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What is Muscular Failure: Failing to Fail

So it’s truly time to wrap this nonsense up.  Last time I finished all the blathering and theory to address three currently in use tools to gauge intensity: RPE, RIR, RTF.  The main takeaway from that part was that they are all useful but ONLY IF someone knows what a true limit effort is.

You can’t know what an RPE 9 is if you haven’t experienced a true 10.  And you can’t know that you have 2 reps to failure/2 reps in reserve if you’ve never reached true physiological muscular failure which I define as:

The inability to complete another full repetition despite providing a maximum effort.

Muscular failure isn’t when you stop pushing.  It’s not when you decide it hurts to much.  It’s when you can’t complete a rep despite giving a maximal effort.  Yes, yes, form failure in free weight exercises adds another wrinkle.  We’ve been over this.

I finished that part by asserting that most people training have never experienced a true 10 RPE or a true set to actual physiological muscular failure.

And I based that assertion on nearly 35 year in the gym overall and 25 years professionally.  Most have never hit true failure.  Most reading this have never hit true failure.  Disagree?  Send me the video.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

But at the end of the day words are just that.  I can write until the cows come home about this stuff and it doesn’t really matter.

So now it’s time for me to show you what I’m talking about.  To show you what true muscular failure is.  And to show you, by corollary what true muscular failure IS NOT (even if people think it is).

And I’m going to demonstrate this with videos.   Most of them are of myself training and these are videos I shot last year.  Yes I do lift and I’m about 185 in these videos so feel free to take the “Does Lyle even lift?” bullshit and stick it up your ass.  If you’re ever in Austin let me know and I’ll show you what 8 sets of 10 to muscular failure on 60 seconds is like.  Well I’ll show you what 2 sets is because you will quit after that.

Most of my videos are Myo-Rep/Doggcrapp style sets.  So there’s a first set to failure, rest 15 seconds and do a few more reps, rest 15 seconds and do a few more reps.

I’ve also included videos of one or two other people training to true failure.  One of them is my powerlifting trainee Sumi Singh.  The other is Vicky “The Tiny Titan” Mirceta.  And for contrast, I finish up with 3 videos of people training distinctly NOT to failure.  You’ll have to watch the videos to see who (insert laugh emoji).

I edited most of the videos to show the concentric speed of the rep in seconds and the RIR value.  I might have missed one.   I did this to show the general relationship between RIR and movement speed.    As I’ve stated, in general, as you get closer to RPE 10, RIR/RTF 0, bar speed should slow.  Often considerably.   There are a couple of odd exceptions to that.

Just to be smug about it, pay attention to my form and technique.  It never breaks.  Ever.  I’ve been doing this crap for 35 years now, longer than many of you have been alive and I spent most of those years both analyzing and practicing proper technique.  I may have been nothing more than a decent lifter (and I was decent) but I was sure a pretty one.

I want to reiterate that I think the rider that failure be defined as “When the rep speed falls below the goal” is not a good one.  And these videos will show you why that is.

Pay Attention Assholes

Let me state and state again that nothing in these videos is meant to suggest that this is the intensity anybody should necessarily train at.   I’ve been in maintenance training for a couple of years now so I just get into the gym, do one or two Doggcrapp style sets and get out.  If I were doing more volume, I wouldn’t go to this level of failure.

The point of all of this is to demonstrate what true failure looks like.  And to make the point that until you have trained like this for a while, I mean really pushed until you can’t push any further, you don’t have a clue what failure actually is.

Nor do you know what 1-2 RIR/RTF is.  Most of you simply don’t and if you want to prove me wrong, send me a video.    You’re stopping when it gets difficult or uncomfortable and calling that failure.  But it’s not.

I actually shot these videos ages ago and when I put them up in my Facebook group any number of people reported that what they thought was failure was about 7 reps short. Like I’ve said multiple times: If you’re in Austin, I bet I can teach you a few things about what intensity really is.  And you probably won’t like it.

So let’s get started.

Hammer Incline Press

Ok, first up, the Hammer Incline press

Ok, THAT is what true muscular failure looks like.  My form never broke, the bar kept moving more slowly and on that 7.5 second repetition I barely kept it moving.  Barely.

Have you ever taken a set that far?  I bet you haven’t.   I bet you haven’t gotten close.  Which means you have no clue what failure is.

Hammer Behind the Neck Pulldown

Next up, the Hammer Behind the Neck Pulldown

Now, this is a different pattern than on the Hammer incline.  The slowing was far less gradual and sort of happened much more abruptly.  In the main set, everything was fine until 2 RIR and then it fell apart.   So even here, I wouldn’t have been able to meaningfully estimate failure until 1 repetition out.

The same comments as above apply, note how the bar speed starts to slow with a final grinding rep and then an inability to reach full contraction.  The second rep of the first mini-set is even slower.    I’d note that I cheat the tiniest bit on the final rep of the first set, that little pop with my chest and upper body to get the handle down at the very end.

Cable Pulldowns and Cable Row

Now this set is weird.  Here bar speed stays basically the same throughout and from one rep to the next I hit failure.  There’s no gradual slowing and no indication that failure was going to occur until the middle of that repetition.

And the same basic thing happens on the cable row

But like with pulldowns, I show no real slowing of the repetitions until I hit failure from one rep to the next.  But clearly I have no way to gauge or estimate when failure is going to occur on those movements until it occurs.   Whereas on the Hammer incline I could probably estimate RIR/RTF exactly based on bar speed alone since it became pretty clear when I wasn’t going to get it through the sticking point.

Honestly, I don’t know why I show such a different pattern on pulling movement than the Hammer incline.  Maybe it’s the relative strength/weakness of my biceps vs triceps?  I have no idea.

A Mid Video Commentary

Ok, so what have those 4 videos shown except that my technique is flawless and I know how to go to failure and train more intensely than most of you?  Well, mainly that.   Except for a little chest drop on one rep of pulldowns, my form never broke no matter what happened in the set.  I’ve been doing this too long that form failure doesn’t apply to me.  My form never breaks.

But that took a couple of decades not only working on technique but learning to maintain it to the depths of true muscular failure.  Which I have now demonstrated.  Those sets are what it looks like.  In the case of the incline press, the movement got slower and slower until I was barely keeping the handles moving.

On the pulling movements, failure came on more abruptly for some reason.  I don’t know why.  This seems to happen on some movements, shoulders especially. It’s rep rep rep rep fail.  There’s just no warning and no slowing of rep speed.

I’d note that the above videos demonstrate why I think the rider of “without deviating from the goal rep speed” is a problematic part of defining failure.  If I were to stop the above sets when bar speed slowed beyond the goal (assuming I had one), that’d be 3 reps from actual physiological muscular failure.

Some of my reps went from 1 second at the beginning to 5-7 seconds at the end of the set.   That final grinding barely moving rep is the one where a true RM/pre failure rep occurs. No other definition can be correct so far as I’m concerned.

But What About Free Weights?

But, Lyle, you say, those are all machines where there’s little form to break.  Which is true, hence my point in an earlier part of the series that working on machines takes the whole technical breakdown thing out of the question.

But, Lyle, you say, clearly that can’t be done with free weights.

Wanna bet?

Dumbbell Incline Press

Now make no mistake, the DB’s get a little bit wobbly because that’s the nature of it.  But, after 2 decades of practice, I clearly get to true muscular failure without breaking form.  My hips don’t come up, I don’t get squirrely with my upper body, the DB’s don’t get out of path.  I just keep pushing.  Most would have stopped several repetitions before that.

And it’s not just me.

Sumi Singh DB Press

So this is Sumi Singh performing a heavy set of 5 in the DB press.

Note that I have RIR listed as a range rather than a number.  She might have ground out a 6th repetition in the set but it’s hard to say so I have it listed as RIR 0-1.  But there is still a clear slowing over the final 2 reps of the set.

Also note that her form doesn’t break either.  She’s been lifting nearly as long as I have with a lot of practice.   And she has always trained very intensely.

This can be done with free weight movements.  It just takes a LOT of practice.   A lot.  It takes focusing on form until it’s automatic and then gradually pushing closer and closer to failure without letting form break.  I did it for years in my youth.  That’s why I can do it now.

And I’ll repeat that I am confident in saying that the average college student in a research study taking a complex exercise to “Form failure” cannot do this.   When their form breaks, they will be far away indeed from true failure

Squats to Failure

Which is a nice segue into the topic of squats to failure, something that is claimed to be done in many studies (i.e Brad’s paper, Brigatto who claims 8X10RM on 1 minute, hahahaha).  Yes, they use form failure as a definition.  And I’ve commented on that repeatedly in terms of how that will put the average lifter fairly far away from true muscular failure.

But what would a set of squats to true failure look like?  I don’t mean a a missed maximum single.  I mean a set of reps where the lifter reaches true muscular failure.

Well, it would entail squatting, in proper form, until the lifter descended and either got pinned in the hole or tried to ascend, got stuck and then either lowered the bar to the pins or dumped it.

Now, while I would love to put up a video of me squatting to failure, I’m not in a position to do that at the moment.    Year ago I could have and I’ve taken sets of squats ranging from 5 to 20 reps to the point of failure I defined above.  Where I attempted a final repetition, lowered and either got pinned or stuck in the middle and dumped the bar.

But I broke my leg 2.5 years ago, lost mobility in my left ankle and haven’t pushed myself that hard on squats for a very long time.  So I’m simply in no position to demonstrate it safely at the moment.

However, I was able to find a video of someone doing a 5 rep set to failure.  True failure.  And here it is.  Watch it  very closely.   This is what a set of squats to failure looks like.  And realistically, you’ve never come close to this and neither has anybody you know.

The full video can be seen here.

Video excerpt is used under fair use guidelines.

Honestly, if he weren’t dive bombing into the hole, he probably would made the rep.  With someone screaming UP UP UP he might have made it too.  But no matter.  That’s what a set of squats to actual failure looks like.

He hits the sticking point and stalls and pushes and stalls and pushes until he finally dumps it.  And his form remains extremely solid.  Most wouldn’t do it that well.  And I reiterate that I doubt some average college lifter could get even remotely close.

Send me a video to prove me wrong.

It can be of you doing it.  Perhaps one of the fitness professionals who have been arguing with me for 18 months now would like to send me a video.  I’ll put it up on my website so that you can prove me wrong.

Let me make it clear that I am NOT saying you should do this on squats.  Things can get very iffy very quickly.    It can be done on bench with a good spotter or in a power rack. And well….don’t do it on deadlifts.  It can be done but, well…just don’t do it.

My point again is to show what actual task failure in a squat looks like.  Not form failure but actual muscular failure.  It looks like that.   You haven’t done it.  Nobody you know has done it (ok, if you’re in a hardcore gym maybe.  But not a commercial gym).  And no way in hell has anybody ever done it for multiple sets on a short rest interval.  You might get 1 rep on the second set.

Yet in Brad’s study it’s claimed that 5X8-12RM were done on 90 seconds.  Brigatto claims 8X10RM on 60 seconds.  Which might actually be achievable when you realize that these lifters “form failure” was likely many many reps away from muscular failure.

Because if you think you could do multiple sets like the one in the video above on a short rest, you’re out of your mind.  Again, shoot me a video.  Again, it was form failure, clearly the sets were fairly far from true muscular failure.  Because they’d have to be.  After a true set of 10RM to muscular failure, you’re not getting off the floor in one minute much less under the bar.

But Brad’s study and Brigatto’s study both also included the leg press for the same set and rep count.  And here form failure should be removed from the equation.  Failure should occur when the muscles fail.

So what does that look like?

Vicky Mirceta Leg Press to Failure

This is  Vicky “The Tiny Titan” Mirceta doing leg presses to failure.   She had posted this in my Facebook group and gave me permission to use it for this piece.


Let me note that in the middle of the set, I cut out a bit where she rested for a few seconds between reps.  So I don’t think the speed pattern was quite as indicative as it might have been.  Also note that I indicated the final rep as a 0-1 RIR.  She might have ground out another rep, she might not have.  I doubt she would have gotten more than one more based on how her speed slowed.

Leg press is weird this way and often people can get rep after rep, usually by getting a little bit of a bounce out of the bottom or cutting depth.

After the set she basically crawls onto the floor to recover (actually I edited this out for some reason).  No way in hell is anybody doing 8 sets like that on 60 seconds without having to cut the weight in half every set.  That’s assuming they get off the floor and back into the sled in that time.

Send me the video if you think I’m wrong.  Either of you training or these supposed workouts being done in research.  And if you’re ever in Austin well….I’ll be happy to prove it to you.

Failing to Fail

Now, as much as I’ve harped on wanting to see the videos of these supposed workouts by Brad or Brigatto or whomever, I might not need to.  Because part of what stimulated this series (especially this final bit) was a video I did see of Brad Schoenfeld doing a “Scientific back workout.”   Though what was “scientific” about it is currently unclear to me.

Brad Schoenfeld Lat Pulldowns to “Failure”

Here is a link to the full video.  My comments are in the audio.

Video excerpt is used under fair use guidelines.

Now, I had to strip the audio for You Tube music reasons but at the end of that last half-assed rep, Brad says “That’s my failure.”  A failure indeed.

I mean, hell, I can see this level of performance all day every day in my gym.  Guys going through the motions doing these half-assed semi-intensity sets with no focus.  And this is supposed to be the “World’s Greatest Hypertrophy Researcher”?  Ok.

I also find it funny that the guy who has “researched internal focus” would seem to have no clue what that means.  I’ve seen gym bros use more focus, better technique and more intensity than that.

Because go rewatch any of the videos I put up of myself  or others training to actual failure.  And compare the half-assed set above to any of them.

Training to “Failure”

But I think it explains some things.  If this is how “failure” is being defined in Brad’s studies, well all of a sudden they make perfect sense.  When all of your “sets to failure” are basically warm-ups, of course you need/can do a ton of them.  And I absolutely believe that 5 sets of this weak sauce shit can be done on 90 seconds.  But only because they are about 5 reps from exerting an actual effort.

It’s just like the workout used in Haun et al. that I always harp on.  Endless sets of 10 reps with 4 RIR/RTF on a 10 minute break.  A bunch of warmups.  Of course you need to do 32 fucking sets/week.

And speaking of Mike Israetel, here’s two more videos.

Mike Israetel Overseeing Leg Presses

The first video is of Mike Israetel taking a trainee through a set of leg presses.

Here is a link to the full video.  My primary commentary is in the video voiceover.

I’d note that the full set was much longer to 30 reps.  But the editing was terrible: Mike keeps talking during the set or the camera is in such a place that you can’t see the lifter.  So I just edited it to the last 5 repetitions.

Video excerpt is used under fair use guidelines.

And as above, sure, if this is the level you’re training at you not only can do 30 sets/week but probably need to.  Just to make up for the general ineffectiveness of each set.  Even the low-load studies go to “failure” (well supposedly, show me the videos).  And this was nowhere close.

And finally…

Mike Israetel 0 RIR Bench Press Set

Ok, one more since this came up on my Youtube video recommendations.   In this video Mike Israetel claims to be taking a trainee through 3 sets of flat bench to a 0 RIR (i.e. either to or one rep before failure) as part of an overall workout of flies, bench and some triceps work.

This is a link to the full video at the start of the set.

The set was supposed to be 10-20 reps.   As with the leg press the camera work is awful.  Multiple times the video cuts so Mike can talk.  So I edited it to show only the last 5 sets which are the only reps that matter anyhow.

Video excerpt is used under fair use guidelines.

After my cut, Mike does mention form failure.  And I suppose that the lifter might have had their form break apart on the very next rep.  But I tend to doubt it.

And 0 RIR?  My ass.  At no point in the set die the lifter show the slightest deviation in form.  Or strain.  Or effort.  His reps were just over a half a second long and they stayed that length from rep 1 to 11.

Now go contrast that to my Hammer incline set at failure.   Or contrast it to Sumi Singh’s DB press where she, at most might have gotten 1 more reps.  See the difference?

Because what Mike is calling a 0 RIR set I call a warm-up at best.   I mean, this set would be ok for higher volume speed work.  But 0 RIR?  No fucking way.  And, Mike, if you’re telling people this is 0 RIR, then it’s no wonder everybody is confused.

Now, if you watch the entire video you’ll see similar things on DB flyes where the lifter gives up when it gets a little challenging.  On triceps extensions, the lifter simply gives up in the middle of the set and I will give Mike credit for calling him out on that one.  He got a couple more reps and then kind of quits.  And that’s when I stopped watching.  I have zero tolerance for this shit.

This is really just a good example of someone giving up and deciding that they can’t do any more. And that’s fine.  But for Mike to then assert that it’s 0 RIR?  Please.  Maybe do the video with someone with an iota of focus and drive.  But don’t film this weak shit and then tell people it’s a 0 RIR.

Hell, give him to me and I’ll get 4-5 more reps out of him at least.  Because I’ve done it.  Hell, maybe YOU should come visit me in Austin, Mike.

Adding to which: if this is what people in the fitness industry think represents failure, then all of the utter bullshit about set volumes make sense.  Of course you need 45 sets/week if this is what you call a “set”.  If this is their definition of failure, their workouts are nothing but a series of warmups to begin with.  Which, given that this is Mike explains the workout design in the study he was involved with.

But honestly, if this weaksauce shit is what a “degreed professional” and coach thinks 0 RIR is, then average trainees don’t have a fucking clue.  Watch my videos, take my challenge below and you’ll know better than the professionals in this industry where failure lives and what 0 RIR feels like.

And it’s not like a speed/warmup set.

What is the Point of This?

So what was the point of all of this?  Well what started as a single article turned into an entire series.  So it goes with me.   The issue was that of muscular failure, what it represents in general along with issues of importance in the weight room.

My main thrust was that for a set of weight training to achieve actual physiological muscular failure requires that the set be continued until another full range repetition (in good form) cannot be accomplished despite giving maximal effort.

Form failure is its own issue but, really, any other definition is lacking.   A lifter choosing to stop when it gets hard (as Brad does above) or thinking they’ve hit failure when they haven’t (like Mike’s trainees) doesn’t define failure.  That’s the self determined RM where the lifter “decided that’s all they could do”.  And they decided wrong.

As importantly, and this was really the point of this final piece, is the fact that all of these nifty methods of estimating reps to failure whether using RPE, RIR or RTF only work if you actually know what training to failure is.

My videos demonstrate that, what going to true muscular failure is.  Where the bar speed drops and drops and it’s barely moving at all and you keep pushing for all you’re fucking worth until you make the rep or stall completely.

And no the point is not that training to failure is inherently good, bad or indifferent.  Rather the point is this: until you know where true failure lives, you don’t know what any of the metrics being thrown around mean, including mine.  Telling someone to stay 2-3 reps from failure doesn’t mean anything if they don’t know what failure is.

Until you’ve trained like that for a while, and ideally had a psycho like me talk you through a set, you’re most likely kidding yourself.  What you think is failure is many reps away.  So what you think is 4 RIR/RTF is probably more like 5-8.  I’m not saying it’s universal.  Some asshole will come into the comments who trains at a hardcore gym to say he does.

I’m saying this is statistically likely based on what I’ve seen for 25 years.  Go into any Gold’s or World Gym or 24 Hour Fitness and you’ll see that I’m right.

So all of those workouts “to failure” or to 2 RIR most likely aren’t.  Because by my definition of failure, the actual definition of physiological muscular task failure, realistically you haven’t ever gotten there.  You thought you did or you simply gave up when it was too uncomfortable.

Yes, there are exceptions, I’m sure there are a handful of folks reading this who have trained to true failure enough to know where it is.  But most of you have not, not on squats and probably not on most things.  I’m basing that on 25 years or so of observations just watching people train in gyms.  And I think most of you know I’m right.

A Challenge

So if you’re feeling daring or saucy, try what I demonstrated in my videos next time you’er in the gym.  Pick something you won’t get injured on.  No back squats or deadlifts.  Get on a nice Hammer chest press or incline machine.  Maybe pick a weight you’ve used before where you think you were going to failure.   Maybe what you thought was an 8RM or 10RM weight.

Now start the set.  Rep after rep.  You can use whatever tempo you want but I like explode on the concentric and control the eccentric.  Don’t change form or speed during the reps.  Explode, control.  Explode, control.    If it’s an 8-10RM, the first 4-6 reps should move pretty well and pretty evenly.  Explode and control.

Keep going until the bar starts to slow.  Push harder.  When it slows more, push harder.  When you think you’re done PUSH FUCKING HARDER.  I bet you get a couple more at least.  Maybe more than that.   Keep pushing until the handles will not move no matter how hard you push.  Keep pushing into it for 5-10 seconds.

If the handles are moving at all, I mean the tiniest millimeter of movement, KEEP FUCKING PUSHING.  You might make the rep, you might not.  But either way you’ll have learned something very valuable.

But don’t stop until you’ve truly given it your all.

Now compare how many reps you got to how many you thought you could do.   Or if it was previously a supposed 10RM weight, count how many reps you actually did.  If you get bored, come put it in the Facebook comments.  Maybe you’ll prove me wrong and you got within a rep or two with your estimate.

But I bet for most people, that won’t be the case.  I can’t say how many more reps you’ll get but I bet it’s more than you think.    As I mentioned, some people who watched my videos in my Facebook group got like 7 more reps at their next workout.  Prior to seeing what a true set to failure looks like, they were stopping when it got uncomfortable and nothing more.

Brad didn’t even get to the discomfort part judging by the video.  Yeah, he made the faces but he gave up without even trying to push through.  The guy Mike walked through the leg press made a lot of noise but the platform never really slowed.  He had many more reps to failure.  And that bench press set?  0 RIR my ass.  That set was a fucking joke.

Challenge Bonus Points

Now if you want to get really crazy, do your first set to true failure then rest exactly 60-90 seconds and do it again and see how far you get into the second set.  If you keep the weight the same you can expect to drop 50% of your total reps.  If you got 12 on the first set, you might get 6.  To get another 12 would mean stripping off 50% of the weight.  And now you’ve learned another good lesson.

And that lesson is that the claim by studies that people did 5X8-12RM in the leg press on 90 seconds or 8X10RM in the leg press on 60 seconds are utter fucking bullshit.   A true set of leg presses to failure, or Hammer Incline to failure won’t have you repeating it in 60-90 seconds without cutting the weight or reps enormously.     A true set of leg presses to failure will have you lying on the floor.  You won’t even make it back to the sled in 60 seconds.

As always, think I’m wrong?  Show me the fucking video.  I’ve only been waiting 18 months for someone to step up.

Excuses Are Always Easier

Now I’m sure most of you will turn down my challenge.  I’m easy to dismiss by people who are better at making excuses than stepping up their game.

So I’ll put it a different way:

Are you really gonna let Lyle McDonald train
harder than you, you fucking pansy?   

Well are you?   If not, it’s time to step up or shut up.

I showed you what I can do, now it’s your turn.  Whether you’re just an average trainee or a fitness professional, step up or shut up.  Brad, Eric, James, Mike?    It’s time to stop making excuses and show me.

And if you’re ever in Austin, let me know.  I’ll talk you through a set or two.  I guarantee you won’t enjoy it.  You might not even survive it.  But I guarantee you that you’ll learn something.

What Failure Is/Where Failure Lives

Because assuming you made it through this entire series, now you know what muscular failure is.  And now you know where it actually lives.

And you might find with practice you can go even further as you learn to actually keep form, keep focus, keep intensity.  And with practice, now you also know what training 2 reps short of failure or whatever means.

And once you’ve done that, you’ll apparently know more than some of the supposed professionals in this field.

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