Much is known about the physiological impairments that can cause muscle fatigue. It is known that fatigue can be caused by many different mechanisms, ranging from the accumulation of metabolites within muscle fibres to the generation of an inadequate motor command in the motor cortex, and that there is no global mechanism responsible for muscle fatigue. Rather, the mechanisms that cause fatigue are specific to the task being performed. The development of muscle fatigue is typically quantified as a decline in the maximal force or power capacity of muscle, which means that submaximal contractions can be sustained after the onset of muscle fatigue. There is even evidence that the duration of some sustained tasks is not limited by fatigue of the principal muscles. Here we review experimental approaches that focus on identifying the mechanisms that limit task failure rather than those that cause muscle fatigue. Selected comparisons of tasks, groups of individuals and interventions with the task-failure approach can provide insight into the rate-limiting adjustments that constrain muscle function during fatiguing contractions.