Rep Failure - Good or Bad?

Sam Stephens

January 2020

Is rep failure necessary to see consistent gains in strength and hypertrophy or could it be hindering our progress?

This excerpt about failure is from my Strength & Hypertrophy: A Programming Guide. If you’re interested in reading more about the Why/How of resistance training from a scientific perspective, go check it out. 

“Within the context of resistance training, ‘failure’ is a specific point during a set where no more reps can be completed due to the build up of PNS fatigue. We fail when we can’t generate enough force to overcome external resistance. Reaching this level of exhaustion is usually encouraged in training programs to get the most out of every set. Using a spotter, lifters can push their bodies to failure to ensure all high threshold motor units are recruited. However, despite its popularity, most of us should avoid failure in our training.

By consistently taking our sets to failure, we increase both CNS and PNS fatigue, muscular damage, and our necessary inter-set rest times. Repeated set failure also increases our session RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) which can lower emotional satisfaction/enjoyment and cause problems with program adherence. Highly trained lifters and elite competitive athletes may see additional benefits from this style of max effort training when used correctly, but research suggests that both strength and hypertrophy can be improved without reaching failure.

So, I recommend that you avoid failure when possible.

We aren’t going to build massive guns or double our squat max in any single session – we smash our goals by accumulating small, incremental daily victories over long periods of time. The key to success is consistency, but it’s a lot harder to keep working out if we’re overly sore, injured, and just generally anxious about the upcoming session.

To make sure we’re always having fun and showing up every day, I suggest that beginners stay 1-2 reps away from failure while trained lifters keep a 1 rep buffer between them and exhaustion. If you think, “I probably could have knocked out one more” as you rack your weights after the last rep, perfect. Flirt with failure but don’t let it screw you out of potential growth and training consistency.”

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