In the last article, we talked about DOMS, or delayed onset of muscle soreness, due to exercise. We know now that aching from exercise is just about guaranteed, at least when a person first starts out on an exercise program or has taken an extended break from resistance training.
This soreness eventually lets up, however, as a person’s body becomes more adapted to the stresses imposed on it by exercise. Still, there is a notion that persists in the fitness industry that if there’s no pain, then there’s no gain. The idea that your body should be sore during and after exercise every workout, regardless of how seasoned the person is to exercise, is prevalent in gym culture around the modern world. Social media is saturating people’s feeds with “motivational” images and videos of people pushing themselves well past their comfortable limits, making icons of those who damn near died on the gym floor.
Train to failure. Train until your legs cave in, your arms give out, your lungs are on fire, and the world starts going dark around you.
Or maybe we should redefine failure.
Think of a luxury car. You’re driving down the road, and the engine light comes on. Hmmm, I wonder what that means? Well it probably doesn’t matter that much, right? I mean, the car is still driving perfectly fine down the road. A little further and you hear a ticking sound coming from under the hood. Hmmm, what’s that noise?
Well, it can’t be that serious because my car is still driving just fine. A little further still and your thermostat is beginning to edge up. Hmmm, you say. I’m starting to suspect something is going on with my car. But it’s still driving just fine, so I’ll worry about it later. That’s odd. A few minutes go by, and you’re beginning to lose a bit of power when you push down on the accelerator. Now you are getting worried and start seriously considering the prospect of finding a service station. But it’s a Sunday, and it’s still moving in a straight line, so what the hell. What’re a few more miles gonna do? So you’re still driving down the road when all of a sudden your car makes a horribly loud bang from beneath the hood. You lose power on the spot, and the car limps to the side of the road, dead and steaming as though visibly mad at you.
The now destroyed car as a result of ignoring the warning signals is analogous of your body training to failure. Just as the car gave you fair warning it was about to break down, so will your body. Had you stopped and had your car checked out at the service station as soon as your check engine light came on you could have caught the problem and would have likely been back on the road in no time.
Imagine you are under a two hundred pound barbell performing a back squat for maximum repetitions. You complete the first five flawlessly, not deviating from good form once. Then, on the sixth rep, your elbows pop up ever so slightly, causing your shoulders to round inward and torso to shift forward allowing your neck to take up some of the load, awkwardly I might add. Not a problem, though, as it’s only a minor deviation and shouldn’t be of concern.
Then on the seventh rep, your knees buckle inward, causing the arches of your feet to collapse and your lower back to round. It’s beginning not to look so pretty. But hey, it’s the seventh rep, and you’re getting tired. We should expect a little break in form at this point, right?
You come down for your eighth rep and, because the bar has drifted forward, your knees and shoulders have collapsed, and your back resembles a scared cat, you can’t keep tension and drop down too far in the hole. No problem, you say. You’ve been there before and know you can use the bounce at the bottom to help you back up. As you drive up you are clearly way out over your toes, and your back is so arched you look like you’re halfway through an exorcism, and the bar is trying its damnedest to cut through the vertebrae in your neck. But you’re just about at the top of the rep, so you keep pushing… until…
POP! You hear it. You definitely feel it. But the good news is somehow you manage to finish that last rep, get the lockout at the top, and walk the bar back into the rack. I hope you had a friend snapping pics and taking videos because you are about to be an Instagram fitness celebrity with a grinding set like that. The bad news is you just tore the quadratus lumborum on your left side, so you won’t be able to train squats for a few months.
How to determine when to stop
Do I believe in training to failure? In a lot of cases, yes, definitely. Well, almost failure. I would say more like near failure. But my definition of failure is a little different than the rest of the fitness industry may have gotten you used to.
Train to near failure. Train until you can feel the next rep will suffer because your shoulders can’t maintain their rigidity; your external rotators at the hip can’t keep your knees from collapsing inward; the strength of your core muscles will loosen and cause your back to arch.
Training to near failure implies you train maximally within the confines of safe movement patterns to the point where you can no longer maintain them, at which point you stop. Whether that is a squat, press, or sprinting down a track, treat it like it is your job to know what those patterns are, how to maintain them under load, and when to progress them safely. If you don’t want that job, then I strongly recommend you get a personal trainer or train with a friend who knows proper form and has an attentive eye.
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Besides staving off injury in the gym, training to failure of form rather than failure because of total system shutdown (cough…. crossfit….cough) has other benefits. When you learn the proper form for the exercises in your program, you are simultaneously learning the most stable positions your body should naturally operate in outside of the gym. When you bend down to pick up a heavy object, lift your suitcase into an overhead compartment, or help push your friends broken down car over to the side of the road, you will subconsciously brace yourself into the stable positions you have been practicing in your exercise programs.
Sometimes the exercise doesn’t even have a chance to start before there is a failure of form. If you cannot get into the start and end positions of an exercise because of mobility issues without load, what makes you think your form will improve when you start loading the bar? If you cannot lift your hands straight overhead without compensating in your spine or bending your elbows, then it’s really not a good idea to start overhead pressing until you restore that mobility.
If you cannot do a bodyweight squat to parallel without your heels lifting from the ground and your torso tipping forward, then a barbell back squat is likely not the best exercise for you at this time. The good new is that, after working on that mobility of the shoulder and adding strength to surrounding muscles, when you are finally ready to start overhead pressing your foundation will be strong and your progress will be quick.
After improving your ankle flexibility and thoracic mobility, you will be able to squat from a solid foundation. And if you honestly feel like you are losing out on results because you have to focus on corrective exercise rather than the squats and overhead presses you would rather do, remember there is always a safe, regressed version or analog to the restricted exercise that can help keep you on the path to your goals.
How to train maximally, but safely
In summary, take the time to figure out what your current mobility restrictions are and how they will determine the best exercises for your program. Have your personal trainer or a friend coach you as you do your exercises, correcting your movements or stopping the exercise when they notice your form breaking down. If you go to boot camp or a Crossfit box know what the proper form should be for all the exercises, you will be doing and pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you feel like you are compromising the health of your spine, shoulders or other joints just to get out more reps, stop the exercise completely and assess how you feel and what part of the movement was giving you trouble in the first place. Don’t let anyone tell you to keep pushing, even if they are the coach. You are the one who will have to live with the consequences and pain of any injury you incur, not them.
As always, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article. If you got something from it, or you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles or videos, please leave me a message in the comments or reach out to me on social media!
And remember, with everything in life the secret to success is getting started. So get started!
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About the author
I switched careers from a mechanic to a personal trainer and life coach after seeing the difference one made in the life of my mother. I watched as she transformed herself, changing her path in life to one that allowed for the enjoyment of what she loves most. Our family saw how powerful an impact her trainer had on her health and happiness, and we couldn't have been more grateful. From then on, I knew I wanted to help others take back their lives the same way her trainer had helped her.
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