The art of failure and why it should be embraced

Written by: Lee on 26th Oct 2010
The art of failure and why it should be embraced

One of the challenges I come across as a PT is changing the mindset of people with regards to the word FAILURE. We are told all our lives that failure is a negative thing and we should always aim to achieve something, avoiding failure at all costs. Unfortunately, when looking to add size to our muscles, failure is essential and is that very thing we should be looking to achieve. 

It’s important to understand what we mean when we use the word failure in a training context. Failure is not the inability to move your muscles any longer but the inability to complete a repetition with correct form or without assistance.  Using the bench press as an example, when your dominant arm takes over and you see one side rise faster than the other, when you need to jerk the body to move the weight or you rotate on the bench to help the weak arm, congratulations, you’ve failed.

So, when do we want to fail? As a rough guide, for strength gains we look at 1-5 reps, size is 6 -12 reps and endurance up to 20reps.  Looking at the size range further, 6 – 12 reps, we want to select  a weight that puts the muscle under enough stress to prevent you being able to perform more than 12 reps and thus, achieving failure.

Application: The most useful tip I can give is altering how you view your target rep range. If you have 12 in mind then your aim should be to exhaust your muscle and fail on or before that 12th rep, not being able to complete the rep range with 12 perfect reps and have energy to spare.  This is how we stimulate the muscle for growth. So, use your judgement, if you perform a set where you can perform all 12 reps with good form, choose a heavier weight for the next set and try again, rinse and repeat if necessary.

Remember, in training terms, failure is key to success.


I'll admit that I am better

I'll admit that I am better about pushing it with my cardio work than I am with my weight training work. The cardio work gives me energy, and the weight work makes me tired. Now I see that's a good thing.

Oh good---something you're

Oh good---something you're "supposed" to "fail" on. This alone is incentive to pursue weight training, not to mention all the other excellent benefits of weight training!

Lee, thank you for taking the

Lee, thank you for taking the time to explain this. I have often wondered if I am being to easy on myself, but it seems I am working hard enough.

This was very interesting to

This was very interesting to read and I never really thought of it this way. So you want to fail in the end, which means you have worked out your muscles enough and they can no longer do another rep. I will have to give that a try.

Thank you so much Lee for the

Thank you so much Lee for the valuable information. I was never quite sure what failure meant in to regards to weight training, but you have put it very succinctly.

I had to read this three

I had to read this three times before I could understand what you are saying but now I get it and thanks for explaining. Needless to say, I'm new to this!

I appreciate the specifics

I appreciate the specifics here for the different types of results that you are working for. I just recently started with weights and was just going with 3 sets of 8 reps.