Sets Until Failure

Sets Until Failure

This principle is the main idea of other intense methods like cheating, forced reps, prolonged sets, as well as flushing, super-sets, combinations, etc.

This is a premise for us to not consider it a separate principle, but rather a foundation and an inevitable part of our body building approach.

In reality, this principle is best applied not through the classical way of doing a set until failure, where you reach a point of no return after a certain number of reps, but rather through intense bodybuilding methods like the ones we listed above, which we will discuss later on in our analysis.

The two main topics of discussion among fitness enthusiasts, are the claims that “Every training method works” and “Nothing works permanently”.

If we analyze the method of doing sets until failure, we will inevitably make a couple of conclusions:

  1. Beginners do not need to use this principle, due to the fact they can implement usual bodybuilding methods, like full range of motion and progressive overload. That will grant them enough of a stimulus for a steady, consistent growth in muscle size, without the need of reaching failure.
  2. Using moderate intensity will allow you to completely master the proper form on every exercise, which, from its side will give you the needed mind-to-muscle connection. Higher levels of such connection will make every muscle contraction sharper and more effective.

At the same time, the period of time, during which using basic principles and methods works, is the first 4-6 months of your training (Nothing works permanently.)

At this point, the trainee desperately starts looking for ways to overcome this plateau in development.

This positive change, can be achieved through improved nutrition, optimal recovery and rest periods, a change in the workout split, a new gym with different equipment, or simply an increase in intensity. However, the effort of doing a set until failure, is something that attracts the eye of regular trainees, when they observe an advanced/elite bodybuilder, who does it.

The muscle pump, the vascularity, intense faces and grunts during an intense set until failure seems to be the epitome of the strive towards muscle size… “No pain no gain”.

The main reason why bodybuilders aim for higher intensity levels? Progressive overload.

After all, this is not just about making your muscles reach the point of no return, but to also do it, using the optimal intensity of 80-85%, pointed at muscle hypertrophy.

If we use 80-85% of our 1RM, we will reach failure after about 6~8 reps for the upper body.

It is not bad to remind ourselves the fact, that we achieve maximum muscle fiber activation at about 80% of our 1RM. This intensity cannot be neglected if we want actual progress, rather than just “toning” our musculature.

All of this explains why we aim for 75~85% intensity during the off-season.

The main methods we use to achieve this level of intensity, are the so called ‘intense’ methods, like cheating, forced repetitions and prolonged sets.

As we already noted, the classical set until failure creates a perfect stimulus for muscle hypertrophy among beginners.

However, for trainees who are trying to take their physique to the next level, that’s not enough, hence why they start applying the intense methods listed above.

Why? Because those are the exact methods that will let you feel significant stress, just 4-5 repetitions into your set, after which, your training partner will help you reach the point beyond failure (forced repetitions, cheating, prolonged sets), which will assure you prolonged, peak tension of the musculature.

In conclusion, we can say that those 3 intense methods grant:

  1. Reaching the point beyond failure, after the 3rd-4th repetitions of each set, which, causes constant stress of the musculature and a higher energy consumption.
  2. Intensity, close or equal to the optimal intensity (75~85%) grants the maximum activation of our muscle fibers.
  3. The set is done for no longer than 15-20 seconds (Anaerobic-Alactate conditions), which creates an actual stimulus for an adaptive reaction of the organism

Pros and cons

As we already mentioned, taking your musculature to the limit is definitely one of the most potent ways to build up muscle mass.

However, just like everything else, being under intense stress has the negative sides as well.

According to sports medicine researches, the high level of stress upon the working muscle, during a set until failure, can lead to a relatively bigger damage for the inter-cellular structures of the muscle. The recovery time needed, in that case, will be longer.

What we can note here, is the fact that your body sets priorities when it comes to recovery.

So, for example, if your quadriceps are significantly injured, and you only train your upper body, the stimulus during those workouts will be enough for muscle toning, but will have little to none effect on muscle hypertrophy. This is due to the fact, that your body’s recovery mechanisms will be pointed mainly at healing the significantly injured body part.

Something very common you see in the gym, is people doing squats and dead-lifts. They start off with proper form, moving on to the point of failure, at which, they start bending their backs under the crushing weight.

Another example is the bench press, where most trainees lift their butt off the bench (So called ‘arch’), at the end of a heavy set.

Such “compensatory” movements put the health of your joints, ligaments, tendons and the rest of your musculature at a high risk.


A conclusion we can make here, is that we should know our threshold and stay in the zone where we execute the set until failure with perfect form and full range of motion.

This is the first and foremost safety measure to think about before rushing into an intense, torturing set until failure.

All of the above, is a reason as to why this is an advanced method, not recommended for beginners.

“An intelligent trainee is one that has acknowledged the fact, that the most important, fundamental thing is the execution of the exercise, rather than the weight on the bar.”

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