Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group, LLC Blog

To Fail or Not to Fail? – That is the Question

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Wed, Apr 14, 2010 @ 08:04 AM

“To fail is a natural consequence of trying, to succeed takes time and prolonged effort in the face of unfriendly odds. To think it will be any other way, no matter what you do, is to invite yourself to be hurt and limit your enthusiasm for trying”
-    David Viscott

I remember coming home after failing a fifth grade geography test and showing my parents the results of my effort.  To avoid a long detailed explanation of what happened next let’s just say I wasn’t able to sit down for the rest of the day.  So failure’s bad right? But what about failure in the weight room? Is pushing yourself or your athletes past the discomfort associated with the last few reps a good thing?

I asked Northeastern University’s legendary throwing coach for his insight and the below is a summary of our interaction.

So Joe, is failing good?

Well this depends on several factors such as, how often the event takes place within a general workout or particular exercise.  
If it is a regular occurrence then:
•    it might be symptomatic of a load that is too heavy for the reps,
•    poor technique,
•    poor fitness.
•    It also can be a sign of over training or
•    It can also be a sign of oncoming poor health.

For a particular exercise, failure might be just a random event. (which is why many top lifters use a daily note log) Technique breaks down when the load becomes too heavy for the current capacity of the athlete.

If you constantly push to failure the system adapts to failure as a goal and feeds back into the athlete with more failure.  The technique of the exercise begins to disintegrate. It is a system of negative follow through where the last motor event in the sequence is the goal. Olympic shooters, for instance, are taught to site-hold on the target after the shot is gone ensuring that the pathway stays on target. What you practice is what you will get and I deal with this all the time in throwing. In baseball Ted Williams used to emphasize 'follow through'. Failure done regularly is a form of 'follow through'.

Can you have a micro-cycle where push to failure is OK?

 Yes you can, but the exercises should be ambiguous in nature and not closely related to the sport movement. In that way the technique can be undisturbed but the work effort to push CNS and increased body load capacity is affected.  Sometimes you need to 'blast' the system to make it more alert to change. It's the motor systems equivalent of a loud yell!

'Push to failure' in weight training must not impede other sport preparation. Sufficient recovery is necessary. Each athlete is different in this and recovery rates vary. This is why 'One workout for All' does not work for 'all'. You start with a general workout then customize based on developmental ability.

On the flip side, should athletes always experience "success" on each set or rep?

If they are, then they are not pushing hard enough. There is a time for high intensity and a time for general development and maintenance. High intensity in the sport event usually requires a reduced load in the wt room but there are anomalies. Some athletes get a psychological boost when training hard and a significant reduction of load or intensity raises their anxiety. What you believe is as important as what really works which is why education in the latter is so important.

When the failure occurs you can;
1. Do nothing and move on to the next set
2. Adjust the rest of the sets (ie: poundage down)
3. Adjust the reps
4. Adjust reps and poundage
5. Correct the technique

In conclusion, I would say push to fail is OK if done when needed, the cycle is short and does not interfere with the sport skill.  It is not the poundage in the weight room that decides whether a workout plan is effective. It is the sport skill result that is the final arbiter. The knowledge we gain is scientific but the application is still art.

Sometimes a good loud yell is what we all need but not in an airport security line!

*Thanks to Joe Donahue (Northeastern University Legendary Throwing Coach) for his thoughts and contribution.

Art Horne is the Coordinator of Care and Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Men’s Basketball Team at Northeastern University, Boston MA.  He can be reached at


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