For most guys, stopping most of their sets short of failure will allow them to build muscle more quickly. This is especially true of people who are still relatively new to lifting. This is because training to failure can cause excessive muscle damage, which can impede muscle growth. It can also ingrain poor lifting technique, which can negatively impact longterm progress.

But isn’t that last rep the only one that matters? Isn’t that last rep the one that separates the weaklings from the warriors? Grab a seat by the curl rack, and let me tell you about keeping two in the tank.

Before and after illustration of a skinny hardgainer ectomorph becoming muscular.

Why You Shouldn’t Always Train to Failure

Training to muscular failure causes a disproportionate amount of muscle damage. This means that you’ll need to go through a long recovery process before you can train those muscles again. Historically, muscle damage was thought to cause muscle growth, but now most hypertrophy research is showing that muscle growth is caused by mechanical tension and metabolic stress, not muscle damage. Furthermore, excessive muscle damage means that your body will need to invest more resources into repairing that damage, leaving fewer resources available for constructing new muscle tissue (study).

As counterintuitive as it may sound, your muscles will grow quicker if you stop your sets a good couple reps before you hit muscle failure (study). You’ll still need to progressively increase that load over time, adhering to the principle of progressive overload, but you can stay away from muscle failure while doing it.

There’s another problem with training to failure, too. The more you damage your muscles, the longer it will take for them to recover, and the less frequently you’ll be able to train them. A workout only stimulates 24–72 hours of muscle growth, so if you’re going more than a couple days between workouts, you’re going to leave muscle growth on the table. That’s why full-body workouts tend to stimulate more muscle growth than push/pull/legs split routines.

There’s also form to consider. Now, to be clear, as a beginner, don’t expect perfection. Aiming for “good” is good enough. Your technique will improve over time. However, that doesn’t mean that you should be intentionally lifting with poor technique. Quite the opposite: you should be lifting with the best technique that you can muster, taking into account your experience level. And if you’re taking your sets to failure, you’re not going to be lifting with the best technique that you can muster. That last rep or two of every set is going to be an ugly mess. You are what you practice, and so if you practice ugliness, you will become ugliness.

Why You Should Sometimes Lift to Failure

We’re not saying that you should come out of the gym feeling like you didn’t work out. Your workouts should be challenging. You should need a minute or two of rest between sets, and you should definitely feel your muscles being stressed by the weights that you’re lifting.

However, you also shouldn’t be getting sick every second week because your body is struggling to keep up with your training regime, you shouldn’t be sore all the time, and you shouldn’t have trouble sleeping. Training is supposed to be a fountain of youth, not a preview of what it feels like to live in a retirement home.

Illustration of an ectomorph rounding his back because his back isn't strong enough yet.

As a beginner, our muscles are quite sensitive. We can build muscle extremely quickly due to a phenomenon called newbie gains, but we’re also sensitive to muscle damage. It’s often better to ease into lifting somewhat cautiously. We can take our sets close to failure, yes, but there’s no need to grind out reps with poor form for fear of missing out on muscle growth. It’s okay to stop before we fail. At least most of the time.

As a beginner, it’s also quite important to make sure that your training is challenging enough. To do that, you might want to experiment with taking some of your final sets to failure some of the time. By occasionally taking your final sets on an exercise to failure, you’ll learn how close to failure you’re actually going. You might be surprised to learn that you’re stopping further away from failure than you thought you were.

Illustration of a man doing a dumbbell goblet squat.

For example, perhaps you’re trying to leave around two reps in the tank, but when you take your set to failure, you find that you can eke out five more reps. In that case, you’re going to need to learn to push yourself harder. This is common with exercises like the squat, where getting anywhere close to failure can be quite challenging.

The opposite can happen, too. Perhaps when you take your set to failure, you realize that you can’t get any extra reps. This is common with exercises like the bench press and overhead press, where people can often get quite close to failure before the exercise really starts to challenge them.

Now, with this idea of taking some sets to failure, always make sure that you’re doing it safely. With a set of curls, you there’s no real risk of injuring yourself by pushing yourself a little harder. But if you’re going to take a set of squats to failure, make sure that you’ve got your safety bars set up. The same is true with the bench press. Get your safety bars set up. (Here’s how to set up your safety bars for the bench press.)

Remember that taking your sets to failure is mainly a learning tool. It’s not the ideal way to train all of the time forever, it’s just a way to gauge how many reps you’re leaving in the tank, a chance to learn what it’s like to push yourself, and a way for beginners to make sure that they’re pushing hard enough.

What’s cool is that when beginners take their isolation lifts to failure, they wind up stimulating around twice as much muscle growth with those lifts (study, study, study, study). However, when looking at experienced lifters doing compound lifts, those benefits disappear completely, and an equal amount of muscle growth is stimulated by stopping 2–3 reps shy of failure.

How Close to Failure Should You Lift?

As a beginner, it might be smart to include some simple isolation lifts in your routine that allow you to push your muscles all the way to failure. For example, if you’re eager to grow your biceps, then including some biceps curls in your program and taking your final sets to failure can be quite helpful. Not only will it ensure adequate muscle stimulation, it will also help you learn what failure feels like and how to keep a precise number of reps in reserve.

If you’re a typical trainee—even one with a few years lifting experience—you’ll build muscle mass more quickly if you stop 2–3 reps shy of failure. That’s going to put more emphasis on mechanical tension and metabolic stress, less emphasis on muscle damage. As a result, you’ll be able to build muscle more quickly because fewer resources will be wasted on muscle repair. You’ll also be able to train your muscles more frequently, leading to even more muscle growth. (As for optimal training frequency, we usually recommend doing three full-body workouts per week.)

Illustration of a skinny hardgainer building muscle and becoming muscular (before/after).

In addition to helping you build more muscle, stopping your sets shy of failure may also result in far fewer injuries, a stronger immune system, and less time spent suffering from muscle soreness and fatigue.

When you finish a set, you should be thinking to yourself: “phew that was tough, but I probably could have done one or two more reps.” That’s what we call keeping two in the tank. And it’s called keeping two “in the tank” because it will transform you into a tank. Or at least I think that’s why. To be honest, I’m not quite sure of the etymology.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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  1. Archer on July 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Really like your posts, read them all. But Im a little confused about sets. Some say that its better for ectomorphs to use pyramid reps. for example, (25/15/8, or 10/8/6/15 with 4 sets. Instead of 4 sets and 8 to 10(even reps) because this way we overtrain our muscles.

    • Shane Duquette on July 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm

      Thanks man, I’m glad you like them!
      Oh man I understand your confusion. Putting together a training program is tricky business. The good news is that all of those will result in muscle growth.
      How many reps and sets are “best”, and what would result in overtraining depends on so many different things: what the exercise is, what that muscle group responds best to, how many other exercises in your workout work the same muscle group, how close to failure you train to, how often you train that muscle group per week, and how many weeks in a row you’re doing high (or low) volume.
      I study this stuff like a demon and read dozens of pubmed studies every morning with my coffee. Putting together a “perfect” training program still confuses the hell out of me. Luckily that’s Marco’s specialty, so we’re covered.
      I recommend going to one source that you trust and doing their program verbatim. There are many correct ways to train. If you try and mix and match though chances are you’ll overlook the subtle things that make the programs work as a system.
      Which do we do? … all of them. For a variety of reasons. At different points in our training. If you’re putting something together yourself though just keep it as simple as possible. Even reps is fine.
      I hope that helps!

    • Shane Duquette on July 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm

      Reading an interesting meta analysis of studies on optimal number of sets: 6-18 sets per muscle group per week. Ideally 3-6 sets per muscle group trained 2-3 times per week. That’ll give ya optimal strength and size gains.

  2. Vas on August 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    B2B is awesome, I was never even thinking about core training, now Im paying a lot of attention to it. But I was just curious If you guys(or any of the people on your program) ever run into uneven muscles development.

    • Shane Duquette on August 19, 2012 at 11:11 am

      That’s awesome man, I’m glad you like it! I hope our blog is helping.

      Almost everyone has muscle imbalances! Most people use their body asymmetrically, and some struggle with it more than others. A baseball pitcher, for example, would have a ton of trouble trying to develop a symmetrical upper body.

      The first 5 weeks of our program is made up mainly of iso-lateral lifts (like a 1-arm bench press), and this continues on to some extent throughout the program. This balances out most minor asymmetries, and is more than enough for most of our members 🙂

  3. vas on September 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for the reply. I will definatly be joining the program. Is it possible to complete the 1st phase using a home gym (bench, barbell, dumbells)

    • Shane Duquette on September 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      Yes sir! Some of our guys do the whole program at home, although I’d definitely say you’d get more out of the later phases at a real gym.

      And that’s awesome man. Can’t wait to see you on the other side 🙂

  4. loeverage on March 28, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Hey man,

    love the blog….no bs….just quality advice

    was wondering if you have to train 2-3 times a week in order to see gains. Could you still become a beast (albeit more slowly) training 1-2 times a week?


    • Shane Duquette on April 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm

      Sure! It took Albert, the transformation shot earlier in the article, 6.5 weeks to do 5 weeks worth of workouts. He still made great gains! It might just be a little harder to keep the gains lean, and take just a little bit longer. You can definitely definitely still get there.

      Another thing to keep in mind is habit forming. Training just 1-2 times per week might not be enough for you to ever come to feel like training is a part of your lifestyle, and thus you’ll always need to actively do it. If you train a bit more often, it becomes almost like, say, going to the bathroom – you just do it. It’s not like you would ever think “ahh I’m too busy for that right now” you just find time for it – no big deal.

      Good luck man 🙂

  5. Nabs on December 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    This other website describes the ideal weekly volume and volume per muscle group and is an advocate of not training to failure by leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank. It also shows how you can do a full body workout three days a week. I am going to follow it. Basically, Shane and his bros pretty much nailed it, and are crushing it in the gym.

  6. Palash Agrawal on April 28, 2014 at 11:10 am

    How do you progressively increase the weigh if you dont train to failure??????

    • Shane Duquette on May 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      I’m not sure I understand your question. What makes you think that training to failure is the only way to progressively increase how much you’re lifting?

      • Palash Agrawal on May 6, 2014 at 4:00 pm

        Well lets it took x reps to train to failure with a certain weight. Then next time you would try lift more reps with that same weight to reach. I think of failure as a measuring point to when a set is finished. How else would you decide when to stop a set? And how will your workouts be challenging if you don’t train to failure.

        • Shane Duquette on May 6, 2014 at 8:11 pm

          If you try to stop just short of failure, say, then you’d do x reps with a certain weight … then next workout hopefully do x reps with a heavier weight. Same thing. The only difference is that for some x is failure, whereas for others x is failure minus one or two reps.

          You’re correct – the workout would feel less challenging. If your goal is to create a challenging/fun workout though, that’s a different goal. Most of our readers are looking to build muscle mass rapidly, not train recreationally. Whenever possible though, it’s always best if you can get both great results AND have a good time doing it 🙂

          For me, I still find it challenging stopping short of failure, especially when the weights get heavy. Deadlifting 375 for three reps is still tough for me, even though I suspect I could get five if I really gunned it. But sometimes, to test myself or ramp up the intensity, I’ll train to failure. Every few weeks or so. Or on just a couple isolation exercises that aren’t as fatiguing (like curls, say).

  7. Chris on May 27, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Do you not ever find that training every muscle group each workout is something of a tall order? I’m assuming you guys achieve this through compound lifts though, rather than systematically targeting every muscle – which would probably take all day! This is an interesting concept though, the idea of whole- body workouts I previously associated more with beginner, calisthenic sort of programmes. Similarly, I had the idea that a week was more optimal in terms of time for stimulated protein synthesis and muscle repair to occur – do you find, then, that this more frequent stimulation of the same muscles allows adequate time for muscle fibre repair in between its stimulation/ damage?

    Ps great blog guys, keep it up, it’s encouraging to finally see something a bit more evidence- based out there.

    • Shane Duquette on May 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      Yeah, it’s a lot easier and more efficient than it sounds when you use compound lifts. You just need to be mindful that you’re stimulating all the muscles you’re trying to stimulate. We use a mix of both compound and isolation lifts to do that, and our workouts only take about an hour. If you strictly use isolation lifts that’s when you run into training programs where you’re in the gym eight days per week tackling one muscle group at a time for an hour or more. To me that’s what sounds like a tall order! Different people prefer different approaches though, and there are many ways to skin a beast!

      This obviously depends on your situation. Many untested pro-bodybuilders train with less frequency than that, but that’s because their anabolic response is assisted by drugs, so they don’t need to stimulate it as often. For a natural trainee things are different. The anabolic response to training only lasts for about 48 hours tops. If you’re only training a muscle group once per week you’re missing out on five days of growth!

      As a result, not surprisingly, most research shows that stimulating a muscle group around three times per week is best, whether you’re a total beginner or a very seasoned weightlifter. However, overall training volume per muscle group remains more important. You can still make decent gains even if weightlifting frequency isn’t optimized.

      (Another thing to keep in mind is intensity. If you go to absolute failure on every set if every workout obviously you won’t be able to train with the same frequency and volume as someone who’s a little more moderate, as you’ll be absolutely beating your muscles to a pulp each workout. This is why many good training programs advocate stopping before failure.)

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  9. Ahmed on June 1, 2016 at 6:56 am

    Hi Shane,

    What do u think of Drew Baye, HIT? He speaks highly of training to failure, low frequency/low volume workout, all of which go against your exercise philosophy. U think his HIT approach could also work for ectos?


    • Shane Duquette on June 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm

      I think if you’re really in a hurry in the gym it can be a good way to still get some decent results. You may get, for example, 60% of your results from the first set, 30% from the second and 10% from the third—especially as a beginner. So just doing one set per muscle group per workout is going to get you further than doing a few sets with one muscle group and then leaving early.

      Is it anywhere near optimal for ectomorphs (or drug free lifters in general)? The research pretty unanimously says no. In fact, volume has generally shown itself to be the most important training variable, with the most you can properly recover from tending to be ideal for most people.

      • Ahmed on June 2, 2016 at 10:39 am

        Thanks but what of recovery? More volume or frequency may affect recovery right?

        • Shane Duquette on June 2, 2016 at 3:25 pm

          Correct. It’s always a balancing act. For example, if you stay a rep or two away from failure when lifting that lets you recover far more quickly and train more frequently / with more volume. On the other hand, if you train a muscle group all the way to failure you may need to wait a few days before training it again (and many guys use triple splits for this reason). Both are valid approaches, but more volume/frequency keeps on proving itself to be a little better for building muscle, quite a bit better at building strength, and way better at improving lifting technique and posture (because there’s way more frequent practice). It’s likely a fair bit healthier too. Still, it’s not the only good way to train, just a good way to train.

  10. Seven Common Muscle-Building Myths - Fast Track Muscle Building on July 9, 2016 at 6:43 am

    […] When you work your muscles to the point of failure, the recovery time jumps to approximately a week. By working a muscle group only once a week will inhibit that muscles overall growth trajectory. As will working the muscle before it’s had a chance to fully recover. covers this particular myth in more detail here. […]

  11. Matt on September 11, 2016 at 6:27 am

    Really great info on this site Shane! You write very well. And I love how everything is science backed with relevant studies referenced.

    I have a demanding career and 2 young children. Free time for me is scarce. It’s very hard for me to make it to the gym now than twice per week. So my thought is since I can’t get to optimal volume / week, in my case, wouldn’t the next best thing be to try and make up for it with more intensity by going to failure on my sets? That is what I do. And I keep the weight a little higher and target failure at about 8 reps. My main goal is hypertrophy for size and mass gains, with strength being secondary.

    I typically do a 2 day split. 1 day is legs and back. The other is everything else. Allows for the extended recovery need from the intensity. Plus I’m very prone to DOMS (or maybe that is from going to failure). Or do you think since I’ll always have at least 2 full days between workng out that I should switch to 2 full body workouts pee week? That would get me more frequency and about the same weekly volume but a little less volume per workout to fit all the body parts in for each session.

    I’ve trained on and off for 20 years. So fortunately I have a lot of nuclei and the magic of muscle memory serves me very well. I’m coming off a 3+ year hiatus from around the time my son was born. Already seeing noticeable gains in 2 weeks. I pretty much already figured out the diet end of things over the years and for the most part employ all the tactics you recommend. Calorie surplus, adequate protein, not shying away from carbs, etc.

    The higher intensity / lower frequency and lower volume has always worked very well for me. But I’ve never tested biasing toward frequency over intensity or more volume. Any studies specifically testing that? Any that show some outlier individuals that thrive primarily on intensity? I’m probably more of a mesomorph/ ectomorph hybrid. 5’7″, and hover around 150 lbs. With prob around 15-20% bf when eating like crap and not workng out. Any studies that show diminishing returns from more volume? Like maybe the first 6 sets per week get you 80% of the gains and those additional 7 -16 sets get you that last 20%. Trying to figure out how much I’m”leaving on the table”


    • Shane Duquette on September 13, 2016 at 1:12 pm

      Thank you, Matt!

      The highest training volume that you can recover from will get you the most gains, but you can still make rather nice gains with a lower volume approach. You’re also in the exact situation where a lower volume approach is advisable, especially since you might not be sleeping or resting as much as a lazy bachelor.

      Yes, I think switching to two full body workouts per week would be better. Less volume per body part per workout, but I bet it would give you a higher volume overall. The trick to that will be focusing on the bigger compound lifts—deadlifts, squats, bench press, rows, chin-ups and overhead presses. You’ve been lifting a long time now, so I suspect you’ve got the skills to handle those more advanced lifts (although you may be rusty!). If you don’t have a barbell/power rack, then you could do dumbbell variations. Just keep ’em heavy and compound.

      Going to failure is good, yes, given your circumstances. You wouldn’t want to go to failure on every set, though, just the last set of the exercise. If you go to failure too soon, you’ll wreck your strength on subsequent sets. More soreness, worse results. Switching to full body workouts will help with that as well because you can blast away at a muscle group fairly hard… then just switch over to a new muscle group. You wouldn’t be doing loads of follow-up sets with an already-thrashed muscle.

      Studies don’t usually look for outliers. Most of that comes down to personal experimentation. Doing some titration can be a good idea.

      Do studies ever show diminishing returns from more volume? In terms of strength, very yes. A fatigued muscle will not test as strong. You can even cause a (temporary) reduction in strength with overly high volume. In terms of size, also yes, but that’d be a more extreme scenario. With two workouts per week, you wouldn’t be training with too much volume.

      Keep in mind that you’d still need balanced workouts. If you’re very strong, for example, deadlifts can be quite taxing even when volume is low. A single 700-pound pull will stress your body pretty hard.

      If you find yourself overly DOMSing or tired, the first thing I’d do would be to stop a rep shy from failure on the final set, two reps shy of failure on the others. That would likely get you the most bang for your buck in terms of optimising volume/intensity.

      I hope that helps!

  12. […] Why training to failure isn't the only way to train […]

  13. […] Why training to failure isn't the only way to train […]

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  16. […] be increasing the weight on the bar until your technique is feeling fairly good. And you shouldn’t be taking your sets all the way to failure, either, because your technique will likely fall below that 80% threshold in those final brutal […]

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