Muscle Failure?

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    Muscle Failure?

    Hi there! I'm new to the Hive but I've been doing DAREBEE exercises for about 4 months now and I just recently completed IRONBORN w/ 15 lb dumbbells; I definitely think I'm stronger (and a little bigger / leaner- my family has definitely pointed it out to me) now than those several months ago. I was thinking of picking up IRONBORN again (except with 20 lb dumbbells) when I learned that, in the release post for the program, it is suggested to do the sets to failure, and that if I had picked the right weight, "failure" would be right around the advised reps per set. I don't think I had done that the first time around and I would like to attempt doing it for the second time around. Right now I just finished day four w/ 20 lb dumbbells, but something's been bugging me the entire time and I just worked up the courage to make my first post here, so without further ado... ;

    Here's the issue: I've seen the phrase "muscle failure" thrown around quite a bit, but I feel like I don't really know enough about it- or how it feels- to execute "training to failure"- or 95-98% failure- properly.

    For example: I'm not quite good at push-ups, yet. For a large portion of IRONBORN, I swapped the advised dumbbell push-ups with knee push-ups to build strength. Now I can do about 10-ish non-modified push ups before I somewhat-instinctively drop to the floor, even if I feel like I can do more, due to the burn (which I don't think I'm any more used to compared to when I started, it just occurs after more reps, which I think is expected). If I force myself to return to plank position in the next 5-10 seconds, I can do maybe 3-5 more with effort while keeping form, but by the end of it I feel like my arms are shaking and I do struggle to return to the starting position. (Additionally, I've been following this guide to keep building strength, making sure to do them every day.)

    With that, I have two questions:
    1. Based on this, ~15 non-modified push-ups is my current "max" reps before failure kicks in, right?
    2. Is it okay to take a short "breather" (as stated, 5-10 seconds) before pushing to (near-)failure, or is it important to maintain rhythm if possible? (Of course, in the case of push-ups, it'd be preferable to take this breather while still maintaining the plank position.)

    I also noticed, with different kinds of exercises involving different muscle groups, it takes more or less time to hit what feels like "failure" to me- for example, with the lateral raises I remember just barely maintaining form through the four sets listed in day 1 of IRONBORN w/ 15 lb dumbbells, and I experienced a similar feeling when I started IRONBORN again w/ 20 lb dumbbells. Whereas the chest press on that same day doesn't fatigue me nearly as much at the prescribed reps per set- maybe I'm just not doing them right? Regardless, since I can't afford heavier / adjustable dumbbells right now, I decided to just keep doing reps on the first set of the exercises where I don't feel like I'm "failing", causing the second, third, and fourth sets to require less reps to feel the same effect (given the 30 seconds of rest in-between, and of course at least doing the minimum prescribed reps per set).

    (As an aside, I am a little worried that I'm not doing either the push-ups or chest presses correctly; those exercises are supposed to work the chest a ton, right? So why do I mainly feel the burn in my arms?)

    Well, I guess with that, my last question would be, based on what I've stated here, am I on the right track in understanding muscle failure? I would like to do this right, so I appreciate the help!

    Azercord, ScorpionKing, aveoturbo, Loba5472, val.lavigne86, this seems a question for you guys. Pushing iron + muscle failure...


      Question #1 - sounds about right.
      Question #2 - it's really up to you, but when I do to failure I don't take any breaks.... Just knock out as many as you can till you drop!! But if you want to pause for 1-2 sec in the plank position, seems fair enough. Not sure about 5 - 10 sec, that seems more like a break than a brief pause.

      Also, you'll certainly be able to do more of certain exercises than others when maintaining the same weights. It's normal to use a lower weight for lats than for chest press. I'm sure ScorpionKing can tell you all about that, hens got a lot of knowledge in that area... Make sure you're squeezing your chest during the press and not just throwing the weights up there, that will help you feel it more in the chest instead of the arms....

      As far as muscle failure: with bodyweight exercises if I go to failure I prefer to go until I legitimately fail (can't do anymore reps, crash down). But to failure with weights is tricky, you don't want to fail with the weights over your head, right? So with weighted exercises, to me, "to failure" means going until I know I won't be able to complete another rep.

      ​​​​​​​It sounds like you're doing good!! Keep up the hard work!!


        I'm going to cover some of this as best as possible but those are some really complex questions. There are two types of failure when it comes to lifting "technical failure" (you lose the ability to maintain form) and "muscle failure" (you truly can't do another rep form or not) and most programs refer to the first one for the sake of safety.

        When pushing to technical failure like in ironborn you want to pick a weight that will allow you to do the said reps with good form. Since you have more than one set if you rep is 8 you might be able to do 10 on the first set but only six on the last if you went to failure each type so there is some guess work there but you should be able to hit pretty close. Using this though process you should be able to get 7-8 each time.

        The reason you feel the weight differently in different areas is due to muscle size (the bigger the muscle the more it can lift) and muscle activation (the more muscles you can use at once the more power you get) so strength in different areas of the body will differ greatly. Since you don't have adjustable weights this will make programs like Ironborn harder but the approach you are taking is about the best you can do for now.

        The last part you asked about (feeling bench in the arms versus chest) is because you have to look at the process as a chain. You will feel the weight in the weakest link first. If you arms are weaker than you chest then you will feel the burn there first before your chest itself but don't worry it is still doing plenty of work. Another good example is deadlift, many people's grip fails long before their back unless they have train their grip to last.

        If you have any more questions of need more clarification please let us know.


          Azercord Also a 3rd failure is tempo failure, which is where your pace starts to slow down. Usually it's the first failure.

          Muscle failure is just simply when your body starts quit on you. Don't confuse it with the mind telling you that you can't do anymore either. Make sure it's totally your body telling g you that you are done.

          Don't over think muscle failure as the definition as it should be applied to Iron Born is right in the phrase itself.

          It is something you need to feel out and as you gain more experience with pushing your body's limits, your understanding of what muscle failure means to you will only become more defined and refined.

          This, in my experience comes with in 6 months to a year of steady pushing at least 5 days per week.

          I would also suggest, that for the sake of safety and not harshness, that if you can not do 15 standard push-ups to failure consistently that maybe you should put the weights down and begin with more body weight training.

          I say this from experience of having messed up my back that required multiple surgeries to correct. A strong foundation will do you wonders. This is how I started again and am better for it. But that's all up to you. Just a suggestion.

          ​​​​​​​There is very sound advice here in this thread. Thanks wjs!


            Muscle failure is when your muscles are driven to a point that they quite literally fail you. Like even if you tried to go further your body would just shut down on you, so to speak. This can be achieved with heavy weight and low reps, and can also be achieved with lightweight and high reps.
            I have never seen Iron Born but if you are given a rep and set scheme (i.e 3 sets of 10) make sure you're failing at 10 reps. If it feels easy, up the weights

            To answer your other questions yes you're right about the first one.

            Second question, rest AFTER you complete your set. Not before. If you need to rest or noticeably break tempo during your set you're biting off too much. Or maybe wimping out both are possible.

            Chest muscles are incredibly strong compared to a lot of smaller muscle groups. Lateral raises are an isolation exercise that work only a single part of your shoulders (not a very strong part either I will add), be careful with laterals go too heavy and you will tear a shoulder. Like me.

            Can you feel chest presses AT ALL in your chest? If no your form needs work. I would have to see you do them to pin point it. You will feel them in your triceps no matter what though.

            But yeah you seem to have a basic knowledge of muscle failure. Knowing is half the battle. HER-CU-LES A Real Olympian Hero


              Hey, man, welcome to the forums. You've asked some really good questions.
              1) On the concept of "failure" - I think answers here serve as good illustration to what is currently happening with definitions. Really, you don't have to bother. Failure, as you rightfully noted is relative to the load, so it's better to think about it as "high fatigue".
              2) Resting during the first set is probably a signal for a decrease in intensity, however cheating and resting a little (!) on 4th set / second half of the workout is okay.
              3) Chest press - one possible problem is the range of motion. It's better to do chest presses on a bench, doing them lying on the floor limits your chest muscles engagement. Also, as many have stated, various muscle groups require different weights.
              4) I see you are doing push-ups to failure every day - that's probably too extreme. Maybe switch towards every other day? Rest is crucial to development, and you'll only get better for it. Sometimes to gain more you have to give yourself time to recover.
              Good luck with your training.


                there are more than one failures to consider while training:
                1. frequency failure - when you need to change the frequency of you doing your reps you hit this kind of failure. Mostly used during explosive exercises, where the explosivenes is crucial and you want to maintain high frequency
                2. form failure - when you need to "cheat" the form of an exercise you hit this kind of failure. If you are training for strength or hypertrophy you want to limit yourself to this kind of failure. You should not cheat the form while strength or hypertrophy training
                3. muscle failure - when you can no longer perform more reps you hit muscle failure. Used primarily in endurance training. Cheating form is allowed as the important bit is to use muscle group for as many times as possible. If you scaffold down the exercise (go for knee pushups after regular ones) you can perform more reps.


                  Oh gosh, so many responses! Thank you so much everyone.

                  Originally posted by J3ster View Post
                  4) I see you are doing push-ups to failure every day - that's probably too extreme. Maybe switch towards every other day? Rest is crucial to development, and you'll only get better for it. Sometimes to gain more you have to give yourself time to recover.
                  I took another look at the guide after posting and finally got in my head to only do it 3-4 times a week; so basically as you suggested, every other day. Thanks for pointing this out, though!