Nicholson Fitness
  • Striving for Failure

    Most would consider it odd to suggest that you should strive to achieve failure. Few people are interested in accidental failure, much less actually trying to fail.Failure in our success-oriented culture rarely is viewed in a positive light. But I believe that striving for failure could be a paradigm shift that completely changes your outlook toward lifting weights at the gym. By “failure,” I mean reaching the point in your weight-lifting exercise in which you literally cannot do another repetition without help from a partner or trainer. And that means lifting heavier weights than most people are used to.

    When people learn that I am a personal trainer they often tell me about their workout routines. When explaining why they do or do not lift weights, I hear phrases like “I want to get toned” or “I don’t want to get bulky.” The latter view is usually from women who are already sold on the concept of the importance of exercise, but somehow fear that a few strength-training sessions in the gym using heavy weights will cause them to look like the models in a body building magazine. Truth be told, I would like to look a lot more like those models, and I wish that a couple of heavy weight-training sessions a week would actually cause that to happen. The fact is that only about half of all men have the physical characteristics to significantly increase the size of their muscles with weight training alone (i.e. without the use of steroids), and the likelihood that a woman can start an intense workout routine and significantly increase her muscle size (bulk up) is even lower.(1)

    Even if you don’t strive for muscle failure, adding muscle to your frame is very valuable. Muscle is the most metabolically active part of your body. By increasing your muscle mass you increase your daily expenditure of calories.(2)  That’s correct: once you add muscle, you burn more calories even when you don’t work out. Also, once you increase your muscle mass, you will find that muscle is extremely compact and strength training often leads to a reduction in the circumference of your torso and limbs. Let’s consider the alternative. The average American loses a half a pound of muscle per year after the age of 25.(3)  That means that even if you maintain the same weight over time, without weight-training your body composition changes to contain less lean tissue as you age. If your weight-lifting routine simply allows you to keep the muscle you have, you are at a great advantage.

    But lifting until you fail is even better. Simply put, the only way to ensure that you use every muscle fiber available is to lift a particular weight until you fail in your attempts to keep going. On the other hand, if you use a weight that does not cause you to reach failure during your set, not all your muscle fibers will be used. Muscles fire in groups, and your brain only asks for enough muscle to perform your exercise and reserves those that are unnecessary for another time.So, if you perform many sets of light resistance but are able to keep going indefinitely, you will never use all the muscles cells of that particular muscle group.Consequently, the most effective and efficient way to get strong and maybe even increase your muscle mass is to perform an exercise to failure.(4)  One set to failure for each muscle group twice a week is an excellent way to start your routine and may take as little as an hour to perform. So go ahead, pick up large weights and strive to achieve muscle failure every time you are at the gym. There is nothing to fear and everything to gain.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that you do anything that might cause injury. You must slowly build up the weight that you use. A five percent increase of the weight that you exercise with each week until you reach failure with good form in ten repetitions or less is a good way to start. If you are not familiar with the weight machines in your gym, or aren’t sure how to use free weights correctly, you should find a trainer with proper certification to aid your quest for injury-free strength improvement.

    Striving for failure in weight training will improve your body composition, and will increase your bone density, aerobic capacity and metabolism. Don’t let our culture’s single-minded devotion to success cause you to miss the paradigm shift. Strive to be a failure in the weight room and reap the rewards!

    Jeff Nicholson is a Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach and owner of nicholson fitness. Contact him at with questions.

    1 Thomas R. Baechle, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning: Human Kinetics, 1994 page 159

    2 Douglas S. Brooks, Program Design for Personal Trainers: Human Kinetics, 1997 page 116


    4 Ibid page 126

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