Technical Failure vs Absolute Failure

This will be my first ‘behind-the-scenes’ share of video content clients have access to when they sign up for Fitnack.

I filmed this because a lot of clients wanted more clarity on how to optimally resistance train and what I meant by ‘technical failure.’

It helps to first know what absolute failure is.

Momentary Muscle Failure

AKA: Absolute Failure. Is pretty much what it sounds like. It refers to lifting weights to a point where your muscles can no longer lift the weight.

More specifically to a point where you can no longer move a weight concentrically. Thus you have to stop lifting.

Concentrically meaning the lifting phase of a resistance exercise or shortening the main muscles involved in creating the force. In the example below it’s lifting the dumbbells towards the ceiling.

Eccentrically is the opposite. It means the lowering or accepting phase of a resistance exercise. So lowering the weights in the example below towards the floor.

We’re stronger eccentrically, so if you had help on the concentric you could keep lowering the weight under control for a few more reps past momentary muscle failure. That’s a whole other discussion.

I prefer the term “absolute failure” to momentary muscle failure but the latter is what is used in most research. It’s a fancy way to say the muscles experience a momentary failure and the inability to perform another repetition.

Tomato-Tomatoe

In the video below you’ll see that I reach absolute failure on rep 13 after 8-9 seconds of trying to grind the rep out. Sure, I may have embellished a little to make a point but I want you to see what it looks like.

It’s key to understand this because almost all research into muscle growth (AKA muscle hypertrophy) uses absolute failure to determine when a set should end. Rep 13 below.

Meaning almost every time you draw a conclusion about a piece of research, you have to consider if those sets were taken to absolute failure under the supervision of someone like me.

Picture me standing over you yelling at you to keep pushing until you can’t finish another rep. Then I help you finish that last rep, or help you lower the weights safely so you don’t hurt yourself.

Do you train like this?

Obviously not everyone has a trainer looking over their shoulders at all times.

Should you train like this?

That’s the question I’ll answer below.

Technical Failure

Technical failure on the other hand is a little more subjective.

It’s the point at which technique noticeable falters. Or to the trainee when it feels like it’s starting to falter. In the video below you can see I hold a pretty steady pace for the first 9 reps.

Then you can see me slow down a bit on at rep 10. I wouldn’t stop here, nor do I think it’s technical failure but it’s when I start paying closer attention in the set. It’s when the weight started to feel challenging.

What it looks like…

At rep 12 I slow down dramatically about half way up. This rep takes almost an extra 2 seconds to complete versus any of the previous repetitions. What I might call a “hitch.”

A hitch should almost always terminate a set. This is likely the last full rep (maybe one more) you’ll complete anyway. A hitch is likely one rep beyond technical failure.

Hence why I say, I probably would have terminated this set on rep 11 if I wasn’t trying to show you what technical and absolute failure look like.

Rep 11 is when the weight really started to feel heavy. I slowed down noticeably. It’s about .2 seconds slower than all previous reps.

Yes, I have video analysis but also experience and a trained eye at this point. I knew I would hitch on the next rep or two and then hit absolute failure. That comes with practice.

Is Absolute Failure Critical to Muscle Strength or Growth?

Based on personal experience and coaching experience I’d say no. I’d even be inclined to say it’s detrimental to both provided you’re not doing high rep, low intensity training.

That’s why I tell all my clients to lift to technical failure, unless otherwise instructed. Typically only for high rep, low intensity work, like calisthenics.

It’s a bit complicated.

I’ve only been able to find three papers that looked at this question specifically.

One on young males from 2016 found that it didn’t matter. Another from 2017 on young women found that it also didn’t matter. More recently a paper from 2018, also found that it didn’t matter for elderly men.

Why did I say it was complicated then? Across a variety of populations, doesn’t all that research suggest that training to momentary muscle failure doesn’t matter?

Well it does. But…

There is a possible caveat.

That caveat is that the first paper was at 85% of the trainees one repetition maximum or a weight they could lift about 5 times.

The second paper was with loads equal to about 80% 1RM or a weight they could lift about 7 times.

For the last paper the reps completed fluctuated between 4-10 reps. Despite starting with a much lower 50% of 1RM and working up to 80% 1RM. What older men could actually do rep wise ended up being much lower. Likely due to age/detraining.

For those that don’t know 1RM = 1 Repetition Maximum. Or the weight a person can theoretically only lift once. It’s how we rate the intensity of lifting.

Meaning all of these papers are at a pretty moderate to high intensity.

That means the results might not carry over to very high intensity lifting (<5 reps or higher than 85% 1RM). Though I believe they will.

It also means that they might not carry over the really low intensity lifting (>10 reps in this case but likely >12 reps or even >15 reps, we don’t really know). Where I believe they won’t.

We’ve likely long known that going to absolute failure is not critical for strength improvements. This is how strength athletes have been successfully training for decades.

Grinding out reps has long proved to be ineffective for long-term strength gains. That’s what you see me doing on rep 12 & 13; grinding.

Muscle growth may be another story. Plenty of new research has suggested that high and low loads can create near equal amounts of muscle growth.

However, the key to all that research is that all the training was taken to absolute failure.

Based on experience and my interpretation of other literature, I’d hypothesize that the lower the load and the greater the reps, the closer to absolute failure a person has to train to get muscle growth.

Absolute Failure Requirements
Not proven yet, but I feel it highly probable…

Conversely the higher the load relative to ability and the lower the reps, the less absolute failure is required for muscle growth.

No one to date has researched this, so it’s just my idea but I think it holds water.

It explains to me why so many regular people struggle to use calisthenics to build substantial amounts of muscle. Especially compared to external load weight lifting.

Yet gymnasts who do a ton of training, can build an appreciable amount of muscle even with bodyweight only training. It comes down to volume of training (hours a day) and hitting failure. This is likely the optimal way to build muscle with calisthenics on the floor rings, bars, etc…

This is why I occasionally tell clients to take things that far, usually for high repetition calisthenics exercises like push ups or inverted rows. Even then, I have concerns about recovery, so I usually limit the application.

It’s complicated because if muscle growth is your objective, it appears likely you need to train closer to absolute failure with high reps.

I’m not sure it matters at if you use more moderate to high loads.

Practicality

If you looked at most of the literature on strength you’d know failure doesn’t matter. In fact, it likely hinders strength gains to some extent.

If you looked at most of the literature on muscle gains, you’d assume that hitting absolute failure was absolutely a requirement. The vast majority of it takes every resistance training exercise to absolute failure.

But as you can see, the literature that looks specifically at training to failure at least with loads ≤10 reps indicates that isn’t the case.

We should also question the practical application of training to absolute failure even in the face of all that other research.

Training to absolute failure is hard. Not only hard work, but it puts you at risk of dropping a weight and injury. You likely need a spotter (or two) to do it properly.

It also causes more muscle damage than other forms of lifting. More muscle damage means you’ll need more time to recover between training sessions.

That means fitting in fewer productive training sessions per week. Arguably this is not ideal for most. Some ideal frequency and total volume are required but so is adding reps or load to each movement. i.e. progressive overload.

The risk in my mind just isn’t worth it save in special circumstances:

  • Testing True Ability
  • Over-reaching (if you don’t know what this is, you’re not ready for it)
  • You have good spotters or the right equipment to do it while lowering injury risk. Even then I’d do it maybe a phase (~1 month) or two per year at a maximum…

Not to mention that rep 13 in the video above obviously wouldn’t count because I didn’t complete it. Why bother putting that extra effort into a rep you’re not going to complete?

If you experience a hitch, stop. That’s a good rule of thumb. Ideally you stop one rep shy of that hitch, that’s technical failure.

I simply can’t in good conscious expect people to train like this most of the time, let alone on their own. I don’t subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. After a dozen years of coaching, I can’t expect the majority of people to push themselves this hard. Nor should they.

Sometimes the risk isn’t worth the reward.

Technical failure, though more subjective, eliminates all the risk without dramatically sacrificing the result. You will have to work and practice to find your sweet spot.

It ensures you can finish every rep but that you still hit an appropriate amount of fatigue to get a result.

If you want to build strength, lift ≤8 reps to technical failure, possibly even a rep shy of technical failure. I have an article on the backburner about that too.

If you want to build muscle, lift ≤12 reps to technical failure too.

I’ve yet to see specific data on this, but it’s incredibly likely that absolute failure is most important if you want to build a muscle using low load, high repetition lifts. For example push ups or inverted rows.

I suspect absolute failure is only necessary once you get beyond 12-15 repetitions. The higher you go, the more necessary it is.

If you want to build muscle, do the majority of your lifts to ≤12 reps to technical failure too.

If you want to build muscle using high rep calisthenics (>12-15 reps), you will likely need to train to absolute failure.


Also published on Medium.