Training to failure is a strategy most often discussed in bodybuilding circles as a means for muscle growth and begs the question of whether powerlifters should be doing the same.
So, do powerlifters train to failure? Powerlifters typically do not train to failure when training the squat, bench and deadlift, and usually stay just shy of failure on accessory movements with the exception of some occasional AMRAPs and max attempt training days.
Training to failure is still somewhat debated even among the muscle-building world, however, when it comes to strength it is more often discouraged from being a principle of training.
In this article I will go through some reasons powerlifters don’t train to failure very often, why a powerlifter might choose to do it, how often it happens, as well as some examples of ways to implement it and insight from some elite powerlifters.
4 Reasons Why Powerlifters DON'T Train To Failure Very Often
1. It Causes Too Much Fatigue and Discomfort
One of the main concerns with training to failure is the level of fatigue that it incurs on the muscles.
While there could be some use cases for it when building muscle, the goal with powerlifting training is to increase strength and manage fatigue, and not to apply the maximum amount of tension to a muscle possible and be left sore for many days after.
Santos et al. 2019 took a look at the discomfort levels of those who went to failure and those who didn’t even when volume (total work) was fully equated for and found that those going to failure felt like they were putting in far more effort and rated discomfort as being high.
Therefore, it simply wouldn’t make sense to put undue stress, perceived or not, on your body when you can achieve the same outcome in a more relaxed fashion. Oftentimes less really is more.
2. It Can Affect Subsequent Exercises and Sets
Powerlifting training can be intense and typically takes a relatively long time to get through. If programmed correctly, you should be able to run through all your main lifts confidently and not feel like you’re dragging your feet. However, if you go too hard and try to hit failure on the first sets of the day you probably won’t feel so great going into your next sets or next exercise.
Even at powerlifting competitions, lots of more advanced competitors make it a point to not fail their 3rd squat attempt because it can have trickle down effects and increase the chance of them missing their 3rd deadlift.
Your body does not want to fail or be brought to a point where it can no longer go against the resistance placed on it.
3. It’s Less Safe to Go to Failure with Heavy Loads
Regardless of whether it is necessary or not, safety is a big consideration when it comes to powerlifting.
We do have periods of training where weights aren’t all super heavy; however, even when something is not heavy for us to lift, the weights are still heavy in the absolute sense.
This is why going to failure on a bicep curl isn’t so great of a concern because failing with a relatively light dumbbell is less of an issue than needing to dump a barbell loaded with over hundreds of pounds.
In addition, when you hit failure you are at risk of allowing form to become compromised and as a result may cause injuries related to poor lifting mechanics.
4. It’s Not Necessary to Go to Failure with Heavy Loads
Ultimately going to failure just simply isn’t necessary to make progress and this is especially the case with powerlifting, because we use such heavy loads in training.
A 2016 article by Nobrega and Libardi explored the question of whether training to failure is necessary and ultimately concluded that it may have a place when using lighter loads but largely doesn’t do much added benefit when moving heavy loads.
They also noticed that even with the lighter loads, the benefit of going to failure was more pronounced among untrained individuals (not intermediates or advanced lifters).
Check out my article on Newbie Gains: What Are They & How Long Do They Last to learn more about the differences between novice and advanced trainees.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
Why Would Powerlifters Train To Failure?
Powerlifters may want to train to failure when spending time in a muscle-building phase, to build mental fortitude, or for novice powerlifters to help them learn how to approximate perceived exertion.
Novice Training Strategy
One of my favourite parts of starting out with powerlifting training as a novice was my weekly AMRAP sets with squat, bench and deadlift. AMRAP stands for “As Many Reps As Possible,” suggesting going to failure.
This was an incredibly useful tool for me to see my actual potential as a novice, which is a time where perceived exertion is extremely inaccurate. Beginners tend to underestimate their abilities and so going to failure can almost “prove” to them that their abilities are greater than they think and really helps to build confidence.
However, I was not doing AMRAPs for all my sets, instead, I would do something like 3 sets of 4 reps and then the 5th rep was an AMRAP and I would use that AMRAP as a benchmark of progress week to week. This is not going to be as useful of a tool for intermediate lifters since our strength does not improve so linearly.
For more on AMRAP training, check out my article on Do Powerlifters Do High Reps?
Another reason you would want to go to failure is because you may be in a muscle building, or hypertrophy, phase of training and want to make the most of it or just try something new. There’s nothing inherently bad about taking a few exercises a week to failure and can often be a fun experience.
Therefore, you’ll find powerlifters incorporating something like bicep curls, chest flys, or ab exercises to failure just to help their muscles grow in the off season. This would be discouraged as you get closer and closer to a meet.
In addition, you may get some occasional AMRAP sets with lighter loads (~30% of 1RM) programmed in the off-season to help build muscular endurance and support hypertrophy. It is simply one of many strategies to add into your program if that’s something you like doing but isn’t inherently a necessary means of building strength or muscle.
For more information on hypertrophy training, check out this article I wrote: Should Powerlifters Do Hypertrophy? (Science-Backed)
Build Mental Fortitude
A big part of powerlifting is mental fortitude, or otherwise known as grit. We compete in a sport where you have to defy the voices in your head that tell you something is impossible and give it your all anyways.
Doing sets to failure can be incredibly taxing physically, but also mentally, and in some ways can be beneficial for learning how to hush the doubts in your head. Therefore, powerlifters may wish to include some AMRAP sets or sets at RPE 10 to really push their mental limits and see what is possible.
This can be a good strategy for lifters who tend to buckle under pressure at meets or those who consistently undershoot their potential and how much they think they can lift.
Related Article: Are Powerlifters Stronger Than Bodybuilders? (Real Examples)
How Often Do Powerlifters Train To Failure?
When it comes to the main lifts like squat, bench and deadlift, powerlifters will usually train to failure when testing their max strength, and during hypertrophy blocks with some accessory movements.
When it comes to hitting failure on an accessory movement, this is something that powerlifters may incorporate into their week about 1-3x a week for just single exercises. This means that you aren’t going to failure 3 times a week for all accessory movements but rather just one per day and maybe a couple times a week.
When it comes to hitting failure on the main movements, you can consider testing your one rep max or doing a mock meet as hitting failure, but this is something that happens anywhere from 1-3 times a year.
With respect to hitting failure on your main barbell lifts, this can be incorporated into your training for a block of time that lasts anywhere from 4-12 weeks about once or twice a year depending on your goals.
However, it should be noted that programming should be individualized and so if going to failure tends to leave you feeling achy and injured or it flares up any joint issues, it should be reconsidered. There are multiple ways to get to the same outcome and ultimately you can still get stronger and bigger without the use of failure sets.
If you want to learn more about my top accessory exercises for powerlifters, check out:
Workout Examples of Training To Failure
The following are examples of how you will find sets to failure included in a powerlifting program:
Example #1: 1 RM Testing Day
- Back Squat 1×1 @RPE10
- Bench Press 1×1 @RPE 10
- Deadlift 1×1 @RPE 10
Example #2: AMRAP Backdown Set
- Back Squat – 3×4 @ 75%
- Back Squat – 1xAMRAP
- Incline Bench – 4×8
- RDL 3×10
- Dumbbell Press – 3×12
- Bicep Curls – 3×15
Example #3: Accessories to Failure
- Deadlift – 5×5 @75%
- Bench – 4×6 @70%
- BB Hip Thrusts 3×8
- Chest Flys 3×15
- Lat Pulldown or Alternative 3×10
- Ab Wheel – 3 x failure
Example #4: Accessories with Drop Sets
- Deadlift – 5×5 @75%
- Bench – 4×6 @70%
- BB Hip Thrusts 3×8
- Chest Flys 3×15 @RPE 7 + 1x failure (drop set)
- Lat Pulldown 3×10
- Cable Tricep Extension 3×15
Related Article: Prilepin’s Chart For Powerlifting: How To Use It Effectively
Elite Powerlifters Share Their Experience Training To Failure
We asked two world-class powerlifters about whether they train to failure: Maria Htee & Simone Lai.
Maria’s accomplishments in powerlifting include:
- Being able to squat 3x BW
- Breaking the World Record Squat and Total
- Being the first Canadian Open Classic female World Champion
“I don’t usually go to failure in training unless it's the off-season and I have some time to recover. During peak season the most I’ll go with is RPE 9 or 9.5. The reason why is usually when you go to failure your technique breaks and it’s easy to get hurt or get injured.”Maria Htee
Simone’s accomplishments in powerlifting include:
- Worlds 2019 bronze medalist
- Worlds 2021 silver medalist
- Commonwealth 2019 gold medalist
- NAPF 2021 gold medalist
From personal experience I rarely train to failure for the big three. “Form over failure” has been a practice that many coaches have taught me, and I trust it. There are, of course, times and places where training intensity is higher, but never to failure. I personally find that I don’t recover well from training close, or to, failure.Simone Lai
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Training To Failure Increase Strength?
Research suggests training to failure is not great for building strength and will not result in greater gains than not going to failure. Evidence shows you perceive training to be much harder when going to failure even if volume is equated; therefore, it will likely lead to performance interference.
Does Training To Failure Build Muscle?
Training to failure can build muscle, however, whether or not it is significantly more efficient or effective than not training to failure is unclear since equating total volume seems to produce a similar effect.
Training to failure is not a black and white issue where you either do it all the time or don’t ever do it. It’s something that can be sprinkled into your training when you are not prepping for a meet or a 1-RM test, but doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Overall powerlifters tend to avoid training to failure as it can lead to unintended consequences like injury and lots of fatigue and comes with a relatively small benefit when compared to training between a range of RPE 7 to RPE 9. If it’s something you enjoy, it can be applied appropriately, but just be mindful of how your body responds to it week after week.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.