What You're Getting Yourself Into - 1900 Words Some of Which are Bad Words (You've Been Warned)
Average Read Time - 12-16 Minutes
Just yesterday I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about training and the topic of failing a lift came up. Instantly I remembered I had been meaning to write something for a long time about the topic but kept getting side tracked. He told me over a board game how “people don’t know how to fail a lift” he continued by explaining most people aren't taught how to. I took it very much another way; I thought he meant people don't have the psychological fortitude to fail a lift; especially in training. I agreed with him, we continued the night, finished our drinks and I headed home.
When I got home I couldn’t get it out of my head; when in the hell did failing a lift in training become anathema? Where did everyone get this obsession that every rep had to be perfect no matter what and at no point should you fail in training or else you are training your body to fail and you will explode. Maybe the last part is an exaggeration but that’s how everyone sounds lately when discussing failing reps in training: “No man, failing reps in training gets you nowhere, teaches your body to fail, fry’s your nervous system and destroys your children’s gains.” Ok then.
The idea that failing in training is very similar to how you can view failing in life. In between motivational speeches telling us how we shouldn't be afraid to fail in life and rocky montages about how it doesn’t matter how many times you get hit but how many times you get back up the strength and conditioning community have become Rocky Balboas fictional son. You know the one; the little bitch who gave up on his dreams, his dad and thinks everything is dangerous. It seems to me, at least in Australia, most athletes tend to get treated with so much bubble-wrap that they hardly get any actual training done.
The main arguments for not failing reps in training seem logical. I’m going to address each one below; but before I do let me clarify this is directed to an intermediate to advanced lifter/athlete and not beginners. A beginner should focus on execution of a lift first and foremost and not much else until they can get that right.
Failing Reps Gives you Neural Fatigue (AKA Kills your CNS)
As with most blanket statements there is a grain of truth to this. There are such things as adrenal fatigue and neural fatigue but they are extremely hard to bring on. To be frank; hardly anyone trains hard enough these days to induce them and if they did they would need to train very heavy, very frequently and fail a lot with big compound movements like a deadlift to do it. There is however something called local neural fatigue; that is if you train something such as bench to your limit one day then the next day try and do the same bench session your performance will likely be sub-par, although your squats/deadlifts will be unaffected. Deadlifts more than other lifts can induce something called central fatigue as the movement is heavily taxing not just on your body but your CNS. Other stressors outside of training can induce central fatigue such as under sleeping, anxiety, stress, injury, and drinking. The analogy I can give is to think of your brain as the battery that charges your muscles and the nerves that innervate them as circuits; if the battery is half charged or the circuits are not conducting as well as they should you get a poor muscle contraction and less than ideal performance.
If you fail continuously on heavy deadlifts then it is likely your performance in other movements including the deadlift will be hindered. Failing one rep on the other hand is not going to have the same impact. You are not looking for an excuse to fail a rep but rather; you are not that failure will somehow bring your nervous system into meltdown. The deadlift is the extreme example; failing at a bench or squat is less fatiguing still.
An athletic example would be someone like Lebrone James. When he was still playing for the Miami Heat he had played 800 games over a period of 11 years with a staggering 92% game time. That’s around100 games per year on average. He also traveled interstate for those games. That means time in transit on a cramped plane at his height. Did I mention he still trained? Well he did. With weights. Almost every day.
To summarise failing a rep or two will not kill your CNS; you're not that fragile physically. Even non-athletes like people on farms perform serious physical tasks all day, every day and then train if they are inclined. We are over here talking about failed reps inducing CNS fatigue and people work manual labor jobs and still train. When did we all become so precious?
It Teaches You To Fail
It apparently takes 10,000 hours to make you an expert at something but only a few failed repetitions and you’re suddenly an expert at failing. Unless you are planning on failing every single repetition in training you will not “teach your body to fail”. From a motor control perspective poor habits are formed over a long period of time and must be performed a great number of times for it to become an issue. This is why when training a beginner it is hardly their program that is an issue; it is more teaching them good habits/form/execution, getting them to practice those over a long period of time and helping them become aware of their bodies (proprioception or kinaesthetic awareness) that will make them experts at a given skill. Squatting, benching, throwing a ball or even walking are a skill that is learned and mastered over time. Motor control is a huge topic that encompasses and overlaps various disciplines from sports psychology to kinesiology but one thing is undeniable: it takes a great deal of time and effort to become a master at a skill. It also takes an equal if not a greater amount of time to ruin that skill; otherwise three missed shots from Jordan would have ruined his career. One rep is not 10,000 and if you have become proficient at executing reps with correct form you will have the body awareness to know when you mis-grooved a rep or why you missed one and if you are intelligent about it can learn from your mistake. *Gasp*
I have trained many different types of people over the years, some mentally tough without much talent, others with much potential but mentally fragile and a mixture in between those two. I use the two extremes as an example for a few reasons; I have generally found that talented individuals tend to be more fragile mentally and if I were to speculate (which I will because it’s my blog post) a contributing factor to this mental fragility could be that these people were always good at things physically and have never experienced failure at the same level as individuals who were talentless and just had to work at it that much harder to be at merely an acceptable level. If you’re accustomed to winning all the time your ego gets inflated and it’s that much harder when you take a tumble. If you have worked hard and failed many times your mental fortitude is high so a setback is nothing new and nothing you can’t work through. For that reason the greatest athletes of all have two things in addition to natural talent: work ethic and mental toughness. Here is a little test for you; if you miss a rep in training do you think about failing and lament or do you think about why you failed, how you can do better next time and crush that weight the next time it’s in your hands? If you are the former you will probably keep failing reps unnecessarily because you have succumb to hopelessness, if you are the latter you will likely destroy that weight the next time it’s in your hands or damn well try. If you gave up every time something was hard then you wouldn't get through a single day of life without a meltdown. The way you deal with failure and adversity is more important than failure itself.
It Teaches You to Grind (Badly)
Sometimes this is viewed as a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. There is the idea that grinding should be done often as it teaches you how to persevere through a weight and can show you sticking points. Then there is the opposing ideology; that every rep should look and be perfect and explosive, with no slowing of the bar so that perfect execution is drilled into you. As with most things, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. You want most reps to be good quality clean repetitions and strive for excellence. As the weights get heavier with added repetitions things start to move a little different; slower, sometimes choppier. This is how we learn. It’s like when you first pick up weights; you made mistakes, things didn't move so well, you made corrections and eventually became better. My old training partner and I used to say that if every rep looked perfect you weren't lifting enough. Because without struggle there can be no growth.
The Devil In Me
As a coach you are generally taught to not let your athletes fail reps because of safety. As my friend mentioned though in our discussion, because of this mentality people have no clue how to actually fail a rep. Teaching people how and when to fail appropriately is paramount to safety in my mind. For this reason I intentionally give people attempts sometimes that are almost a guaranteed failed rep. (Obviously within reason. You would be crazy to do this to an injured person) Why you may ask am I so cruel? A few reasons actually. Firstly I want the athlete to see that failure isn’t the end of the world. If you set up spotting arms or teach someone how to throw a high bar squat off their shoulders you won’t explode or become crippled. Removing that fear factor and giving them confidence how and when to fail a lift is important. It also teaches them when their body is at it’s limit, which brings me to reason number two. It shows me what you are made of; mentally. If you don’t fight the weight very much and give up at the first sign of resistance it tells me you lack effort to give something your all or you doubt yourself too much. If I see you fighting the weight to the bitter end then it shows me resilience and persistence. Lastly, it shows me how you deal with failure. If the response is pissed off, quietly determined or you tell me “next time i’m getting that” then it is inevitable it will happen. If you get upset and crawl away defeated, it’s likely it won’t.
Failure shows character. It always has and it always will. Anyone can win and take it well but not everyone can fail well. You don't search for failure or train recklessly, but you also shouldn't be terrified of failing. Somewhere, somehow a lot of the strength community has forgotten that. It may be the “always be winning” or “that’s dangerous!” mentality that’s embedded it. For whatever reason it’s stopping you. It's in your way. Get under a bar. Get on the field. Go out there and just fucking get it.
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