Failure Could Be The Reason You’re Failing To See Gains.

By Zach Dorworth

Arnold Bicep Curls to Failure That Flex Life

Not failure as in failing to get your ass to the gym, or off the couch, or out of the local Kripsy Kreme four times a week. I’m talking about walking into the gym and going to failure on your first set of bicep curls.


I was on a vacation in Maui, HI. I got up early each morning for a quick workout because I knew I’d be indulging in the local cuisine. After a few mornings I started noticing a particular gentleman. He was probably 40 years young and looked to be in decent shape. You could tell he was dedicated to his lifestyle as he was on vacation and hitting the gym with consistency.

That Flex Life Hawaii Vacation
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Each morning like clockwork he would walk straight to the pullup bar and do a set of pullups to complete failure. Not the kind where your chin doesn’t go above the bar, the kind where you can’t even move from a dead hang.

I couldn't do anything but stop and watch with sheer terror. 

I took three things away from seeing this. First, if that was his normal routine and he has remained injury free for all the years he's been lifting... he's super human. Second, he is probably NOT the only guy out there doing this. Third, if he knew how taking that initial set to failure was affecting his overall workout, his results would be far superior. 

Zach Dorworth That Flex Life Training to Failure

I posted this picture because my traps look huge.
Plus, I was also in Hawaii.

He's Not The Only One.

After returning from vacation I kept an eye out at my local gym to see if this was a regular thing. Sure enough, every day I saw someone walk in and go to complete failure on their first set. Sometimes it's the big guy that you expect to know better, and other times it's the new dude still fighting to keep his ego in the parking lot. Either way they are one in the same. They are both being super inefficient and have the ability to do better. 

When failure fits in your plan, check out the 5 Minute Deltoid Dominator.

Let me take a second and explain something.

There’s a proper order of events a workout should follow to prevent injury and increase efficiency. If you’ve already downloaded your free copy of Back to the Basics you would know this.

This is your cue to download Back to the Basics.
  • Dynamic active warm up
  • Compound movements
  • Supporting exercises
  • Accessory work
  • Cardio (I hate that work and you can gladly skip this step)
  • Stretching
Dynamic Active Warm Up

A dynamic active warm up is used to accomplish a couple things. First, using a warm up exercise that fully shortens the target muscle group allows complete stimulation of the nervous system and primes it for heavy lifting. Next, it helps get oxygen and nutrients delivered to the muscles by increasing blood flow. Last but not least, it helps loosen up the targeted muscle groups and increase mobility. It’s not a step you should skip if you want to see maximum results and especially if you want to remain injury free.

Zach Dorworth That Flex Life Chest Flies

Chest Flies, a great dynamic active warmup for chest day.

Knowing this explains why taking an exercise to failure within the first ten minutes of your workout is inefficient and dangerous. There’s a few things that happen when you take an exercise to total failure. Cortisol and other stress hormones increase significantly which can reduce the anabolic response of weight training if it happens too often. In other words it can decrease your ability to gain muscle. Pretty inefficient, huh?

More importantly, failure causes nervous system fatigue. This reduces the nervous system’s ability to maximally contract muscles and fire with precise coordination. This results in decreased strength and endurance on the following sets. If you’ve needed strong spotter assistance to help you complete the last rep of an exercise, you know the feeling of failure. If you were to try another set right afterwards, both your strength and stamina would be decreased. 

The More You Know

You can imagine how training to failure on your first set could affect the overall volume of an entire workout.

The Importance of Volume: {DUP} 1 Way to Make Sure Progress Never Stops.

Just like other tools such as supersets, drop sets, and time-under-tension, failure should be used strategically to break through plateaus and increase workout intensity when needed. I suggest only going to failure on the last set of an exercise (whether it be compound movements, supporting exercises, or accessory sets). If you’re feeling fatigued from the start of the workout, forget going to failure at all.

There are times I don't train to failure for over a week. It's mildly refreshing. 

Finally, if you decide to train to failure, finish your workout with a good stretch session and allow those muscles some proper time to rest and recover. What you do after your workout plays a large role in that whole "sustainability" thing, but that's a post for another day. 

Zach Dorworth That Flex Life Rest and Relaxation

Speaking of R&R... Everything in moderation, right? Except when enjoying a Peroni in Pisa, Italy.

Key Points

  • Train to failure on occasion but not all the time.
  • If you do train to failure, do it on the last set of an exercise.
  • When training to failure, allow that muscle group an extra day or two to recover.
  • Skip training to failure if you're already fatigued at the beginning of your workout.

Suggested Reads: *if you're feeling ballsy and failure is for you
- Horseshoes and Goat Balls: Triceps Explosion
- Everyday is Arm Day: 5-Minute Biceps and Forearms
- 5-Minute Six-Pack Abs Shredder

P.S. Because I Care

Don't forget to enroll in the upcoming class at the Flexible Dieting University. This FREE interactive 4-week online course has taught hundred of students how to effectively use flexible dieting and gain nutritional freedom. Click here to enroll, NOW! 

Zach and Stephanie Dorworth Flexible Dieting University Course

About the Author

Zach Dorworth is a pharmacist and the founder of That Flex Life, a fitness community focused on making America swole again with thousands of monthly readers and a popular email newsletter.