Training To Failure For Strength Gains: The Ultimate Guide!


Training to failure is without a doubt a highly effective training strategy for packing on pounds of muscle tissue. But is it a good idea when training for strength? Continue reading to find out!

Introduction

  • Part 1: What Is Training To Failure?
  • Part 2: Accumulation Vs Intensification Phases
  • Part 3: Is Training To Failure A Good Idea?
  • Part 4: Forced Reps Vs Rest-Pause Training
  • Part 5: Blood And Guts Training
  • Part 6: DC Training
  • Part 7: Conclusion

This article will teach you everything you need to know about training to failure for strength gains. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this cutting-edge information!

Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: What Is Training To Failure?

Before we get into the advantages and disadvantages of training to failure to get stronger we have to answer a simple question: 

What exactly is training to failure?

This may seem like a very simple question with a very simple answer. Yes, this is true. Still, it is rare to see someone in the fitness community demonstrate a basic understanding of what training to failure actually means!

Training to failure simply means training to the point of technical failure where you fail on the concentric portion of your last repetition. That’s it!

It doesn’t mean you stop training when the set gets hard.

It also doesn’t mean you finish the set when you barely squeeze out your last rep.

It means you barely squeeze out that last rep, lower the weight under control, and then attempt that final repetition you know you cannot get! It means you literally “fail” on the last rep!!

Let’s take a look at a video demonstration.

Here is Jason Wojo performing a set of Hammer Strength incline presses. 

Jason is a high-level competitive bodybuilder and a big proponent of to-failure training. Although he is a bodybuilder he certainly doesn’t lack in the strength department.

In this video he is pressing five-and-a-half plates per side for reps!

If you watch the video you will notice Jason struggles to complete his seventh repetition. He does manage to complete it but he slows down and visibly struggles to lock it out.

Most people who “think” they are training to failure call the set here (and most people who think they are training 1 rep shy of failure would call it quits at rep #6!).

However, Jason knows that he hasn’t truly reached failure until he fails! He attempts that last rep and gives it hell, only to fall of completing it in the end.

Now THAT is a set taken to true concentric muscular failure!

Part 2: Accumulation Vs Intensification Phases

When your goal is to get stronger it is really important to understand the differences between accumulation and intensification phases.

This is especially true when you are thinking about training to failure in some or all of your sets!

Intensification phases

Intensification phases typically involve the use of lower repetitions. For example, reps in the 1-6 rep range are quite typical.

Intensification phases are normally better geared towards boosting strength levels as they are superior for eliciting various nervous system related adaptations.

For example, a typical intensification protocol will boost your inter- and intra-muscular coordination, among other things.

One of the drawbacks associated with most intensification phases is that they are not suitable for training to failure!

For example, going to concentric muscular failure during a cluster sets workout or a fast-twitch drop set routine would be complete suicide!

As Charles Poliquin used to say, spotting during an intensification phase is for saving someone’s life and nothing else!

Going to failure on low rep sets creates a horrible amount of central nervous system fatigue and interferes with the types of adaptations that you are trying to create. 

Accumulation phases

Accumulation phases, on the other hand, typically involve somewhat higher rep ranges and are more geared towards hypertrophy gains than intensification phases.

These types of phases are normally less effective for boosting strength levels as the impact on the central nervous system is somewhat limited.

However, there is one exception to the rule, and that is training to failure! In fact, training to failure in somewhat higher rep ranges can be an incredibly effective way to train for strength!

I’m talking about going to failure somewhere in the 6-12 rep range here.

Just take a look at Jason Wojo – training to failure certainly worked for him! He is throwing around some seriously heavy slag iron in that video! 

Part 3: Is Training To Failure A Good Idea?

charles poliquin training program

This is a great question. There is no perfect way to train and there is no perfect training routine.

The real key is to figure out the type of training stimulus that works best for you and then to HAMMER IT HOME until you get the results that you want! 

Training to failure is definitely one of the more “extreme” training approaches. It does however work extremely well for certain individuals, especially when strength gains is the primary goal. 

As a general rule of thumb, I have found that acetyl-choline dominant lifters and dopamine-dominant lifters are the types of individuals who do best with programs based around training to failure.

This is not to say that these individuals cannot get stronger on more traditional training methods!

Guys who run high on acetyl-choline and/or dopamine tend to be the ones who love to push themselves to their limits on every single set!

They simply don’t have an off-switch. It’s all or nothing all the time! 

If this describes you then using a training program based around training to failure may be a good idea.

On the other hand, if you have more of a balanced neurotransmitter profile then I think there are probably more productive ways for you to train.

That being said, if you are reading this article then you probably aren’t an Earth type anyway.

Part 4: Forced Reps Vs Rest-Pause Training

In my experience there are two training methods involving training to failure that work best for pure strength gains: forced reps and rest-pause sets.

Let’s look at a brief overview of both of these concepts.

Forced reps

When I think of forced reps, I think of Dorian Yates. After all, he did more to popularize the use of forced reps than any other man on the planet! 

The idea behind forced reps is really simple. First you perform a set to concentric muscular failure in the 5-10 rep range. Normally this is where a set would end.

However, with forced reps the set has only just begun at this point! Immediately after you reach failure your training partner will assist you through the concentric range of 2-3 additional repetitions.

Although he is helping you to lift the weight on these 2-3 extra reps you are forced to lower the weight back down on your own.

Forced reps allow you to further exhaust both concentric and eccentric strength levels after first achieving failure. Talk about a brutal training method!

Let’s take a look at an example:

In this video Ronnie Coleman gives a perfect demonstration of forced reps in action. First he busts out 5 reps on his own with the 200 pound dumbbells.

On the sixth rep he reaches failure.

However, instead of stopping here his training partner helps him complete the sixth and seventh rep by lifting up from underneath Ronnie’s elbows.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend only performing 1 working set per exercise when utilizing forced reps.

They are just too taxing on the nervous system to perform multiple sets! More on this in Part 5 of this article.

Rest-pause sets

The modern interpretation of rest-pause training was introduced by Dante Trudel in the early 2000s.

He trained an absolute army of incredibly strong bodybuilders and his training ideas spread across the internet like wildfire.

Dante based his entire training system around the use of forced reps as he felt it was the absolute best training method in the world for rapid strength gains.

Here is how to perform a rest-pause set:

  1. Perform a set to failure (Dante recommends about 7-10 reps)
  2. Rack the weight and take in 10-15 deep breaths
  3. Perform another set to failure with the same weight
  4. Rack the weight and take in 10-15 deep breaths
  5. Perform another set to failure with the same weight
  6. Done!

Basically you are going to failure three separate times with a very short 20-30 second rest break in between each failure point.

For example, you may get 8 reps on the first part of your rest-pause set, 3 reps on the second part, and 2 reps on the third part.

Note that you are actually going all the way to failure on each of these attempts – you are not allowed to half-ass it!

Dante recommends trainees use one rest-pause set per exercise and typically only one exercise per bodypart in a given workout.

Many high-level strength coaches such as Josh Brant and Christian Thibadeau use rest-pause sets with their strength athletes.

In fact, Josh calls rest-pause sets the “universal gainer” because they work for almost everyone, regardless of their muscle fiber composition!

Part 5: Blood And Guts Training

Dorian Yates was incredibly strong in his prime. He could do seated dumbbell overhead presses with the 160 pound dumbbells and could strict row 400 plus pounds with ease.

However, what is even more remarkable is that Dorian was first and foremost a bodybuilder!

If a bodybuilder can “accidentally” become freaky strong using forced reps then imagine how strong YOU can get using forced reps if you make that your primary aim?

If you want to use forced reps to get stronger then I recommend you give the following routine a shot. No, it is NOT Dorian’s exact training routine.

For that I recommend you check out this article:

The Dorian Yates Training Program!

Instead I am going to provide you with a routine that is based around training to failure using forced reps but is slightly more optimized for strength gains.

I have used this type of routine before with some of my clients and let me just tell you that it works extremely well.

On this routine I recommend you use a push / pull / legs routine performed four days per week. For example:

Week 1

  • Monday: Pull
  • Wednesday: Push
  • Friday: Legs
  • Saturday: Pull

Week 2

  • Monday: Push
  • Wednesday: Legs
  • Friday: Pull
  • Saturday: Push
  • Etc.

Of course Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday would be off days in this example. You can choose whichever days of the week you want to train.

Just keep in mind that you will get your best results if you only have two back-to-back training days as in the above example.

Note: if you are having any trouble reading the following training routine then please take a look at this article:

How To Read A Training Routine!

It will answer all of your questions 🙂

Back / Biceps

  • A1: Wide grip pronated pull ups, 1 x 6-8***, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: Barbell row, 1 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Kroc row, 1 x 20-30, 1/0/1/0, rest as needed
  • D1: Band pull-apart, 1 x 10-12, 1/0/X/1, rest as needed
  • E1: 30 degree incline DB curls (supinated grip), 1 x 6-8***, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • F1: Unilateral preacher zottman curl, 1 x 6-8, 5/0/X/0, rest as needed

***Perform 2-3 additional forced reps with the help of a spotter

Chest / Shoulders / Triceps

  • A1: 30 degree incline dumbbell press, 1 x 6-8***, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: Flat DB fly, 1 x 8-10***, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Standing military press, 1 x 7-9, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • D1: Seated Poliquin-style DB lateral raise, 1 x 10-12***, 4/0/1/0, rest as needed
  • E1: Skull crusher to forehead, 1 x 7-9***, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • F1: Standing overhead rope extensions, 1 x 8-10***, 2/2/X/0, rest as needed

***Perform 2-3 additional forced reps with the help of a spotter

Legs

  • A1: Back Squat (heels narrow / flat), 1 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 1 x 10-12, 2/1/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Lying hamstring curl (feet plantar flexed / pointed in), 1 x 5-7***, 2/0/X/1, rest as needed
  • D1: Romanian deadlift, 1 x 8-10, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • E1: Standing calf raise, 1 x 10-12***, 2/1/X/1, rest as needed

***Perform 2-3 additional forced reps with the help of a spotter

Part 6: DC Training

Dante Trudel’s rest-pause training system is called DC Training. It works unbelievable well for strength gains although it was designed first and foremost as a way to build muscle as fast as humanly possible.

One of the nice things about DC Training is that the routine is already pretty-much optimized for strength gains.

This is in contrast to Dorian Yates’ Blood And Guts routine, which could be tweaked to favor strength gains at the expense of size gains (see my sample forced reps routine above!).

The classic DC training split looks like this:

Upper body: chest, shoulders, triceps, back width, back thickness

Lower body: biceps, forearms, calves, hamstrings, quads

In reality it is basically a variation on the classic upper body / lower body split used by many of the world’s elite powerlifters and strongman competitors.

You are to train three days per week alternating back and forth between the upper body and lower body workouts.

You are also to rotate through three seperate upper body and lower body routines. Essentially you are repeating workouts only once every 2 weeks.

For example:

Week 1:

  • Monday: Upper Body Workout #1
  • Wednesday: Lower Body Workout #1
  • Friday: Upper Body Workout #2

Week 2:

  • Monday: Lower Body Workout #2
  • Wednesday: Upper Body Workout #3
  • Friday: Lower Body Workout #3

On week you repeat the whole cycle starting with the upper body workout #1 etc.

For each body part (chest, shoulders etc.) you are to perform one rest-pause set.

On some exercises for legs and back you will perform 1-2 straight sets instead of the rest-pause set for safety reasons.

After working each body part you will also perform a very painful extreme stretch for that body part.

Here is a sample upper body and lower body workout.

There is plenty of information on the net specifically about DC training that you may want to check out if you are interested in using to-failure training to get stronger.

Of course I would be more than happy to design a customized DC-style training program for you if you contact me through my online coaching program.

Sample upper body workout

  • A1: Hammer strength incline press, 1 x 7-10***, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: Seated DB overhead press, 1 x 7-10***, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: V-bar upright dips, 1 x 7-10***, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • D1: Rack chins, 1 x 7-10***, 3/1/X/0, rest as needed
  • E1: Dead stop barbell rows, 2 x 8-12, 2/1/X/0, rest as needed

***performed as a rest-pause set, as described earlier

Sample lower body workout

  • A1: Preacher ez-bar curl (close / supinated grip), 1 x 7-10***, 3/1/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: Seated zottman curl, 1 x 7-10, 3/0/1/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Leg press calf raise, 1 x 7-10, 4/8/1/0*****, rest as needed
  • D1: Lying hamstring curl (feet plantar flexed / neutral), 1 x 7-10***, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • E1: Hack squat, 2 x 4-8, 20, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed

***performed as a rest-pause set, as described earlier

Part 7: Conclusion

Training to failure isn’t just for bodybuilders. It can also be a great way to train for pure strength gains if you know what you are doing!

If you like the idea of performing one all-out set to failure per exercise then I highly recommend you give either rest-pause training or forced reps training a shot.

I am confident you will be pleased with the results! Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training endeavors!

Dr. Mike Jansen

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

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