probably not be able to complete the next rep. But if there is a reasonable chance that I can get the next rep, then I will go for it. So ideally, even if it requires an all out effort, I should always be able to complete the last rep I attempt. As a result, I am not really working to failure. My method would best be described as training to almost failure.

When I can complete the top number of reps for both sets for any given exercise I will increase the weight for the next workout. I usually go up by five-pounds, but those using heavier weights than I do might need to increase by 10 or more pounds to stay within the prescribed range for the next workout. OTOH, if for some reason I'm unable to complete the lower number of reps for both sets I would drop the weight for the next workout.

So, for example, for my last workout I started with squats. For the first set I did eight reps. The eighth rep was hard, but not an all-out effort. I might have been able to do a ninth rep, but I stopped at 8 reps as that was the top of my range. But even if it weren’t I probably would not have attempted the next rep anyway to save strength for the next set.

For the second set I also did eight reps, with the eighth rep being almost a “max” rep. I really had to work to get it, but I did get it. And since I completed the full 8 reps for both sets, for my next workout I will increase the weight by five pounds.

I then moved to benches. Again, for the first set I got 8 reps, with the last rep being very hard. Then on the next set I did 7 reps, with the seventh rep being very difficult. It wasn’t a max effort, but still it was hard enough that most likely I would not have been able to complete the eighth rep no matter how hard I worked. So I stopped at 7 reps and didn’t even attempt the eighth rep.

Since I did not get the top number of reps for both sets, I will stick with the same weight for my next bench workout. But given how close I was this time, I am sure that by my next workout I will get the full 8 reps on both sets and will be able to increase the weight for the following workout.

In fact, using this program, I have been able to increase the weight by five pounds almost every workout for squats and deadlifts and every other workout for benches. A couple of times the first set of squats and deadlifts was so easy that I went ahead and increased the weight five pounds for the second set and still got the full number of reps. But this is rare.

Right now I am in the midst of a cycle. I started by doing 8-10 reps for the powerlifts for three weeks. I will probably do 6-8 reps for about the same length of time. Then I will drop to 4-6 reps for a least a month, then to 2-4 reps for about a month. So I am incorporating different rep ranges, but greater time will be spent on lower reps.

These rep ranges are only for the powerlifts. For major assistance exercises I probably won’t drop below 4-6 reps, and minor assistance exercises will stay even higher. So, for instance, on reverse curls I am doing 8-12 reps. The larger rep range is needed as a five pound jump makes more of a difference given that lighter weights are used for reverse curls than for the powerlifts.

I have also found that dumbbell exercises require a larger rep range. This is again due to the fact that less weight is used when doing exercises using one dumbbell (like dumbbell rows), and when doing exercises where a pair of dumbbells is used (like dumbbell benches) one must increase by ten pounds. So for dumbbell exercises I am doing 6-13 reps.

Conclusion

Training to almost failure is very effective. But one needs to be prepared to work very hard for it to be effective. If one just goes through the motions then it won’t work.

It also takes an experienced lifter to do properly. One needs to “just know” if you will be able to complete the next rep or not, and thus when to stop a set. It also takes some experimentation to discover how large of a rep range is required for various exercises and how much to increase the weight when the top number of reps is achieved for all sets. Different exercises will require different rep ranges and weight increases.

But once such parameters are figured out, one should be able to make slow but continual progress using this training method. Patience is required as results will not be quick. But over time, slow but steady increases will produce significant strength improvements.

Training to Almost Failure. Copyright 2002 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site October 10, 2002.

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