T Nation

Movement Specific Fatigue?

Hello CT,

I would like to hear your input on “movement specific fatigue / CNS exhaustion”. If I push in one exercise really hard, for example a Sumo Deadlift, Latpulldown or Bench Press, it can take up to 3-4 weeks for me to be able to be back at my strength at this exercise. However, I can perform a similar exercise without any loss in strength for example a conventional deadlift or a chin up or a reverse grip bench.

While you said true overtraining is extremely rare, I have the feeling that I burn out very fast on exercises. For example, when I do a 5*5 with a true 80% or even higher % in a double progression approach (5 sets of 3-5 reps) I experience this burn out feeling in the specific exercise. If I do more hypertrophy rep schemes, it is the same result. I have troubles increasing the weight per week or show constant performance.

I don’t think it is caused by too much volume overall, because I can perform similar exercises with my full strength. Also 5*5 is a regular rep schema. It’s just when I do the same exercise again (even after 7-12 days’ rest), my performance on that exercise is maybe just 80-90% of the previous workout, or in hard cases I need to reduce the weight my 20-30%.

My question is now,
a) For strength training, would you greatly reduce the volume, so that I am able to have a higher frequency in a lift? For example, instead of a 5 * 5 just one set of 5, and more assistant work with great variety and lots of changing exercises?
Or would you reduce the training percentage to 70% for a 5 * 5 (but that’s too light for strength I think) so that I am able to do the lift 1 or 2 times per week, without burning out?

b) For hypertrophy training, in one article (many years ago) you said its important to keep the exercise the same, because your body first makes neural adaptions and then builds muscle! So, would you say its best to still train the exercise weekly even through my rep performance is maybe down by 20-50% (10 reps last week vs. 8-5 reps this week) as long I train to failure or near failure? Or would you advice for more variety and a bigger exercise pool?

Best wishes
Immunion from Germany

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did you try to deload every 3-4 weeks ?

Explain to me what happens. Do you mean that you quickly stop progressing on the movement or that you get fatigued and drained doing the exercise.?

Hello bigmax, I do not get to point where I need to deload because:
Week 1: 5 reps 5 sets with 100 kg → increase weight.
Week 2: 5,5,4,4,3 (5 Sets) with 105 kg
Week 3: trouble to lift 100kg for 3 reps

Both CT! If I do a heavy 5 reps for 5 sets in the bench press followed by another push exercise and 2 back exercises in the same workout (in an upper - lower body split 4 days per week) and repeat this workout 1 week later with the intention to increase the weight by 5-10lbs, I even have trouble to use the weight of last week! The exercise can also feels drained (especially true with squats / deadlifts although I do not train deadlift for 5*5). Feels drained= feeling weaker, less power, ungood body feeling. Longer recovery time for example 10-13 days, the exercise has the same effect.

In other words, whenever I train close my maximum (not in terms of % like a powerlifter means) but in terms of RPE (9/10) / effort, I need a really long time to be able to use the same weight in the same exercise again. (on other exercises I am fresh tho!)

Additional comment, this oberservation is not specific to the 5 reps for 5 sets rep scheme, it could also happen with a 4 sets of 8, or 3 sets of 5, a cluster set or a rest pause set or a 3 sets of 10… If I push hard in an exercise, the exercise regresses next workout.

Ok one more question. You mention movement specific fatigue. But does it affect your strength on other movements? Can you maintain the same weights (or increase) your assistance lifts?

When I asked about feeling drained or fatigued, I am referring more to a general feeling, not just when doing the lift. Do you feel fatigued during your regular life? Do you have a general lack of motivation, feel lazier, have problems sleeping?

Hello CT,
answer is 2 times no:
assistance exercises are not affected by this nor are exercises variations of the main lifts affected. For example my OHP could show this degress, but my Incline or my Dumbell Shoulder Press or my Behind Neck Press are “normal”, “unaffected”. (of course when I push really hard on the assistance exercises too, the same effect oocurs there too, I degress in them (for next workout), but can do another assistance exercise with 100% strenght the workout.

My general feeling is normal too, no downs, no sleep issues, no lack of motivation, no signs of fatigued. Performance on the next training day is regular too - for example Monday: upper Tuesday: lower → no effect from monday on tuesday.

Ok, I’ll try to understand what is going on to the best of my knowledge but before consider the following:

  1. I always recommend NEVER going to failure (or even close to failure) on big compound movements. In fact, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I failed on a big strength lift in my whole life. And when it happened it was always when I was testing my 1RM. Normally, when I train the big lifts I want every rep to be solid (more on that in my explanation about your situation. Even when I use the double progression model, if I have to do 5 sets of 5, it means that all 25 reps have to be solid. No grind, no uncertainty if I’ll be able to make the lift or not and no break in technique. Heck, if one of the reps is completed, but felt like a grind, I won’t add weight on the next workout. I personally rarely go above what would be called an RPE of 8 on my work sets on the big basic lifts. Even when I was at my strongest (270kg squat, 220kg front squat, 200kg bench, 120kg overhead press) that’s what I did. I remember that we once posted a video where I benched 190kg x 2 at Biotest HQ and people commented that i had at least 3 more in the tank. Maybe, but I knew that starting from the 3rd rep I would be making slight technical modifications or grind to get the weight up. That’s just not how I train or have my athletes training.

  2. When you reach a non-beginner level, it is unrealistic to expect progress weekly. Heck, you have competitive lifter doing a whole 12 weeks preparation cycle to increase their lifts by 2.5-5kg. The closer your get to your genetic potential, the smaller the weekly progression can be and thus the less often you can add weight successfully. 5kg in one week is a lot of weight (5% in your example) to add, especially if your preceding week’s sets were close to your limit. If it were possible to add 5kg per week, you’d be adding 260kg per year! Heck, a mere 2.5kg/week would give you a gain of over 100kg per year. It just doesn’t happen to non beginners. Let’s take a powerlifter who expects to gain 5% on a lift in a 12 weeks prep (which is actually quite a lot for an advanced lifter), even though progress is not linear, that is still less than a 0.5% increase in strength per week…why on earth do you think adding 5% in a week would work??? Now, it might work for 1-2 weeks. It can even work for longer if you started very conservatively on the first week (like Wendler who recommends starting with 10% less weight than you should theoretically use), but it will catch up to you sooner or later because you cannot gain strength to keep up with the rate of weight increase.

  3. Progress in strength is not linear. It always seems to come in spurts. You might keep the same strength for a few weeks then it jumps by 10kg or more. And that actually leads to a lot of poor decisions because you only remember that you gained 10kg in one week… you don’t remember that you didn’t gain anything in 3-4 weeks. So you often expect to gain 5-10kg every week which leads to issues.

The 2nd and 3rd elements makes it easy to understand why you cannot add weight every week. But why would your performance decrease?

Since you show no decrease in performance on the lifts you don’t push as hard and you also exhibit no sign of systemic fatigue, the problem cannot be problems with muscle or CNS recovery.

The two most probably reasons (that I see) are:

  1. Subtle, but significant drop in technical efficiency. See, that’s the main reason why I never go close to the limit on the big lifts. Those reps you grind or even fail on will have a different motor pattern and technique than a perfectly done, solid rep that you dominate. And since the last thing you do on an exercise has the greatest impact on motor programing, if you finish with less than optimal reps, that will negatively impact your motor pattern and thus technical efficiency on the big lift. And it can be enough to make you lose a little bit of performance on your lifts.

  2. You expect to progress weekly on a lift and when you find that it doesn’t feel easier it can psych you out (diminish your confidence) which will subconsciously affect your performance. Essentially you convince yourself that you will get weaker and it happens.

That’s why I don’t go close to failure on the big lifts: I want to avoid reaching a point where I have 1-3 suboptimal reps in a set, which will lead to a negative effect on technique and efficiency.

Going to failure on less complex exercises is fine… losing technical efficiency on a curl to triceps pressdown isn’t going to be an issue.

That’s also why in 5/3/1 Wendler has you calculate your training weights from a “max” that is 10% lighter than your real max.

My recommendation is simple: change your mindset with the big lifts. You can still use a double progression but you only add weight when you DOMINATE each rep. And when in doubt, wait longer to add weight.

I also recommend that when you decide to add weight, add less than 5kg in a week, especially on upper body lifts.

I’ll use myself as an example.

In my previous workout I did 5 x 5 with 175kg on safety bar squats. I didn’t grind a rep, in fact to the external observer every rep would have looked solid. But I knew that some of the reps were a bit out of the groove and not as smooth as my own standard. So today I used the same weights. I could have done 5x5 with 180-185kg but it would have done more harm than good in the long run.



Hey Coach,

Does your response (never go to failure on big compound lifts) apply to your Beat the apocalypse bodyweight program as well? Almost all exercises listed in the program are recommended to be done with an RPE of 9-10 (after a couple of warmup sets).

Instinctively I’ve interpreted the training to failure regimen per exercise as follows depending on the volume:
2 worksets = 2 worksets to technical failure RPE 9-10
3 worksets = 1 hard workset RPE 8-9, 2 worksets to technical failure RPE 9-10
4-5 worksets (isometric or concentric days) = 3 hard worksets RPE 8-9, 1-2 worksets to technical failure RPE 9-10

Do you recommend going to technical failure in this program because of the low training volume and because it’s bodyweight movements only with limited external weights? Or does RPE 9-10 mean to keep 1 rep in the tank most of the time and rarely go to technical failure?

Thank you for your feedback.

Thank you very much CT for your detailed response.
I agree on all points since I realize a change is needed. I will follow the “dominating the weight” approach for my strength lifts. The psychological part is also true, you nailed it.

What I still have trouble understanding is the role of big lifts and hypertrophy. Can I push behind the RPE of 8 for hypertrophy? Is the mentality of “dominating the weight” appropriate for hypertrophy training with big exercises?
To me it feels like an RPE of 7-8 lacks the intensity to build muscle… The intensity school of building muscle (for example Paul Carter, Dorian Yates, Dante Trudel and Scott Stevenson) is really big on training brutally hard, while the volume school (Mike Isreatel) advocates more volume…

So how to approach big lifts and hypertrophy?

Using small exercises and machines for failure and to build muscle (like in a westside training philosophy) isn’t possible for me currently since I only got a barbell, rack, bench, heavy dumbbells and 2 great training partners. (lockdown - gyms are closed in my country.)
Thus, I really can only rely on the big exercises. Squats, Pulls, Rows … you name it!

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no, big basic loaded lifts

You’d be shocked at the proportion of very big and muscular guys who do not push their big lifts more than an 8 RPE or so. I would say from experience that most bodybuilders are in that zone (except when they are shooting videos), most powerlifters are also in that zone (except the Westside-style guys but that’s only on 2 max effort attempts per week) and even though they don’t look like bodybuilders, most of them are massive. Olympic lifters never go to failure either, and even though they lack the upper body mass to be impressive, their legs (which is what they train with squats) are very muscular.

I’ve trained and trained with a lot of high level bodybuilders and, honestly, I don’t remember seeing one ever hit failure on squats or deadlifts. On bench press it happens a bit more often, but it is also not the norm.

Even Meadows went on record to say that he rarely hits failure on the big lifts and when he does, it’s only on the last set of an exercise.

Speaking for myself: my legs were a lot bigger when I trained for olympic lifting (30 inches) than when I competed in bodybuilding (26 inches). And that was doing most of my squats at an RPE of 8 and occasionally going to 9. When I was bodybuilding I did more machine work and was going to failure but my legs were smaller.

I’m not saying that going to failure is pointless: I often recommend it. But I am saying that it is not necessary for growth.

Understand that failure itself is not a growth stimulus. Some things that happen while working toward failure ca help stimulate growth, but they are not necessary.

There are several pathways to stimulate hypertrophy.

  1. Muscle damage: This occurs when you lengthen/stretch muscle fibers while they are producing tension. The more tension they produce and the more you stretch the fibers, the more damage you create in a rep. And the more reps you do the more damage you accumulate. Very low reps per set with heavy weights cause a lot of damage per rep, but because there are only a small amount of reps you don’t get a lot of damage from your set. On the other hand, if you do tons of reps with a light weight, the muscles don’t produce enough tension to cause a large amount of damage per rep, so the overall damage is also low.You don’t need to hit failure to cause damage. You do get more reps in if you go to failure (1-2 more per set) which can cause a little bit more damage, but it’s not that much. Of course, if one stops 3-4 reps short of failure, that set will not be effective. But stopping 1-2 reps short of failure on the big lifts will be effective at causing muscle damage.

  2. mTOR activation: mTOR essentially turns on protein synthesis. The more mTOR activation you get, the greater the protein synthesis. mTOR activation is highly correlated with muscle damage.Not that muscle damage causes the mTOR activation, but because mTOR is activated by the same thing that causes muscle damage (lengthening/stretching a fiber that is producing tension). So just like with muscle damage, you can get plenty of mTOR activation without reaching failure.

  3. Metabolites/growth factor accumulation. This refers to the build-up of lactate inside the working muscle which will lead the body to release local growth factors inside that muscle (IGF-1 variants). Those growth factors are anabolic and will thus stimulate muscle growth. The prerequisites to get those growth factors are an accumulation of lactate (when the muscle burns, even though the burn is actually not caused by the lactate but by hydrogen ions, it occurs at. the same time) and a relative oxygen debt in the working muscle. These are maximized with challenging sets of 40-70 seconds. You don’t need to go to failure to get that. If you go to failure in 5 reps (let’s say a 20 seconds effort) you will get less growth factor release than if you stop 1-2 reps short of failure in a set of 12 reps (let’s say a 45-50 seconds effort). Now, going to failure does extend the et by 1-2 reps, which is normally increasing the duration of the set by 3-8 seconds, this can help you produce more lactate, but it is not necessary.

  4. Muscle fiber fatigue/ATP-CP depletion. This is the only pathway in which going to failure has a significant advantage because hitting failure is often due to depleting the phosphagens and not being able to produce energy fast enough to give the muscle what they need to contract hard enough to continue the set.

IMPORTANT: The diversity of hypertrophy pathways is the reason why you have people who are successful with tons of different training approaches. When it comes to growth, any approach can work. It’s just a matter of finding the approach that works best for your own physiology and the one that provides the less drawbacks.

Look at it objectively. If going to failure on the big lifts prevents you from progressing (actually leads to regression) do you think it really helps you build muscle? If you train at an RPE of 8 for most of your sets with an occasional RPE of 9 (key work: occasional) and your lift progresses from 100kg for 6 reps to 115kg for 6 reps, don’t you think you will have stimulated more growth than constantly hitting the wall at 100-105 because you go to failure?

SOME PEOPLE ACTUALLY CAN TRAIN THE BIG LIFTS TO FAILURE AND HAVE NO DRAWBACKS. But not everyone. It’s a matter of being honest with yourself and knowing when something just doesn’t work “for you”.


Well said coach, thank you for explaining your point of view on the matter. It really is all about finding the right approach and with so many different approaches out there, it gets so easy to become confused or disheartened about what you’re doing.

When would you consider it appropriate/useful/necessary to take a set to failure? The only examples I’ve seen from you using sets to failure (or beyond) have been in the best damn workout for naturals and beat the apocalypse (sorry to bring this up again).

So based on that, I would assume that going to failure is necessary either because of the low volume in a session (not enough work to trigger growth and going to failure would stimulate the growth stimulus enough to be effective?) or because bodyweight movements with limited external weights only do not provide enough of a growth stimulus for non-beginner lifters.

Thank you very much CT for answering the questions in such great detail and taking the time to answer. I will now put this new understanding and approach into practice. I will update this thread in 3-4 months and report how it went.

Honestly, your leg story is surpising me but on the other hand I know that when you were an Olympic lifter you squatted quite frequently… so your body had no choice it seems hahaha

Thanks CT!

That is true to some extent. But even with a high frequency, each bout of exercise has to trigger growth otherwise it won’t work. See it this way: if you curl a water bottle every day, even if you go to failure (good luck, it will take you 20 minutes per set), even if you do it several times a day, you will not grow your biceps.

So it’s kinda incorrect to say that my legs grew bigger only because I squatted often.

Frequency absolutely played a role (I do believe that for optimal hypertrophy hitting a muscle 2-3x per week is ideal… and in advanced lifters there might even be benefits for a greater frequency) but frequency without sufficient stimulus is pointless.

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  • The simpler the exercise the “more okay” it is to go to failure.
  • The better your mind-muscle connection and movement efficiency is, the more “okay” it is to go to failure
  • The less volume you do, the more “okay” it is to go to failure.

So going to failure would be perfectly fine on machine or isolation movements by a fairly experienced lifter who uses a lower training volume.

If you take out one of the “okay” variables you could go to failure one in a while, but not on every workout.

If you take out two or three of the “okay” variables, you should never go to failure.

IMPORTANT: To me going to failure is actually going to the point where you miss the last repetition. Although when it comes to the big lifts like squats, deadlifts and anything overhead, “failure” is when you are incapable of maintaining proper mechanics.


Understood, thanks for sharing Coach. I appreciate your time and will put this to good use!

All the best!

make a bet , you are neurotype 3 , aren’t you .?
Ectomorph ?

Hello pepsi-kn, I was never in the neurotyping system much interested in, I had the feeling I see elements of myself in various types from 1-3, thus I coudn’t determine my dominat profile by reading the articles back when they were published.
I would consider my build as mesomorph tho.

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The system has evolved a bit since that first article. There are now 5 main types with 2 more subtypes.

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