Q&A: Training To Momentary Muscular Failure

Question:

In this Q&A I’m going to address a few common questions about training to momentary muscular failure (MMF); what it is, whether it is necessary, and if it’s more effective to train past it.

Answer:

What is momentary muscular failure?

Your muscles fail when fatigue has momentarily reduced their strength to below the level required to continue an exercise in the prescribed form.

When performing typical dynamic exercise protocols your muscles fail when you are unable to continue positive movement (positive failure). When performing yielding isometric protocols like static holds your muscles fail when you are unable to hold the weight motionless preventing negative movement (static failure). When performing negative-only your muscles fail when you are unable to lower the weight as slowly as prescribed (negative failure).

Is it necessary to train to momentary muscular failure?

No. It is not necessary to train to MMF to stimulate improvements in muscular strength and size or other aspects of functional ability, you just have to consistently work your muscles harder than you did previously. However, since results from exercise are proportional to intensity of effort, you should train to MMF.

Exercise intensity is best defined as how hard you are working relative to your momentary ability. If at the beginning of an exercise your muscles are capable of producing one hundred pounds of force but you are only working against a resistance of eighty pounds your intensity is eighty percent. As your muscles fatigue over the course of an exercise the eighty pounds of resistance requires an increasing percentage of your decreasing momentary strength. When your strength has been reduced to just below eighty pounds all of your momentary strength will be required to  just hold  the resistance and you will be working at one hundred percent intensity.

With most equipment it is impossible to know your exact strength or intensity of effort at the beginning of or at any point during an exercise (and both one rep maximum and max effort isometric testing should be avoided for safety). The only time you know how intensely you are working is when you reach MMF, at which point your intensity is maximum.

Is it better to train past momentary muscular failure?

Yes, but only very briefly.

When performing normal dynamic repetitions the only way to be certain you have achieved MMF is to continue attempting to move positively for a few seconds. Occasionally when you think you have achieved MMF if you attempt to gradually contract harder you will find you are able to continue positive movement. You may only move a few more degrees or inches, or you may end up completing  another repetition. There is no way to be sure you have achieved positive failure unless you keep trying for at least a few seconds. However, beyond some point additional contraction post-failure appears to be counterproductive. Advanced trainees who routinely perform extended static holds, multiple forced reps, or  multiple rest-pause reps beyond failure often find they require a much longer time to recover between workouts. A little seems to go a long way, and it is very easy to overdo or misuse these techniques.

Some of these have uses when training beginners who are still learning to train with a very high level of intensity, but only very few, and they need to be done correctly and used very judiciously or they will not have the desired effect.

For most people I recommend only continuing to contract for about five seconds after positive movement stops. If you’re really contracting as hard as you can and the weight doesn’t move after five seconds you’re probably not going to move it, and you should just slowly lower it and unload.

When performing static holds, once you are unable to maintain the prescribed position you should slowly lower the weight, unload, and terminate the set. If you used an appropriate load and time additional reps are unnecessary and potentially counterproductive. I recommend a conservative range of around sixty to ninety seconds.

When performing negative-only repetitions you should unload and terminate the set when you are unable to perform the negative at least slowly enough to maintain a ten-second cadence. Never attempt to continue a negative-only set beyond this point.

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75 Responses to Q&A: Training To Momentary Muscular Failure

  1. Randall Lightbown June 10, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Thank you Drew for posting this. It has been something I’ve not really been able to understand very well. Personally I train past failure, and in some exercises (especially the leg press, and dips too) I can make my self physically sick and come close to passing out. The guy who trained me in HIT told me that he hadn’t seen too many people train as hard (to failure) as I do, but when it makes me sick, I don’t consider it a possitive thing… I train clients and spend the first few months teaching the HOW to go the MMF. I’ve been lucky to have several clients who really push themselves, and as such get great results fast. But for me, who has been training in HIT for just over 2 years, I feel like I train to a point that is beyond what I need to do. And I have felt both that it’s taken me more than 10 days to recover, and like I am having a degression in my progress… I looked for some testimonials of people who have similar experiences, and it seems like a simple case of impulsive/intense caracter traites. Is there a way that I can technically train so that I avoid pushing myself to feeling sick? Thanks so much! Randall

    • Drew Baye June 10, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

      Randall,

      People can feel sick after a workout for a lot of different reasons, so it’s hard to say without more information, but overdoing post-failure techniques can definitely contribute to it. I would take a couple weeks off of training and resume without pushing more than a few seconds beyond positive failure.

      • Brad June 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

        Randall, while I never felt sick I had a similar experience as far as progress (see my other post below if Drew approves it). I think different people attain different “intensity” levels when they train. Some are more intense than others. I don’t know all the factors, perhaps Drew will explain, but my guess is that one’s mental focus and intent, pain threshold, nerve-firing ability, muscle fiber makeup, all of these things come into play.

        • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 9:59 am #

          Brad,

          This is definitely the case. For various physical and psychological reasons some people will be capable of “digging deeper” than others, and the better they get at this the more conservative they need to be with their volume and frequency. Individuals who can really “dig deep” are very rare though, and most people who think they do aren’t even close. I have trained a few of these “alpha subjects”, and it is really something to see.

          Something to consider about training to failure, however, is that what failure represents is a level of inroad relative to the resistance, and it is possible to achieve the same inroad and physiological effect without going to failure using slightly less resistance, although you wouldn’t be able to measure it. For example, if you perform an exercise using a level of resistance that is about eighty percent of your starting strength, you will fail when you have achieved approximately twenty percent inroad. If you use slightly less resistance you could achieve the same level of inroad in a similar amount of time stopping short of failure. Like I wrote, it isn’t necessary, but it is the only way to be certain one has worked hard enough to stimulate the desired improvements. Since most people’s problem is not that they train too intensely but rather they don’t train intensely enough, it is better to err on the side of higher effort and work to MMF.

          • Ben Tucker June 12, 2013 at 11:28 am #

            I notice some of my clients have a problem getting to failure several weeks into training. Others, no problem.

            Being that hvt is the standard (being easier), would a second set, essentialy rest pause, be in order for people who find it difficult to reach mmf ?

            • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

              Ben,

              A lot of this just comes down to how it is taught. Don’t have them do a second set, teach them to work harder. Otherwise you’re sending them a message they can make up for a lack of effort by doing more and many will hold off on the first set in anticipation of the second one.

      • Randall Lightbown June 10, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

        ok, I’ll give it a rest. Thanks again!

  2. Gaucho June 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Great stuff as usual! One question: Do you advice a training partner to help me (an advanced trained 24 year old ectomorph) to finish my last rep if I can’t finish it after five seconds contracting and reached positive failure?

    Normally my training partner helps me after the point of positive failure to finish my rep. After that I go into a static hold and squeeze as hard as I can (with for instance de pectoral muscles on the chest press) and slowly lower the weight.

    I train one set of a chest press, a pulld down, a leg press and a deadlift every ten days.

    Big fan from the Netherlands!

    • Drew Baye June 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

      Gaucho,

      In most cases I don’t recommend forced reps. It’s easy to overdo them and potentially counterproductive if not done correctly. I rarely use them with anyone other than beginners, and then it is usually to determine whether they have actually reached failure rather than to assist them post failure. Many times when I do a forced repetition I barely assist at all, and it is more for psychological effect to get the subject to continue to contract or attempt to contract harder.

      • Gaucho June 11, 2013 at 3:30 am #

        It’s all about optimal training, so no more forced reps then for me. Thanks!

        Just one more thing though: Is training to positive faillure enough for an advanced trained person (ectomorph) or would one make more progress if he would make sure by adjusting his ROM of his last rep to a point he can just barely finish his last rep on his on and go into a static hold en hold it for a while before slowly lowering the weight? This last part is what for instance Mike Mentzer would advice, under the impression that you should give a very clear signal to your body that more musclemass is needed, in his trainingprotcols to get the best results.

        • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 10:03 am #

          Gaucho,

          The more advanced a trainee – the more skilled they are at efficiently inroading the targeted muscles and working at a high level of intensity – the less they would need any kind of set-extension techniques, including post-failure static holds lasting longer than a few seconds. The harder you are capable of training, the more conservative you need to be with these kinds of techniques.

          • Gaucho June 12, 2013 at 4:26 am #

            Drew,

            Thank you, that’s very helpfull! I always thougt the bigger a person would get, the harder he needed to train to send a signal to his own body that more muscle mass is needed [to survive].

            So, if I understand it correctly you say the more experienced you are at a high level of intensity, the more you should stop doing “advanced techniques” like negatives or static holds. These advanced techniques will more likeley be counterproductive then they would stimulate maximal muscle growth. Is this correct?

            Therefore you say: for getting optimal results for an advanced trained person he should only train to MMF and that’s it. By always training to the MMF and try to contract for five seconds at the point of MMF one would reach his ultimate physique and all other training/advanced techniques won’t be necessary. If one would train past the point of MMF with forced reps or sets of “advanced techniques” the nervous system would need more time to recover then when one would train to MMF and over time it would take a person longer to reach his own ultimate physique. Do I understand this correctly?

            Last question, do you have some references to study’s about training to MMF vs training past MMF or vs advanced techniques? I would love to read into those study’s.

            • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 10:38 am #

              Gaucho,

              The more intensely a person is capable of training the less they would need to rely on advanced techniques. They can be counterproductive because if not used correctly they tend to extend the duration of an exercise without making it significantly more intense, and when overdone people tend to hold back in anticipation of them and not learn how to work as intensely as possible without them.

              I’m not saying they should never do them, but if a person doesn’t know when and how to best apply them they’re better off focusing on learning to contract more intensely and push themselves harder when performing normal, dynamic repetitions.

              I don’t think there are any good studies on this out there, and doubt there will be, and if there are I would be skeptical of the design and performance. My recommendations on training to MMF are based on training a large number of people over the last twenty years and discussions with various other trainers and HIT experts who have been doing this up to twice as long as I have.

  3. Thomas June 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Drew,

    I had this thought recently and you kind of eluded to it in your article. It seems that techniques to push past failure might be more effective for beginners vs. advanced trainers due to their lack of inroading skill. They simply aren’t yet able to direct their efforts to make MMF a reasonable enough stimulus for growth, especially with only one set. Also, I think doing an additional set may be a safer and more appropriate way to inroad for the beginner (couldn’t a second set just be considered a rest pause set with a longer rest period, thus an “inroad technique” (cumulative) for those who cant yet work hard enough?)

    • Drew Baye June 10, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

      Thomas,

      Yes, they’re more of a teaching tool, but you have to be very careful with them. The best way to use them, in my opinion, is when they are not really physically needed but the trainee needs to be pushed mentally. Then, they need to be told they were not actually helped at all, so they realize they are capable of pushing themselves if they try. If you overdo post-failure techniques like forced reps some people will hold back a little to keep some energy in reserve in anticipation of them, completely defeating the purpose.

      If you use an appropriate amount of resistance and allow for somewhat higher reps when learning an additional set isn’t required. I would avoid it with beginners for the same reason you need to be conservative with post-failure techniques, to avoid having them learn to hold back on their initial set, and to avoid giving the impression that the amount of work is more important than intensity of effort.

  4. Brian June 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, a really great and nutritious read for my brain. I am going to copy and paste this so my girlfriend can read it tonight. She still does not seem to ‘get’ the MMF concept. Maybe this will do it! lol

    • Ben Tucker June 12, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

      Brian,

      Most people never do. That’s why hvt reigns supreme (and always will).
      People will go for more work over relative effort.

      It’s really an educational process. They have to experience mmf to believe it. Even then, some ask me, “What is that supposed to do?”
      As if working hard is a bad thing.

      • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

        Ben,

        Unfortunately you’re right, because the majority of people will always try to look for easier ways to do things and avoid the kind of hard work required for best results.

        • Ben Tucker June 13, 2013 at 11:07 am #

          Drew,
          Case in point:
          Having done hit for some time now, I picked up what I consider “heavy” 50lb dumbbells to do hammer curls… a very macho lift done in every gym, usually performed right in front of a mirror.

          I got into the hvt mindset and hoisted those bad boys up, back swinging and all. I really thought I was somebody wishing I had at least one person there to witness this feat of strength.
          As soon as I started to slow down and actually lift and target the musculature, I could hardly do one, getting stuck about half way.

          I have to educate my clients on this, from time to time. They’ll say, “I’m hardly curling anything.” To which I reply, “But you worked hard.”

          I try to explain, especially to the guys, that I could load up the barbell and you could swing up some “big weight” till your heart’s content. You’ve seen it before, guys slinging up a barbell curl with “impressive weight” and their elbows are still bent at almost 90 degrees at the bottom position, leaning forward, as opposed to almost straightening them with a slight bend in the elbow at the bottom and leaning slightly back to make it harder.
          And then they rest at the top, with this “heavy load” at 90 degrees to where the weight is conveniently supported by the forearm bone and more emphasis is put on the anterior deltoid to hold it there than the bicep.

          Anyway, Drew, this makes me appreciate your teaching of the cammed barbell curl. It’s already taken something relatively hard and made it more difficult.
          Grazie signore, grazie;)

          • Drew Baye June 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

            Ben,

            This is one of the hardest things to teach, but also one of the most important. Exercise is not about using your muscles to do something to the weight, it’s about using the weight to do something to your muscles, and the better you are at doing it the less weight you need relative to your strength.

        • Ben Tucker June 13, 2013 at 11:20 am #

          I know I’m preaching to the choir, but it really comes down to saving time.

          Tongue in cheek, I ask my clients, “Do you want to be a gym rat or do you want to save time?”

          I’ve had one guy (pushing 40) at 5’11” go from 237lbs, to 203 in 5 months and still wants to go for more definition. He says he’s lighter than when he graduated college. Blood pressure is lower than it’s been in years. And of course he’s much stronger.

          He thanks me, but I tell him to thank himself. After all, he flexed his biggest muscle: His brain.

          Drew, I know you’ve trained enough people to see who’s willing to dig deep and make it happen. It’s really a cloud 9 experience when they do.

          • Drew Baye June 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

            Ben,

            I love it when people finally get it. It’s too bad the majority of people never do.

            If a person is exercising for physical reasons, then the best method will be the one that produces the desired results most efficiently (HIT).

            Satisfaction = outcome/input

            In this case, the greater the ratio of physical improvement to the time invested, the happier they will be.

  5. Don June 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    Greetings Drew,
    I am 64 years old, and working out twice per week, using a HIT program to the best of my ability. Is it reasonable to expect further muscular development at this point of my life? I can’t say that I love to workout, but I intend to do it as long as I possibly can. I just want to be as productive as possible. At this point I don’t have energy to waste, on non-productive routines.
    Thanks
    Don

    • Drew Baye June 10, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Don,

      Whether you can expect further muscular development depends on where you are relative to your muscular potential, but even if you are not able to get any bigger or stronger there is tremendous benefit to regular high intensity strength training. I’ve had clients in their eighties significantly improve strength and muscle mass, though, so there doesn’t appear to be an upper age limit for muscular improvement.

  6. James Ashby June 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    I have an old Explosive Fitness Machine with which one pushes against a static bar attached to a load meter so one can see how hard one is pushing. I have experimented with a couple of approaches:

    1. Fairly rapid ramp to an all out push and keep pushing as hard as possible until a time limit is reached or until the force generated falls below some predetermined lower limit.

    2. Fairly rapid ramp to a predefined upper limit and then continue to maintain that level of force as long as possible.

    Which would you choose?

    Thanks,

    Jim

    • Drew Baye June 10, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

      Jim,

      I would recommend gradually ramping up over about ten seconds to a target level of force and attempting to maintain that level as long as you can. Whenever you can maintain it for more than sixty seconds increase your target level slightly the next time.

  7. Derek Thomson June 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    Hi Drew. Great article. Why is that you do not recommend negative-only reps in most cases? Is this because of the longer post workout recovery period required, or becausr of joint pain that you experienced when experimenting with rest pause training? Or is it a different reason? Thanks

    • Drew Baye June 10, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

      Derek,

      There are several problems with it, mostly practical problems involving the use of spotters and trainers but also the difficulty of correctly performing interpersonal and intrapersonal resistance transfer consistently as one fatigues.

  8. Steven Turner June 10, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Great article, I think that training to MMF is a learnt process that takes people a period of time to learn. I have found that the 60-90 seconds TUL is best for me to reach MMF. What I do is also use “form” as a means of measuring intensity of effort MMF. I try to maintain as strict form as possible if I start to compensate the movement with other muscles then I call this MMF. I think this one of the significant differences with HIT and other forms of training. In many of the other different forms of training MMF may have been reached but it is with the compensatory of other muscle groups. In effect the targeted muscles haven’t reached MMF people therefore people think that the targeted muscles have been overloaded. This could be the same with set extenders.

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 9:13 am #

      Steven,

      Most of these problems are due to improper focus. When someone is focusing more on making the weight go up and down than using the weight to efficiently inroad their muscles they will tend to alter their form to make the weight easier to move as they fatigue, the opposite of what they should be doing.

      This is also the case with set-extenders. The way they’re usually performed doesn’t increase intensity or relative effort, it just prolongs the set, increasing the volume. Unless the set duration was too low to begin with (not long enough to produce significant inroad and provide cardiovascular and metabolic benefit) extending the set can be counterproductive rather than beneficial.

  9. Brad June 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Drew, your comment “The only time you know how intensely you are working is when you reach MMF” is really only applicable to unexperienced lifters, no? I know you’ve heard the term “one or two rep’s left in the tank”, which I think defines people knowing when they are getting close to MMF. I know some guys who prefer to do this – go close to MMF but avoid what they call “grinding”, or struggling to move the bar or doing any static holding or other set extenders. Their logic, right or wrong (and they obviously think it’s right for themself), is that getting close to MMF is sufficient to trigger the growth stimulus and that going any further (grinding) just negatively impacts recovery, which you mentioned. Do you believe that going close-to, up-to, or beyond, MMF is at least somewhat dependent on a trainees tolerance for “grinding” and their muscular and CNS recovery/adaptability abilities? Or do you believe that regardless, everyone should be going to MMF and a little beyond (ie, a tad bit of grinding)?

    I personally found at my abilities and age of 50, after many months doing HIT and progressing resistance levels up to my (at least near-term) limits that doing even short static holds at MMF did not help further strength increases. Basically I hit a plateau and could not get beyond it, for an entire 6 months actually). I have yet to try a regimen of doing near-MMF (no grinding) training for a number of months, but perhaps I’ll give that a try soon.

    • Brad June 10, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

      Also, I was up to 7 days of rest between workouts. It seemed the harder I tied, the more intensely I worked my muscles, the worse my performance was. It just required more rest days and so other aspects of my fitness suffered (less calories burned per week).

      • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 9:36 am #

        Brad,

        No matter how often you work out you aren’t going to burn many calories doing it. Nothing is worth doing for the sake of burning calories.

        Without personally supervising your training and knowing everything else going on it’s hard to say what the problem might be, but in twenty years of training a wide variety of individuals from pro athletes to octogenarians I have never encountered anyone who responded worse to working harder as long as they used an appropriate volume and frequency.

        • Brad June 11, 2013 at 11:49 am #

          OK, I worded that badly. Let’s say my metabolic conditioning suffered from extended rest periods. I work behind a computer and so sit at a desk for the majority of the week. I do try to walk regularly. While I can stay in relatively good shape working out (full body) once a week, I look and feel much better with a 2-3 times per week split. It may not be the calories burned during exercise but perhaps the hormonal/metabolic (raised metabolism?) changes that provide the benefits.

          • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

            Brad,

            If that’s the case do a split. The metabolic rate is raised after workouts due to increased protein turnover in all the trained muscles, but this effect would be greater for full body workouts. You should still train as intensely as possible, you just have to balance the workout volume against the frequency until you are getting the results you want.

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 9:27 am #

      Brad,

      A more experienced trainer may know when they’re getting close, but they still don’t know exactly how intensely they are working at any point short of MMF. They don’t know how many reps they have “left in the tank” either, it is a guess.

      It is not always desirable to train to MMF. There are situations where you should use criteria other than MMF to determine when to end an exercise, such as when teaching beginners, learning a new exercise, or doing rehabilitation with people with certain physical limitations. In most cases, however, exercises should be performed to MMF. While there might be very rare exceptions of people with extremely poor tolerance for exercise and recovery ability, for most people training to MMF is not going to overstress the body, and definitely not the CNS as long as they are using a reasonable volume and frequency. If anything, most people do not train nearly as hard as they are physically capable of and have the opposite problem and need to learn to train more intensely.

      The problem is almost never one of too much intensity, but rather doing too much overall volume or frequency of exercise, including overdoing the post-failure techniques.

      • Brad June 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

        Drew, the only way I can agree with your first paragraph here is *if* you’re talking about an amount of effort like… “lifting as if the life of a loved-one depended on it”. Meaning, experienced lifters know if they can get one more rep based on how hard they are currently trying combined with a reduction in the cadence/speed of the current rep compared to the previous reps (ie, they can visually see and feel the slowdown). Half way through a set they may not be able to predict with any accuracy how many rep’s they can still do, but by the end of the set the accuracy goes way up. At the end of the set one might not know if you can manage to get one more rep, but you would certainly know you are incapable of doing 5 more, or 3, perhaps even 2. True, if you strained “as if you life depended on it”, you *might* be able to squeeze out one more rep, or one more partial rep. But in doing so you will, by definition be “grinding”. So the question remains if this grinding and that one more rep , or partial rep, is necessary to trigger the growth stimulus?

        I think you are saying in most cases that yes, “grinding” is actually a good/beneficial thing because that is the proof that your intensity level has reached it’s maximum level.

        But if that last partial-rep is not necessary to trigger growth then it should not be performed. How can we know if that last partial rep is necessary or not?

        • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

          Brad,

          I highly doubt this, since even most experienced lifters don’t even really push themselves to failure. Most people do not train nearly as hard as they are actually capable of. Also, most people have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be in a life and death situation and what that kind of effort feels like. If they did, they would not be making such comparisons because you can not even come close in the gym.

          Like I wrote, it isn’t necessary to train to failure, you just have to train hard and progressively, but since results are proportional to effort and there is no way to know exactly how hard is necessary or whether you’ve reached that, including no way of knowing whether you really are on your last rep, it is better to err on the side of more intensity and train to MMF.

          If you don’t want to work that hard then don’t, but don’t expect me to help you rationalize it. If you’re looking for someone to give you an excuse to not train intensely you’re in the wrong place.

  10. Robert June 10, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    I have been training HIT approximately once every 6 days for a while now. I go to MMF on each exercise and perform about 8 exercises. I have a questions about muscular soreness the next day. I don’t get any at all and so does that mean I’m not training hard enough? Should I be using negatives and statics to achieve some soreness? Is soreness necessary for growth?

    Thanks

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      Robert,

      Soreness is not an indicator of exercise effectiveness or necessary for muscular growth.

  11. Bradley warlow June 11, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    Hi Drew, my questions are- is it a disadvantage to not train to complete failure in the case that you will be leaving some muscle fibers untapped? would it be possible to use NTF workouts while increasing the resistance by small increments each week and yet still target all of the available muscle fibers, providing I’m training hard enough to stimulate a muscle growth/strength response.

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 10:11 am #

      Bradley,

      You could do that, and you would still recruit all the motor units in the target muscles as long as the resistance is at least moderately challenging, but it would make progress evaluation even more subjective and would be less effective. If you want better results from exercise you should be trying to increase your training intensity, not looking for reasons to justify working less intensely.

      If you don’t want to work very hard, then don’t. As long as you train consistently and progressively you will improve, just not as quickly or to the same degree. If you want the best results possible, however, you should train as intensely as you can.

      • Brad June 11, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

        Drew, As you know, maximizing progress includes the recovery phase just as much as the stimulus phase. So I think maximizing recovery is a very good reason for questions related to NTF and “working less intensely” as you say. I don’t think it’s just because people are lazy or are looking for excuses for easier workouts. I think some people are frustrated with the results they have obtained despite lots of effort and intensity and so are wondering if dialing down the intensity a little might help progress due to more optimal recovery/adaptation.

        • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

          Brad,

          If you aren’t providing an effective stimulus to begin with there isn’t much to recover from or adapt to. While there might be rare exceptions the majority of people who claim they train “too intensely” are kidding themselves.

  12. steve neid June 11, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Hi Drew!
    Thanks for your insightful take on the H.I.T. Principles!
    My question is:
    I have every single isolation piece of the new Nautilus Nitro EVO equipment in my gym (12 machines/14 exercises). I train 1 set to failure on each 2 times/week (Mon/Thu). My entire workout lasts 20-25 minutes (including a 3 minute general warm-up on my Nautilus E10 elliptical) with very little rest between sets to maximize cardio benefits. I’m making great progress to an already well trained physique, so why do I need compound movements at all? I understand that they are efficient for training lots of muscle groups at once, but therein lies 2 problems;
    1.)I’d be done training in 8 minutes which would give me very limited cardio benefit as opposed to my current 20+ minute workout. and…
    2.)In compound movements you are only as strong as the weakest (smallest) muscle which prevents failure from occurring in the larger targeted muscles. Isn’t this why Arthur Jones created Nautilus in the first place?…ie; biceps will always fail long before Lats will fail in a pull down or chinning movement.
    I get that compound movements can be used to push past failure as in pre-exhaust, but is that even necessary if failure of the targeted muscle is achieved individually?
    I also understand the value of minimizing stress to the body, but I’ve always found compound movements not very good for my goal of pure muscle hypertrophy.
    Interested to know your take on my thoughts.
    As always, thanks for your time and consideration!
    ~Steve

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 11:29 am #

      Steve,

      More muscle is working intensely in compound movements so the cardiovascular and metabolic demand is higher than with simple movements. If intensity is high enough you don’t need more than a few minutes, as research on sprint interval training has demonstrated.

      The smaller muscles are not nearly as much of a limiting factor as people believe, and if you understand the levers involved it is possible to position and move your body in a way that more efficiently loads all the muscles involved.

      Compound movements have the advantage of efficiency, high cardiovascular/metabolic demand, and ease of learning and mastering (lower on the heirarchy of motor learning difficulty), and for most people a few basic compound movements are all that is necessary to get close to your genetic potential for muscular strength and size, but for improving general strength and functional ability the specific exercises you perform are not as important as long as you are effectively training all the major muscle groups.

      • steve neid June 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

        Drew:
        By stating: “more muscle working in a compound movement” you mean as opposed to 1 isolation movement, agreed, but surely not more than 3 isolation movements to train those same muscle groups?…ie; a set of pullovers, rear delts and bicep curls all to failure would provide MORE effort than 1 set of chins to failure!
        As for the small muscle groups not being a limiting factor, I guess I’m not understanding your logic on lever mechanism? How would I position my body to make my biceps as strong as a huge muscle like my lats while still having them execute elbow flexation?

        • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

          Steve,

          While three or more simple movements may have a greater effect than a single compound movement, if intensity is high enough very little is required for effective cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning and you very quickly reach a point of diminishing returns as exercise volume increases.

          The resistance a muscle encounters during exercise is affected by the levers it works against, and you can manipulate these levers with body positioning to alter the relative difficulty of the exercise for the different muscles involved so that it is relatively balanced. Also, the size of a muscle alone does not determine it’s strength, but also it’s leverage, and most people overestimate the difference in torso and arm muscle strength during compound movements when proper positioning and form is used.

          If you want to discuss this further I suggest bringing it up in the HIT Forum, as we’re getting off topic here.

      • marklloyd July 24, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

        If your concerns are cosmetic, & compound movements don’t hit a part the way you think they should, by all means, add some isolation. Do the compounds fresh to get their fullest effect, & isolation after, only if needed. For those who aren’t obsessed with specific body-part proportions, progressive compounds take care of the issue: If your getting stronger, all muscles involved are getting stronger.

        • Drew Baye July 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

          Mark,

          In many cases part of the problem is people are not performing the compound movements in a way that effectively loads all the muscles involved, but I would agree with this. Compound movements will get most of the people most of the way to their genetic potential for strength and size.

  13. Donnie Hunt June 11, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Hey Drew,

    What would be considered the point of failure or when doing timed static contractions or using a fully motorized machine performing dynamic contractions? Or maybe the better question would be when would the trainee want to terminate the set?

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 11:01 am #

      Donnie,

      The point of MMF is when you are incapable of continuing an exercise in the prescribed manner. If the protocol involves maintaining a certain level of force then MMF occurs when you drop below that level. When using static equipment or motorized dynamic equipment which measures and displays force you have the potential for very high levels of force and very deep inroad so you need to be careful when applying force and conservative with the time under load. I recommend keeping the total time between sixty and ninety seconds, including a period of very gradual increase to fatigue the muscles significantly before applying a high or maximum effort.

      I had written something about these but edited it out since it is irrelevant for the majority of people because of the rarity of this equipment.

      • Donnie Hunt June 11, 2013 at 11:30 am #

        Thanks Drew.

        Regarding the amount of people that use this type of equipment, I have wondered about.

        • Drew Baye June 11, 2013 at 11:37 am #

          Donnie,

          There are only a very small number of training studios or research facilities out there with equipment like RenEx or ARX machines. Due to the cost you will not find them in typical gyms or fitness centers.

  14. Trace June 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    This post consists of the most insightful questions and responses that I’ve read in some time. Thank you very very much. I intend to make a complete list of all the points that I find particularly useful. Mr. Baye is definitely one of the few great exercise instructors.

    • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 10:17 am #

      Trace,

      Thanks, and you’re welcome.

  15. Ian June 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    this is interesting Drew. I’ve seen debates on whether it’s necessary to train to MMF on other forums. Allot of people argue that training to MMF isn’t necessary for gains in strength or hypertrophy based on the training protocols of power lifters. while it’s generally true that power lifter do not train to MMF what people fail to realize is the amount of effort required, and the amount of intensity generated squatting or dead lifting a weight that is over 2 times your own body weight. no matter what system of training you subscribe to, if you want to see maximum results in the least amount of time you do need to train with maximum amount of effort possible. training to failure is the best way of guaranteeing that.

    • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Ian,

      Exactly. Training to MMF is not necessary. If you trained very hard, progressively, and consistently but never intentionally went to failure you would still make good progress. Training to MMF just ensures you have worked as intensely as possible, and since results from exercise are related to relative effort it makes sense to do so.

      Some people try to argue against it because they believe they may be training too intensely, but over the years I have trained a lot of people who thought they were working as hard as they could, including some very big, strong guys including bodybuilders and professional athletes, and all of them were amazed at how much harder the exercises and workouts were when I trained them.

  16. Craig June 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Is it more important to inroad deeply, or to acheive MMF? If I, for example, stop my set just short of failure, grab a lighter set of weights, and continue exercising, I can fatigue/inroad my muscles rather deeply, and do this without ever failing a rep. On the other hand, if I pick a starting weight too close to my 1RM strength, I can fail pretty quickly, and be left feeling like I didn’t really get much done, because I didn’t inroad/ fatigue very deeply?

    • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      Craig,

      Inroad is not an end in itself but a means to recruitment, metabolic stress, and increasing intensity. It’s not necessary to inroad very deeply, as research on brief isometric protocols and non-continuous repetitions shows, but a certain level of inroad is desirable for safety and effectiveness for improving overall functional ability.

  17. Leo June 12, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    The very intensity of training to failure precludes more than one set because the muscle has been worked to full capacity or because of simple physical inability.Could you comment?

    • Drew Baye June 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

      Leo,

      Training to MMF does not prevent you from doing a second set of an exercise if you rest long enough, but there is no need to, either.

      • Gaucho June 13, 2013 at 2:56 am #

        Drew,

        I was wondering if training with compound exercises only would lead to MMF for all muscle groups. For instance, on a incline chestpress I don’t always get the feeling the pectoral muscle and the so called outer/side delts reach complete positive faillure. Is this just a feeling or would you recommend a pre-exhaustion exercise on the pectoral machine and/or a lateral raise before the incline chest press or maybe these two exercises in an isolation form after the incline chest press? Very curious what your thoughts are on this and what you have seen that works best with your clients who would like to emphasize one particular muscle group.

        • Drew Baye June 13, 2013 at 9:43 am #

          Gaucho,

          The relative tension and fatigue in different muscle groups or heads of certain muscles in an exercise depends on a lot of factors including the equipment used, style of performance, your ability to focus on the contraction of the various muscles involved, and more. This includes both compound and simple movements. A lot of what you feel in a muscle is subjective and affected by position and where you are in the range of motion, and often has little bearing on the effectiveness of the exercise for that muscle. For example, if you violate active muscular sufficiency in certain exercises (performing a movement involving contracting a bi-articulate muscle while it is already significantly shortened across another joint) the muscle in active insufficiency will often feel it is contracting so hard it is cramping, although the actual tension on the muscle might not be very high, as is obvious by the lack of the same feeling in the other muscles involved in the same joint movement.

          For overall improvement in functional ability compound movements are the most efficient and easiest to learn, but for addressing specific muscle groups simple movements can be more effective because it is easier to focus on intensely contracting a single group of muscles sharing a common joint function than many. While it is possible to provide relatively balanced and proportionally challenging resistance over a large portion of the range of motion for all the target muscles in compound movements it is easier to do this for a simple movement.

          I start everybody with a routine comprised primarily of compound movements, then modify their workouts over time depending on their body’s response to training and their goals. Often this involves splitting the basic routine into two or more and adding simple movements depending on what the client wants and/or needs. I discuss this a little in High Intensity Workouts, and will be expanding on it considerably in the 2nd edition I’ll be working on after finishing my current (and long overdue) writing projects.

          • Gaucho June 14, 2013 at 5:12 am #

            Drew,

            So if I understand correctly I could split my every ten days work-out (chest press, pull down, leg press and deadlift) into two workouts where I would train every muscle group every 14 days. For exaple day 1: Chest press, pull down and pectoral machina. After 7 days: leg press, deadlift and calve raise. After 14 days I would train again day 1. Corect?

            Do you have any idea when your second edition will be out? I started my “high intensity journey” four years ago when I found a video clip (approximately 2 hours) where you talked about the very basics of HIT at the under21convention. It was a real eye opener and applying the things you said made me (finanlly) gain clean muscle mass again. So, I would love to read your new book!

            • Drew Baye June 14, 2013 at 11:49 am #

              Gaucho,

              You could, but if you are making good progress on your current routine it isn’t necessary.

              I have to finish Elements of Form and an untitled bodyweight training book first, but I already have plans for improvements to HIW in terms of content and organization of workouts.

  18. Steven Turner June 12, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    If I can quote Arthur Jones from Ironman 1973, “THUS – since the intensity must be high in order to stimulate growth, and since the amount of exercise must be very little in order to permit growth, it obvisuosly follows that you should train very HARD, and very briefly”. 40 years on still a true statement.

    I think that “intensity” is an ongoing evolution in training I think that the body continually adapts to training and I don’t think that just adding weights is the only means of adding intensity to the muscles contraction mechanisms. Whislt you need as certain amount of volume and the amount of volume may differ between individuals once you start equating more with better than this is heading in the wrong direction.

    I mentioned in the past I have had people do a one set x 10 reps Arthur Jones style bicep curls and after about 6 or 7 reps they are totally exhausted and these were supposedly hardened trainers.

    My advice is first try to make the exercise harder this may take a bit of re-thinking of your training routines.

  19. Ian July 16, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Hi Drew,

    I love your site. I have been doing HIT for about a year now, focusing on the big 5. One issue I have been noticing is pain in my neck, (i.e. stiff neck) the next day following a workout. I have been trying to focus on the excercise and keeping my form but I wonder if when I get to momentary muscular failure I am doing something to tweek my neck.

    any suggestions?

    • Drew Baye July 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      Ian,

      This can happen if you are not maintaining a neutral head and neck position. Some people have a tendency to move their head around as an exercise becomes more difficult which can cause muscles to be pulled or strained, and this can also happen during some exercise with improper head and neck positioning or bridging against a bench or machine seat back with the neck.

    • Brad July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

      Ian, I severely injured my neck many years ago doing bench press. What did it was what I think Drew mentions as “bridging”… pushing on the bench with the back of your head. I had/have a tendency to go into bad form when straining and like many people begin to arch my back and this is what caused it for me. What I have found that helps (for me) is to bench with my feet off the ground. It might not be technically correct form, and Drew may have other or better ways to avoid it, but for me it works very well. I simply cannot arch my back this way and have significantly less leverage to force my head back against the bench. Less leverage equals less force on the neck.

      • Ian July 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

        Thanks for the advice. This weeks workout I really focused on keeping my head in a neutral position while reaching MMF and I had very little to no pain the next day.

        I will continue to pay attention to my neck and head position while excercising, thanks so much guys!

  20. Randall July 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    Anecdotal as well, but a weak neck has been a big contributor to a whole bunch of head, neck and shoulder problems I’ve seen including my own. A lot of stiffness, locking or headaches I’ve had went away when I was more diligent in doing the neck exercises as described in Drew’s book. I wish I had access to a proper neck machine, but just doing it using static resistance and a head “band” with weights has done wonders for my neck as well as my overall strength.

  21. Bradley Warlow November 18, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Drew- does the level of inroad tell you how much growth/strength you have stimulated? Its baffling because, judging by what you say it appears that the less weight you can lift at the end of the set the better?? If this is the case why have people gained so much strength and size from lifting to failure in 1-6 seconds , like john little for instance? im sure they could have done a second repetition with at least 90% immediately afterwards?

    • Drew Baye November 18, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

      Bradley,

      The stimulus for muscular strength and size increases is multifactorial, and you can get bigger and stronger training in different ways, which tend to rely more on different factors. Since how big and strong anyone can get is ultimately determined by their genetics, and regardless of which factors you emphasize the end results will likely be the same, I recommend erring on the side of safety.

      Also, since it is desirable to not just be stronger and more muscular, but to also have better cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, I recommend training in a manner that improves both. While you could get bigger and stronger doing sets lasting only a few seconds, it would probably do very little for cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning.

  22. Steven Turner November 18, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    I know that you have been advocating the type of training that you have included in your reply to Bradely. I went and had a look on James Steele’s website viewed the presentation he presented at the 21 convention on the research article, “Resistance Training to Momentary Muscular failure Improves Cardiovascular Fitness in Humans: A Review of Acute Physiological and Chronic Physiological Adaptations”. The paper is to some extent technical and complex it clearly shows that the best type of training for most people is as you have stated above. Once you grasp all the technical aspects of the paper it is hard to imagine the need for any other forms of training for most people especially if overall health is a goal be that loss of weight, muscles size or endurance, cardiovascular etc.,

    I advise anyone interested to first view James presentation.

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