Did you know there are two different ways to train to failure? It is true! Continue reading to learn the critical differences between training to technical failure vs absolute failure!
This article will be organized as follows:
- Part 1: What Is Technical Failure?
- Part 2: What Is Absolute Failure?
- Part 3: The Importance Of Proper Form
- Part 4: Is Training To Failure A Good Idea?
- Part 5: Training Beyond Technical Failure
- Part 6: Conclusion
Training to technical failure and training to absolute failure are both extremely effective training methods.
However, there are some key differences between these two brutal training methods that you need to be aware of!
After reading this article you will be equipped with all the knowledge necessary to start training to technical and absolute failure in your own training programs.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: What Is Technical Failure?
Training to technical failure can be an extremely effective training method, especially during a higher-rep accumulation phase when you are trying to build muscular hypertrophy.
Here is a simple working definition:
Technical failure involves training to the point where you fail to achieve another repetition in good technical form. As soon as you fail on your last repetition while maintaining good form the set is over.
Let’s break this down even further.
First of all, training to technical failure involves training to failure. This means you actually fail on your final repetition!
Many people think they are training to failure when in reality they still have 1-3 reps left in the tank!
For example, let’s say that a bodybuilder by the name of Joe Average is performing a set of incline dumbbell presses to technical failure.
He picks a pair of dumbbells that he thinks he can get for about 10 reps in good form and starts his set. The first 6 reps are pretty easy.
However, by the 7th rep Joe is starting to struggle. Reps 8 and 9 are very hard to complete and he can tell his concentric range speed is starting to slow down.
Finally we reach the 10th rep. Joe knows this one is going to be difficult!
Joe struggles and struggles to get that 10th rep up and somehow, someway he manages to lock his elbows out and complete the rep.
Most people consider this to be good enough for technical failure. However, they would be wrong!
Because Joe Average is a regular reader at Revolutionary Program Design he knows he has not failed yet and should keep on going if he wants to achieve true technical failure.
He only manages to push the dumbbells up 4 inches on rep number 11 before they completely stall. Joe has reached failure while maintaining good form and therefore terminates the step.
Joe has truly reached technical failure!
The second key point is that you must maintain perfect form throughout the entire set.
There is no room for cheating when training to technical failure! So many people start to “cheat” during their sets by modifying their form as the set progresses.
This is a very bad idea regardless of what you are trying to do and I will go into more detail on the importance of proper form in part 3 of this article.
However, it is an especially bad idea if you are trying to train to technical failure as by definition you have to maintain perfect form throughout the whole set!
Part 2: What Is Absolute Failure?
Training to absolute failure is a much more “extreme” version of training to failure.
It actually involves achieving muscular failure on all three types of muscular contractions: concentric, isometric, and eccentric contractions.
Concentric failure is the same thing as technical failure. You train to the point where you fail to lift the weight with good technical form.
Isometric failure is a little different: it involves training so incredibly hard that you can no longer hold the weight statically at any point in the range of motion of the exercise.
Finally there is eccentric failure. This involves pushing yourself to the point where you cannot eccentrically lower the weight under control using any tempo or lifting speed.
This training method tends to work best with a training partner. However, there are ways to achieve absolute failure even when training on your own.
For example, let’s say Joe Average wants to perform a set of dumbbell preacher curls to absolute failure. Joe Average first performs a set to concentric failure, or technical failure.
He completes 8 repetitions in good form and attempts a 9th repetition, which he is unable to complete.
So far so good.
Next Joe Average needs to achieve isometric failure. He immediately takes the same weight and does a static hold in the mid-range of the strength curve.
After a brutal 8 seconds he can no longer hold the dumbbell in place statically. He has now achieved static failure.
Finally Joe does a very slow eccentric-only contraction by starting at the top of the movement and lowering the weight down as slow as he can.
He lowers the weight in 10 seconds and by the end he truly cannot eccentrically lower the weight any longer. Joe Average has failed concentrically, isometrically, and eccentrically.
In other words, Joe has achieved true absolute failure!
Part 3: The Importance Of Proper Form
Regardless of whether you are training to technical or absolute failure it is absolutely crucial to maintain perfect form on all of your exercises.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all against using a little bit of cheating or “body English” on certain exercises or as a way to train beyond technical failure.
For example, I am a big fan of Kroc rows and barbell dead stop rows, two exercises which incorporate a fair amount of “cheating” on every rep!
The key is that on every set that you perform, the first rep should look like your last. I mean this literally! Every single rep that you perform should look identical!
The only real exception to this rule is that your bar speed may slow down in the concentric range on your final few repetitions due to fatigue.
This is perfectly normal.
Ron Partlow calls these “robot reps” because when you are training correctly, it almost looks like a robot is the one performing the reps, not a human being!
Some of you are probably asking yourselves the following question: “Why is perfect form so important? Why does every rep need to look like the last?”
I will let my first true strength training mentor Charles Poliquin answer this one:
“Garbage reps gives you garbage results!”
You see, strength training is a skill. Every time you perform a rep or a set it is an opportunity to develop proper motor unit firing patterns on that exercise!
You want every rep to look identical so that the body gets the message that “this” is how to recruit all the muscles necessary to perform the exercise!
If every rep looks different from the last then you are hurting your body’s ability to recruit all of the available motor units!
This is true regardless of whether you are primarily training for strength or for size. You should maintain perfect form on all sets, but especially when you are training to technical or absolute failure!
Part 4: Is Training To Failure A Good Idea?
This is an excellent question. In fact, this is one of the most debated questions in the entire fitness industry!
Here are my thoughts:
During lower-rep intensification phases training to failure is almost NEVER a good idea! Trust me, you don’t want to fail in the middle of a modified Hepburn method workout or a 5/3/2 wave loading workout.
However, training to failure is a perfectly viable tool during higher-rep accumulation phases, especially if your primary long-term goal is muscular hypertrophy.
Here are some additional sample training methods where training to failure on some or even all of your sets can be appropriate:
Training to failure is a massively complicated topic. Perhaps I will cover this topic in more depth in future articles!
Of course you can always check out my online coaching program if you are looking for help designing your own training programs that include taking sets to technical or absolute failure.
Part 5: Conclusion
I hope you found this article helped you to understand the differences between training to technical failure vs absolute failure.
Truth be told this doesn’t have to be the complicated topic that everyone else makes it out to be!
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training endeavors!
Milos Sarcev is an IFBB professional bodybuilder and one of the greatest bodybuilding coaches of all time. His nickname is “The Mind” because of his intelligent approach to training and...