Pushing to Failure; When You Should and When You Shouldn't

Pushing to Failure; When You Should and When You Shouldn't

fitness and nutrition to the point™

A recomp fitness and nutrition™ post

But first!  As goes anything in life, nothing comes easy.  Although supplements and techniques may aid you in your journey, nothing happens quick or overnight.  Hard work, dedication, and commitment to your goals and your life are the most important.

So as you read this and any of my posts, remember, your fitness and nutrition journey is a life style change and you get out what you put in.  The information I provide is based on sound industry standards, scientific research, and experience, and is there to aid you in speeding up your progress. 

The information contained in this post is not guaranteed to help you toward your goals as every person is different.  Seek medical advice before using any supplementation and/or starting any fitness program.


Rep Ranges and Growth

One of the most argued topics when it comes to weight training is what rep range is the best for gaining strength, gaining size (hypertrophy), or finding a balance of both.   Most people want to gain more muscle, either to look leaner or bigger, and also become stronger at the same time.  Yes, it can be done, but it is often more difficult than working toward one or the other and takes longer to achieve; ‘Jack of all trades is a master of none’.

Yes, it is true that if you train for strength you will gain muscle and some size just like if you train for size you will gain some strength.  The question really comes down to, what matters most to you.  However, in this article I’m not going so much into the details of strength versus hypertrophy training except where it makes sense to help explain how hard you should push yourself when training in each.  Let’s first discuss the differences in rep ranges.

As I mentioned earlier, this is heavily debated and really depends a lot on you and how your body responds to each rep range.  However, in general the following rep ranges will help you achieve specific goals.

  • 1-3 Reps = Pure Strength
  • 4-6 Reps = Mostly Strength / Some Hypertrophy
  • 8-10 Reps = Mostly Hypertrophy / Some Strength
  • 12-15 Reps = Pure Hypertrophy / Endurance

For purposes of this article, we are going to just talk about the extremes in the sections below; pure strength and pure hypertrophy.

Changes to the Neuromuscular System

When you lift weights, as well as perform other exercises, sports, etc., you induce stresses on your body.  Many of these stress-induced changes occur to your neuromuscular system, which includes your muscles, connective tissues, and nervous system, as well as your skeletal system.  The stresses cause strains to your nervous system as it attempts to control the weight and movements by firing the right muscles in the right combinations and at the right times.  The stresses also cause strains to your muscles by causing micro tears.  The response to each is how you gain strength and or size.

There are two ways your body can control the amount of weight your lift.  One is by adding muscle fibers so there are more to do the work, and the second is by using the fibers you have more efficiently allowing them to work together, better.  Let’s find out a bit more.

Pure Strength

Gaining strength is a function of your nervous system and how it interacts and controls your muscular system much more than how big your muscles are.  When you train in the low rep range, 1-3, you are not performing enough repetitions to cause much physical damage to your muscle fibers.  Assuming you are moving enough weight, this forces your body to use the muscle fibers you have more efficiently.

Over time, you gain little size, but greater coordination of your muscular and nervous system allowing you to utilize more of the muscle fibers you have and ultimately push more weight.  Week after week your body will get better at using more and more of the muscle fibers you have at the same time to push more and more weight.

This is why you are not able to perform many reps with heavy weights because your body is using more and more fibers at the same time and thus fatiguing them leaving few reserve fibers to push more reps out.

Pure Hypertrophy

On the other hand, gaining size is more a function of adding more muscle fibers and muscle tissue as your body repairs the micro tears from high rep training, as well as storing more water and glycogen (muscle carbohydrates) for immediate energy usage.  This is why those who train solely for hypertrophy may look bigger but also look ‘softer’ as they do not have dense muscle that is formed during low rep training.  High rep training does not allow you to push weight heavy enough to elicit the greatest neurological changes that force the use of more muscle fibers.

Don’t get me wrong, hypertrophy builds strength too, just not as much as low rep training.  The best rep range is to use a combination of both in your routine through what is called periodization.  This allows you to build more strength and capitalize on that by pushing more weight for more reps during your hypertrophy periods.  We will talk more about this in a bit.

How Rest Affects Each?

So why is the amount of rest important?  The amount of rest you should take between exercises is dependent on your goals.  In general, the heavier the weight with fewer reps (strength training) will require most rest than lower weight and more reps (hypertrophy training).  The reasons are simple.  With a higher intensity your muscles and central nervous system need more time to recover before cranking out another set of heavy weight.  Unlike hypertrophy where you want to tear down as many muscle fibers as possible to elicit maximum repair and growth, during low rep training you fatigue the most fibers at one time and need more time to rest.

Additionally, ATP, the energy used by your muscles, only recovers so quickly.  During strength training, you want to make sure that you have the maximum about of energy available to push the heaviest amount of weight to elicit the neurological changes you need to gain strength.  Unlike hypertrophy where less rest is needed because you want to make sure you fatigue every single fiber every single set.  Resting too long gives your muscle too much rest.

For those of you who love science, below is a diagram of how ATP is used in your cells.

In general ATP recovery occurs at the following rates:

  • 20 to 30 seconds = 50% ATP Recovery
  • 40 seconds = 70% ATP Recovery
  • 60 seconds = 85 to 90% ATP Recovery
  • 3 minutes = 100% ATP Recovery

Therefore, in order to have the maximum energy to push the maximum weight, you need to rest longer.  If you want hypertrophy, your rest less.  Well discuss rest amounts in a bit.


Now that you know the basics about how the way you train affects muscular growth differently, how can you put this to work for you?  How can you incorporate these into your routine to help you reach your goals?  When should you go to failure?  How much rest do you need for each?  Let’s find out.

When to Train to Failure

When you hear someone say you must train to failure, you may first wonder what is training to failure and why should I do it?  It’s pretty simple; training to failure is pushing out as many reps for a given weight until you physical cannot push out one….more….rep!

On the surface it seems to make sense, right?  You are there to workout, push yourself, and leave the gym or your living room exhausted and barely able to move!  Man that was a great workout, I’m beat!!!

The problem is, training to failure is really only ideal when training for hypertrophy.  As we discussed some above, with hypertrophy, you want to break down as many muscle fibers as possible to elicit the most muscle fatigue, muscle tearing, and thus the most muscle growth after your workout.  By going to failure you force more muscle breakdown and will, with proper nutrition and rest, achieve more muscle growth and size.

However, and this is a big however, training to failure it NOT ideal when training for strength.  Some may disagree, as can happen with much of the information in the industry, but most would agree.  When training for strength, you want to have 1 to 2 reps left after each set.  Don’t get me wrong, lift heavy and go hard, but if you go to exhaustion, you will not be able to push the amount of weight needed to make the most efficient changes to your neuromuscular system and elicit greater strength gains by learning to use the most muscle fibers at the same time.

The key take away; know what you are training for and train for that, not something else.

How Much Rest Do You Need?

Just like the question or rep ranges, the question of how much rest is needed is highly debated in the fitness arena.  Although your body is the ultimate factor in how it responds to more or less rest, in general, the amount of rest you should take between sets should follow the guidelines below.

If you are using a lower intensity, one that promotes hypertrophy in the 70-75% range, then you are promoting cellular changes in your muscles and less rest is more beneficial to promote muscle growth.  The reason for this is that the more reps you perform your muscle fibers tire and additional fibers are activated until you have burned through all your muscle fibers.  This is ideal as the more fibers you damage, the more repair and growth will occur.  If you rest too long, you give all your muscle fibers too much time to rest and have less chance of tiring all fibers.  Thus for less intensity, less rest is required.

When performing supersets, multiple exercises in succession, make sure you rest in between exercises to allow blood flow and ATP recovery before starting your second exercise.  Although you may be working opposing muscle groups, each opposing muscle still works to prevent hyperextension of the primary muscle you are working.

To summarize, below is the recommended rest for specific goals:

  • Strength (80-85% of your 1 rep maximum) – 3 minutes (up to 5 minutes)
  • Hypertrophy (70 to 75% of your 1 rep maximum – 60 seconds (up to 2 minutes)
  • Supersets (Strength or Hypertrophy) – 45 to 60 seconds between each exercise in your superset ensuring that you rest between sets of each exercise as stated above.

Strength Versus Hypertrophy; Which Is Better For You?

The answer is simple; neither and both.  It all depends on your goals and what you are trying to achieve through your fitness activities.  If your goal is to look bigger then training in a high rep range will get you there faster.  If your goal is to lift the maximal amount of weight, then low rep training is right for you.

However, keep in mind a few things.  First, strength training and hypertrophy training complement each other by allowing you to gain faster in one by gaining in the other.  For example, by improving your strength, you can thus lift more when you perform exercises in the higher rep range, and thus grow more muscle because you are fatiguing and tearing down more muscle during the hypertrophy phase.  Seconds, by training for both you will gain denser, harder looking muscle and size.  Albeit it will take longer over all to gain size and strength, but you will be a stronger, more coordinated, and overall more athletic person.

How To Accomplish Both?

As discussed above, you can accomplish both by training for both.  This is called periodization training and can be accomplished in several ways.

Periodization is the process of rotating through these different repetition ranges to produce both strength and size gains and allowing your body to recover more efficiently and break through sticking points easier.  There are several different types of periodization. One is not necessarily better than the other, it is all about what works best for you.

  • Daily Periodization.  Daily periodization is working a muscle group in all rep ranges each workout.  For example, you may perform sets of a barbell bench press in a low rep range and dumbbell presses in a high rep range all in the same workout.
  • Weekly Periodization.  Weekly periodization is working a muscle group several times a week, with one day using a low rep range and another day using a higher rep range.  Thus if you normally performed four chest exercises a week, you would perform two using a low rep range one day and two more a few days later using a high rep range.
  • Alternating Periodization.  Alternating periodization is using a low rep range for 4 to 8 weeks then changing to a higher rep range for the next 4 to 8 weeks and back again.
Try one or a combination of all over time and see what works best for you.  Ultimately it is about keeping your routine changing and finding what works best for your body.

What About Supplementation?

So what about it?  Do our bodies really need supplements to survive?  What about to thrive?

The answer to these questions is no and yes.  If you eat a proper diet and get the right nutrients in your body through clean eating of lean meats, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, your body can survive.  However, I’m sure you’re not reading this because you just want to be average and survive.  You want to thrive and change your life and your body and have lots more energy.  Thus supplementation.

As I mention on my website, fruits and vegetables grown today have much fewer nutrients then 40 years ago due to farming and production techniques that force pre-mature ripening and harvesting to so produce companies can sell more produce and gain more profits.  This means that the apple you are eating today is less nutritious than one you would have eaten 40 years ago.

So yes, supplementation to thrive and supplementation to enhance your performance in the gym!

The following supplements enhance your muscle building journey and allow you to thrive!  For more on nutrition and supplementation for muscle building and fat loss, read our blog post; Nutrition 101!

  1. Pre-Workout.  Pre-workout supplements are great for preparing your body for the stresses of exercise and aids in giving you an extra edge to push yourself beyond where you thought you could and accelerate fat loss and helping to building muscle.  Effective components can include Nitric Oxide Boosters, which naturally increase your body’s production of nitric oxide aiding in dilating your blood vessels allowing more oxygen and nutrients into the muscle cells to aid in performance, Caffeine, which great for boosting energy and aiding in increasing muscle endurance and strength, as well as mental focus, as well as other amino acids and energy and performance enhancers.
  2. Protein.  Protein is critical to both muscle building and fat loss but for slightly different reasons.  For muscle building, you want to ensure you have enough protein to provide your body to ensure it will build muscle.  The types of protein and timing are also important, but for a great general muscle building stack protein, I go with Whey.  You can also use casein protein before bed as it is slow digesting and offers a sustained amount of protein to be absorbed at night.  You can read more about the different types of protein and benefits here.
  3. BCAAs.  Branched Chain Amino Acids are comprised of three of the most vital amino acids in the formation and repair of muscle.  Leucine, Iso-Leucine, and Valine work together in specific ratios which provide the greatest benefit from these amino acids.  Although ratios of these BCAAs range from 2:1:2 to 12:1:1, the higher amount of Leucine has been proven to have the greatest benefit to muscle recovery and the prevention of muscle breakdown.  BCAAs are beneficial intra-workout to help prevent muscle breakdown and reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soarness (DOMS).
  4. Creatine.  Creatine is found naturally in your body and many meats (especially red meat). Creatine aids in the creation of ATP, adenosine triphosphate, which provides energy for muscle contractions.  It also increases water absorption by cells and allows for more nutrients to enter your cells and helps to build muscle quicker.  Creatine also aids in muscular endurance and reduced Delayed Onset Muscle Soarness (DOMS).  Like proteins, creatine has been well researched and the claims that high protein intake or creatine damage kidneys has been disproven in study after study.
  5. Multivitamin: Multivitamins provide a balance of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that most people lack in some form.  Produce grown today are genetically altered to yield larger fruits and vegetables, higher quantities, and quicker growth than in the past.  This results in produce that is much less nutritionally dense than our ancestors ate.  Because of this, even the most health conscience individual may not be getting all the nutrients they need to thrive.  This leads to illnesses and other chronic diseases, not to mention poor athletic performance, slow gym gains, and difficulty in reaching fitness goals.  Therefore, taking a multivitamin is important to a healthy life, especial for active individuals.
  6. Fish Oils: Essential Fatty Acids are essential to the human body but can only be found in a few species of fish.  Research suggests fish oil’s fatty acids can assist with heart function, carbohydrate breakdown and joint health.  Fish oils also support brain and vision health.
  7. Vitamin D3: Vitamin D3 is the most bioavailable form of vitamin D.  Vitamin D3 enhances calcium and phosphorous absorption, stimulates the synthesis of osteocalcin (an important structural protein in bone), supports bone health and supports a healthy immune response.

Where Can You Find It?

Our Recomp Fitness and Nutrition store offers a variety of vitamins, supplements and fitness accessories from many great name brands.  Click below to browse our selection.

Additionally, we offer unique combinations of supplements and accessories in our various pre-designed stacks.  Our stack combines experience and science to give you the best combination of supplements and accessories to help you reach your goals.   Check out three of our many awesome stack below.

Recomp Fat Loss / Cutting Stack


Recomp Muscle Building Stack


Recomp Advanced Gym Stack


We can also design a stack specific to your needs, physical and time constraints, and fitness and nutrition goals!  Ask us how!

Check out our other blog posts and our monthly newsletter, as well as follow us on Twitter and Facebook, for more great information on fitness and nutrition so you can become a Fit Nut too!


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