The concept of 'going to failure' is nothing new. However, I think many beginners and casual lifters may not know, or fully understand, what 'going to failure' is. Many people might picture going to failure as two huge guys doing bench press. One guy is under the bar grunting and straining while his partner is screaming at him to get 'just one more,' as he spots him for the third 'one more.' Well, that is going to failure, but it is far from the only way to do it.
There are many ways to go to failure, but first a few words on why it is so important. The human body is an amazing creation. It will adapt based on the stimulus it receives. If you eat like a sumo, it will store the energy as fat. If you dribble a basketball a thousand times a day, it will become like second nature. The human body is amazing in how it can adapt, but it is also efficient, so it will not adapt beyond what is necessary. Running two miles every day will not get you ready to run a marathon. And lifting the same weight two times a week for three sets of ten will not make you look like a bodybuilder. I understand not everyone wants to look like a bodybuilder, and people lift weights for different reasons. However, I frequently run into people who wonder why they aren't getting stronger. I tell them all the same thing. You have to give your body a reason to adapt, or grow. It will only do what it has to, and no more. If you want to continue to grow in size and strength, you have to stimulate your muscles so they will adapt to the new need for increased strength. You do this by going to failure. If your muscles never fail at the task they are performing, then there is no need to grow, and they won't. It is up to you to provide the reason, or stimulus, for them to grow.
The classic way to go to failure is to lift a weight as many times as you can until you fail on the last rep, and then your spotter helps you get the weight back on the rack, or they help you get a few extra reps and then get the weight back on the rack. This method is tried and true, and is a great way to go if you have a spotter. But I don't have a lifting partner and I don't like asking people for spots. So I rely on several other good options for going to failure. Among them are Drop Sets, Rest Pause, Super Sets, Negative Finish, Cheat Reps, Negative Reps, 100 Rep Sets, and Partial Reps. There are more techniques than just these for stressing your muscles, but these are the ones that I find myself relying on regularly and they can easily be done without a spot.
I mix these in on almost any exercise, but drop sets are easiest to do when using dumbbells or a machine. You just do as many reps as you possibly can with a given weight and then grab a lighter weight or move the pin on the weight stack and keep going. Sometimes one or two drops are enough and sometimes I will just keep going 'til I run out of dumbbells. It must look pretty funny when I am doing Incline Dumbbell Press with three pound dumbbells and I can't push them up anymore.
There is probably another name for this since I made up this name. These don't work on every exercise, like Barbell Bench Press for example. They make the most sense on dumbbell and machine exercises, and I generally do them with heavier weights. For example, if I was doing Dumbbell Shoulder Press with 70 pound dumbbells, I would do as many reps as possible and when I'm sure I couldn't squeeze out one more, then on the downward portion of the last rep, I will let the weights down as slowly as I possibly can. I want to fight it the whole way and stretch it out as long as possible, maybe 15, 20, 30, or more seconds.
These are usually used with heavier weights as well. I often incorporate these on leg press. I like to do 20 rep sets for Leg Press, and usually by the third heavy set I can't get to 20 without stopping for a few seconds. I do as many reps as I can (say 12), and then just stop for a few seconds with my legs extended, and then do as many more as I can (say 5), then another short pause and finish up. My legs failed at 12, but I got 8 more reps out of them. Generally, the pause is just a few seconds, maybe 3 to 5, but once in a while I will stretch it to 10 or 15 seconds. The pause gives you a chance to regain your focus and the muscles actually replenish slightly in that short amount of time.
These can be done with any combination of exercises that load the same muscle(s). One of my favorite super sets is Skull Crushers (I call them Nose Busters) and Close Grip Bench, both using a curl bar and the same weight. When I can't squeeze out any more Skull Crushers, I just drop the bar to my chest and start doing Close Grip Bench. Both use triceps, but because the triceps are loaded more indirectly with the close grip bench you can still get work out of them even after they failed at the skull crushers.
I don't recommend poor form, but there is a time and a place where a little cheating can be a good thing. I can do Iso Lat Rows using good form with 4 plates, but I want to stress my lats more by exposing them to heavier weight. So I put 6 plates on and cheat somewhat when I pull the weight back. I still have to be careful I don't overstress my joints or lower back, but as long as I'm careful it's worth it to expose my lats to the heavier load. Muscles respond to being overloaded by growing.
Just like the Negative Finish above, these donít work with every exercise. You have to be able to get to the negative portion of the lift and you have to be able to get out from under the weight when you are done, so barbell bench for example, wouldnít work. The negative portion of a lift is the portion after the muscle is fully contracted and you are letting the weight return to the start position. For Lat Pull Downs, it would be the upward portion. For Push Ups, it would be the downward portion. A good application for Negative Reps would be Pull Ups, where you have a way to get to the up position, by either stepping on something or jumping up. Once you are in the up position, let yourself down as slowly as possible. The more slowly you can lower yourself, the better. Muscles respond to time under load. When you get to the bottom, take a quick breather and get back up and do it again. You can do a predetermined number of reps, or you could just keep going until you canít even slow yourself down anymore. I like the second option.
100 Rep Sets:
These are pretty much self-explanatory. You could do a whole workout of 100 rep sets, or you can mix them in with standard sets. I like to throw them in at the end of an exercise. With Incline Dumbbell Press for example, I might do 4 or 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps, and then at the end grab a lighter weight and bang out 100 reps, or more.
A partial rep is when you do just a portion of the full range of motion for a particular exercise. The partial portion could be any part of the full range. It could be the bottom, middle, or top portion. A good example for this would be preacher curls. There are several different ways to apply this technique. You could pick a weight that you canít even get 1 full rep with, but you can move it through the bottom third of the range of motion. So you do as many of the partial reps through the bottom third as you can. You have exposed you muscle to a heavier weight than it is used to, and even though you didnít do full reps the stress has been applied to the muscle and it will respond by growing. You could pick a more moderate weight and do as many full reps as you can, and then when you canít do anymore full reps, you keep going with partial reps. Again, you are exposing the muscles to stresses they arenít used to, and that is good.
This was just a quick primer for beginners. There are many other ways to stress your muscles. Mixing up exercises is another important principle. With all the fantastic sources of information these days, like BodyBuilding.com, there is no excuse not to be able to find what you need. Dig in and do some searching. Part of the hard work of changing yourself is doing all the necessary research to learn how. God bless, and may you achieve your goals.
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04-14-2014, 07:13 AM #1
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Failure IS an Option: Beginners Guide to 'Going to Failure' without a Spotter
04-21-2014, 11:17 PM #2
04-22-2014, 03:53 PM #3
"We all have great inner power. The power is self-faith. There's really an attitude to winning. You have to see yourself winning before you win. And you have to be hungry. You have to want to conquer."
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07-06-2016, 09:01 AM #4
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Really helpful article. Every time I start working out again I get these amazing gains and then it just stops. I think its because I just get into the habit of doing the same thing all the time. I mean, it started in high school for me in the 1970s. We just always tried to do 3 sets of ten and I guess I am still accustomed to that.
Yes, I have read and heard many times that you need to SHOCK the muscle, because as you say, the body adapts so well.
So I just started again and will probably only use machines, I am hoping I can mix things up enough to continue to get some gains in muscle size. Is it possible to with machines only?
Anyway, thanks for the article.The body is a terrible thing to waste.