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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. As such, this approach 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. Just a five-pound increase can make a difference of as many as 4 reps. Therefore, the range for the reps is usually something like 8-12 or 6-10.

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 planned 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. Thus, 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. Thus, if a lifter plans on going for five reps, he will probably stop at five even if the fifth rep is not that difficult.

As a result, 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. They often become 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 three sets for the powerlifts and other major compound movements. The first set is done raw. The next two sets are done with gear (belt, wrist wraps, knee sleeves). Right now, I am going for 10-12 reps on the raw set, then 5-7, 3-5 reps for the two geared sets, increasing weight with each set. I increase the weight by about 10% from set one to set two, then by about 5% from set two to set three.

For all sets, I will work very hard, but I will stop the set when I would probably not be able to complete the next rep. But if I am sure I can get the next rep, then I will go for it. Thus, ideally, I should always be able to complete the last rep I attempt. As a result, I am not really working to failure. I also try to even avoid that last rep from being a “grinder” or an all out effort. Close to it is okay, like 95%, but not 100%. My method would best be described as training to almost failure.

When I can complete the top number of reps for all three sets for any given exercise I will increase the weight for the next workout. I usually go up by about 5%. That works about rigth 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.

However, using this program, I have been able to increase the weight almost every workout for all lifts for quite some time now, since I recovered sufficiently from my two shoulder surgeries to work hard in my training. As I recover further, I will drop the rep rages down to Raw: 8-10, Gear: 3-5, 1-3.

These rep ranges are only for the powerlifts. For other major (compound) exercises, like rows, I probably won’t drop below 4-6 reps, and minor (isolation) exercises will stay even higher, eight reps or more. For those, given the lighter weights, I only increase by 2-1/2” pounds when the tops repos are achieved.

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 for the next workout. 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, 2023 By Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site October 10, 2002.
It was updated  June 19, 2023.

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