When Failure is a Good Thing

Now's probably a good enough time to define the "lifting to fail" part of the blog's subtitle, especially since I'm a little sore from doing just that (lifting, not defining).

Strength training jargon turns at least two words on their heads, giving them opposite connotations from how they're used in regular speech:

To fail is good.
To become efficient is bad.

When muscles become efficient at performing a particular exercise, they get a little bored. They've achieved the challenge before them, and now they're like teenagers in an afternoon biology class with eyes at half-mast--nothing short of dancing bears will convince them to do some work. Every six weeks or so, you need to wake up those bored biceps with a new routine.



Let's say that after benching the bar eight times pretty well, you can barely rack it on lift #9. You're fairly obsessive compulsive--you really, really want to do a set of 10 and not 9--but even you know not to be stupid; if you try for one more, someone's going to have to rescue you from under something really, really heavy. You've lifted to fail.

You told your muscles you mean business, and next week, when you try it again, they're going to be like, Oh great, this is the thing where I've got to do that thing again (muscles don't have a very good vocabulary). And they'll probably perform a little better than they did before.

People have all sorts of theories on how often you should do this, or if at all. I'm no doctor or exercise professional, so I won't go into all that. I just really like the concept of:

(1) pushing your limits, which brings about
(2) the best you've ever done, but still you have to
(3) fail--end on a low note--to realize how good you did.

Interestingly, if you take a nice long rest after you've lifted to fail--say, three minutes--and try it again, that thing that you couldn't possibly lift one more time--well, you'll be able to lift it again.

And here's something especially cool.

If, after you've "failed," after you've done your absolute best and can't go on, you have someone help you do one more rep, you'll achieve even more muscle goodness than if you had just been by yourself.

Think about that.


  1. Whereas Amy lifts to fail, I accompanied her to the YMCA on Monday and developed my own concept: failing to lift. It's the life philosophy in which you watch your wife lift enough weight to gain the approval of all the burly men in the weight room, and then you take a lot of the weight off and struggle to push it into the air without killing yourself. Failing to lift--it's a life lesson in humility. Blessed are the meek, baby!

  2. At least your submissive wife was there to spot you in your time of need.

  3. Lifting to fail has that sort of feel to it when I tell my wrestlers about "losing your way to the top". I like it.


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