Training to Failure or Training to Quit

There is a split in opinion with my fitness mentors on training to failure. Training to failure means that you completely exhaust your muscles to the point you can not do another repetition. I’m going to break down their arguments for and against training to failure and see if a conclusion can be drawn.

Enter Pavel Tsatsouline

Yesterday I posted Power To The People – 10 Years Later. It details my experience following the advice of my first real fitness mentor, Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel made a convincing case against training to failure in his book. His points:

  • He stated the strongest men in the world never or very infrequently train to failure.
  • He openly disagrees with High Intensity advocates that claim total muscle failure is secondary to the amount of weight you are lifting.
  • He mentions that neuroscience shows that you can stimulate a neural pathway when the outcome is positive. In other words, training to success leads to more success.

This made sense to me when I first read the book in 2001.

Enter Art De Vany

My second real fitness mentor is Art De Vany. Like Pavel, Art does not advocate training to failure. He cites two reasons in his book The New Evolution Diet.

  • He mentions safety concerns in the last repetition. Breaking form and gritting your teeth as you go for muscular failure can result in injury.
  • He mentions that the brain records every failure and that the goal should be to seek success.

De Vany confirmed with me what I had learned from Pavel.


Photo by Tomasz Stasiuk

Enter Dr. Doug McGuff

When I first read about High-Intensity Training years ago, I was highly skeptical and never tried it. It was Dr. McGuff’s book Body By Science that convinced me to give it a try. His Big 5 workout routine involves doing 1 set to failure on five machine exercises. The movements are controlled and slow.

  • He details how sequentially recruiting and fatiguing the different muscle fibers increases strength. The book makes a strong case that not going to failure actually limits the muscle fiber activation.
  • He addresses the neurological argument by explaining there is a difference between strength training and skill training. Skills being what you use your strength for, be it rock climbing, hockey, or whatever. He writes that science shows that total muscular failure is optimal for strength training and that the neural pathways for success should be achieving during skill training.

Body by Science made such a strong case for High-Intensity Training that I came to the conclusion to give it a try.

Enter Greg Anderson

When I visited Ideal Exercise, a High-Intensity gym in North Seattle, I brought up this question to Greg Anderson. He said something I’ll never forget.

If you aren’t training to failure are you training to quit?

It really is an interesting way to look at the flip side of Pavel and De Vany’s neurological argument. At that moment when things are getting hard, do you end the workout (quit) in a success mode, or you power through and recruit more muscle until total failure is achieved? Does the brain recognize quitting as success and maximum effort as a failure?

Survivorship Bias and Safety Concerns

Pavel’s argument about how the strongest people don’t train to failure is weak. There is a survivorship bias with lifting an extreme volume of weight. The freaks of nature will always be able to recover faster than us mortals. If a body can tolerate high weights on high volume, then it would necessitate reducing intensity in order to squeeze in more workouts. Pavel also works with elite military and law enforcement, both of which weed out all but the most gifted candidates. The fact they don’t train to failure is not relevant.

De Vany’s safety concerns are addressed in the High-Intensity community. Machines and slow movements prevent bad form. High Intensity also has its own breathing techniques and jaw position that differs from conventional weight training to prevent teeth mashing or holding of the breath. Watch this video and notice how the lifter keeps his head in a locked position and does rapid breaths to prevent grunting or passing out. His movement is always controlled and bad form impossible. I agree that going to this level of failure using free weights is not safe.

What Shall I Do?

I went from a training protocol that never went to failure to one that always does. If De Vany’s point about neurological failure is accurate, then I should be concerned. In nutrition, De Vany makes a solid case for not overloading one form of metabolism (glucose vs fat) and instead diversify for resilience. Perhaps a similar approach is needed here at the neurological level? Could altering the success and failure outcomes be the best hedge?

I suppose Dr. McGuff would advise me to train my skills to success. But what if I don’t participate in any other activities besides pushing weight at the gym? Do I need to find some movement-based activity outside the gym that I can train to successful outcomes? Maybe a sane version of CrossFit? 😯 Or the other option would be to occasionally take a break from High-Intensity Training and cycle in a few Pavel 5×5 workouts.

What do you think?

JUNE 2011 UPDATE: Training to Failure or Training to Quit Part 2


Add yours

  1. I had an interesting observation after reading this post. I never train to failure in the gym across the entire spectrum of loads, because I’ve built so much strength and endurance that it is not feasible in the amount of time I have to work out. I can get to the point where I can’t do any more reps of 455, but I at 225 and lower I get bored before I actually have to stop.

    Training to failure in HIT seems different than training to failure in high load training. I’m curious to learn whether HIT results in myofibrillar or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The slow smooth motions would see to recruit and causes conversion to slow-twitch muscle fibers.

    Another point is that training to failure under high weight = recipe for injury. I have never ever gone for that extra rep in squats if it feels unsafe. In my life, I’ve failed at doing a rep of squats maybe 5 times. I know plenty of people who have gone for that extra rep and blown out there knee or something similar.

    The powerlifting coach at Seattle strength and power was actually telling me how the national record holders only pull (deadlift) once a week… they just do really high weight.

    I haven’t read body by science… is the aim looks, strength, or fitness?

  2. @Matthew – I highly recommend reading Body by Science. I think you would enjoy it. It is focused on strength. Youtube as a series of lectures that go over some of the concepts.

    HIT sequentially recruits and fatigues all the muscle fibers. Then you stop. Additional work is not necessary and counter-productive. Like hitting an elevator button repeatedly.

    I agree that training to failure with high weight can lead to injury, which is why the BBS uses machines and does the movements slow. Momentum isn’t used to get you past weak spots.

    As a powerlifter, your strength training is your skill training. Messing around with failure on competitive moves is probably not a good idea. I could be wrong, but Pavel and De Vany’s argument clearly makes sense in that context.

  3. Specifically, BBS advocates training to positive failure, which comes before and is much safer than training to negative failure.

  4. @Nathan – Good point. I just checked how BBS defines negative failure. They define it as form failure to lower the weight in a 5 second controlled manner.

  5. Michael,
    I’ll be curious to see how long you stay with the BBS-type workout you are currently doing. From my point of view, it just looks too mentally exhausting to be able to continue for a prolonged period of time (e.g., five years). For me, this would outweigh any benefits over other protocols. Keep us informed. Thanks.

  6. A very balanced follow up to the PtP post and fair to Pavel, DeVany, and McGuff. I always look askance at those who think any one training system is the ultimate, best, perfect system for one and all at all times. So, I think your idea of throwing in some variety based on your individual goals is a good one. Maybe alternating 12-week cycles of BBS and PtP with a strength test at the end of each.

    Although that Greg Anderson comment is a witty one-liner I think it sets up a false choice. There’s a middle ground in between either quitting as soon as it gets tough and always going to all out failure all the time. We can set goals for each set or for each workout (such as total tonnage, reps, or TUL) and when it starts gets tough keep pushing the weight until you either hit the goal or can no longer maintain good form. Looked at that way stopping a set or a workout when you’ve hit your goal (though short of failure) isn’t training to quit, it’s goal-based training.

  7. @Jim – Ideal Exercise has several clients that have been training BBS style for 5, 10 and 15 years. So some people can thrive on this style. I love lifting weights, so hopefully I will wise enough to mix things up if I ever start to dread going to the gym.

    @Geoff – I think Greg’s line was not meant to be witty, but to invite a discussion. It was actually that conversation that got me inspired to think more about this and put this post together. I really don’t know the answer and unless I figure it out, will probably do like you mentioned and cycle between BBS and PtP.

  8. Very interesting post – thanks.
    I’m probably missing something and certainly this is a naive perspective, but isn’t the whole idea of weight training to send a “message” to your “muscles” that they should grow stronger?

    And wouldn’t the best way to “tell” them that they aren’t strong enough and need to grow be failing to lift a certain weight?

  9. @GWhitney – I don’t know the answer. I was sort of hoping this topic would bring out experts on both sides to comment. Guess I’ll do my own experiments until I know.

  10. Great post. I’m a ectomorph and have been cycling between BBS and PTP. I started with BBS ( 12 months worth ) and felt like I actually got weaker over time. I definitely didn’t add muscle mass. I just switched over to Pavel’s program about two months ago and the results have been interesting. I’m not as destroyed after my workouts- the BBS program left me pretty tired and sore for at least 2 days. I’ve put on muscle mass with the PTP program, and reduced body fat. I’ve also gotten lots stronger. I should preface these statements by saying that I am also an endurance sports junkie ( I am a competitive cyclist ) so maybe not going to failure is better for me but for now, I’m sticking with Pavel’s program and will see if my bike racing improves.

  11. @Mike – Excellent observation. Perhaps the best hedging strategy might be to engage in BBS training during the shorter days of winter and then once late spring hits, move to PTP and other activity.

  12. When I lifted to failure, I lost much of my stamina for surfing and my job as a tree trimmer. Then I switched to body weight exercises, push ups, pull ups, etc, and felt althletic again. Also, I know this is not normative, but, If you needed to fight, are you going to tell said opponent, “Hey, I’m recovering from an intense workout, can we fight in 48 hrs, after my muscles are repaired”?. I like knowing that after a workout, I’m not so drained and sore, I couldn’t throw down if nessessary. I do use weights, and a kettlebell, just never go to failure. Lots of circuit stuff. Later.

  13. @Dave – One of the things I am watching for as I complete my first full year of HIT is mental exhaustion. It hasn’t happened yet. I do take Dr. McGuff’s advice by having longer recovery periods. I’m now up to 7 days between workouts. Sometimes more. The experiment continues.

  14. Since, according to Pavel, strength is a “skill” … this can be the “skill” portion of someone following BBS. That’s what I have been doing for some time: Pavel style strength training at most 5 days a week … but BBS “strength and conditioning” training no more than once per week, sometimes 14 days apart, depending on my recovery. What I found is that those two protocols could co-exist with each other with positive results measured by strength increase and TUL increase. All was good.

    Then later, I decided to go pure BBS … no strength training Pavel style. What I have found, is that I could no longer to the Pavel exercises at the weight I used to do. I lost my “skill” strength, and that bummed me out. So … I have resumed that, and I am pretty confident I can make it work.

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