Should you lift to failure?

Working to failure means pumping out as many reps of a certain exercise until you can’t do any more with good technique. It’s one strategy for building strength, but it’s not right for every session, says Jakob Roze, CSCS, a Tier 2 trainer at Equinox West 50th Street in New York City. And to guarantee progress, you have to do it right.

If you’re cramped for time, maxing out is a good way to see results without putting in extra hours. “Going to failure in one session builds muscle faster than stopping short in a few sessions,” says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-based sports physiologist and exercise consultant for USA Weightlifting. Leverage this by planning a one-time, all-out routine before a vacation or busy week. Those inactive days turn into productive recovery.

Since working to failure means hitting your physical limits, it also maximizes muscle damage. Cut recovery short, and you risk foregoing progress in the long run and increasing your chance of injury, Roze says.

Fatigue is actually the biggest drawback of this strategy, but if you plan to take a couple days off between sessions anyway, your body can fully recover and prepare for the next round, Israetel says.

If regularly working to failure meshes well with your schedule, three-week microcycles are the ideal way to structure your workouts. You won’t want to lift to exhaustion straight away. Instead, you’ll get there through progressive overload: adding more weight and more reps week over week until you reach the point where you max out

For any given microcycle, here’s how Israetel lays it out: Choose a heavy weight and identify how many reps it takes for you to hit that wall. (If you don’t know already, you might have to do a practice run to figure out how many reps it takes, then use that number moving forward.)

In the first week, lift that load and stop four reps shy of failure, when you feel it’s pretty challenging to continue. In the second week, add a little more weight (like five to 10 percent) and pump out one or two more reps in each set than you did in week one. In the last week, use the weight you used in week two and take all your exercises to failure. (Keep moves like squats and bench presses at one rep shy of failure to avoid injury, he adds.)

Once you wrap a microcycle, both experts agree you need to take one easy week lifting lighter weights without maxing out before you start your next one.