The Continuing Question of “Failure”

HIT protocols – at least “HIT” in the purist sense of the definition – hinge on the concept of “training to complete muscular failure”.  Now, let me first preface all of this by saying that I am a huge HIT advocate, even if I am less so a champion of focusing on muscular “failure” to the exclusion of – or at least to the minimalization of – the consideration of other important training parameters/indicators.  Sacrilege, you say!  How can this be?  What manner of madness, and/or cognitive dissonance is this?  Well, the problem is, in my mind, the folly of attempting to nail-down that elusive point known as “muscular failure”.  And if we can’t precisely nail that point down, then we have to concede that that factor alone might not be an adequate standard in-and-of itself by which to measure inroad.  Hang with me, HIT aficionados, and let me explain myself.

Better yet, let’s allow Dan John to kick things off by (as is his specialty), waxing practical on the subject.  Here’s Dan, from his fabulous work, Never Let Go:

…for those of you who carry the flame of train-to-failure, how do you really determine failure?  I’ve been involved in an interesting challenge several times in my life, to squat bodyweight for reps.  Simply slap on bodyweight, do as many squats as you can, then put out a number.

I was thinking I was great at twenty reps until a buddy of mine did thirty.  At the next contest, I did fifty to win (ultimately, I did fifty-one with 225).  What was the difference between failure and failure?  Someone else doing more.

Even honest Abe has something to say about the subject at hand –

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.
–Abraham Lincoln

Who knew my man Abe was an ahead-of-his-time, HIT man?

In all serious, though, “failure” is a rather nebulous thing.  And it has as much to do with psychology as it does physiology.   As a gross yardstick, though, I suppose it’s as good as any other; I would, however, treat the point of failure not so much as the “gold standard”, but as just another, of many, training indications to gauge one’s workout inroad and overall progress.  Hell, even load, distance and time (for instance), which are in fact “hard” measures, must be considered within the context of a greater overall picture.

Of course, the same can be said of “maximum efforts” and/or “personal bests”.  Under what circumstances are we speaking?  In the gym?  During a high-level competition?  As the result a no-shit, life or death situation?  It makes a huge difference, especially when we’re talking about workout programming based off of point of failure, TUL, or past “bests”.

Even “accurate” drop-off and Autoregulation numbers (which I tend to put a premium on) can only be tracked and utilized in a limited manner.  Ultimately, much still comes down to the even more nebulous (and admittedly Zen-like notions) of “feel”, and “listening to one’s body” – especially the more varied and diverse the cumulative stressors are, and the greater the trainee/client’s training age.

Now don’t get me wrong, the point of “muscular failure” is still a fine gauge to use with those of a relatively young training age, and if the subject has few other stressors to juggle.  I also think it’s a fine gauge to use on an endurance athlete who has (smartly!) decided to add appropriate strength training to his/her overall plan.  As Charles Stayley is fond of saying, “one needs strength with which to endure”.

My aim here is not to bash “muscular failure” as an indicator, but to simply caution trainees and trainers against becoming tunnel-visioned on this single parameter to the exclusion of others.  When it comes to training indicators, think like a quarterback – in any one particular play, the quarterback may have 2, 3…even up to 5 receiver options to choose from.  The best quarterbacks are skilled in the ability to scan the field (while avoiding the sack, keeping mindful of down, distance, time remaining, etc.) and choosing the best immediate receiving option.  Quarterbacks who focus in on a single receiver to the exclusion of other viable options are quickly picked apart by skilled defenses, and rarely rise beyond competing at the high school level.

Strive to become the Hall-of-Fame “quarterback” for your own physical fitness offense.

7 responses to “The Continuing Question of “Failure”

  1. I suppose the idea of muscle failure can be a little less concrete when we recognize the role the brain has in moderating physical effort. I imagine in many cases, the brain shuts us down when it (our subconscious?) feels like the pain is too much or we’re far past our previous max. A sort of protective measure?

    How do you know when the muscular failure is truly from a failure of the muscles, or from a surrender by the brain?

    • I covered a few of my ideas on this subject a while back, here. Given two identical physiologies, where would the “sweet spot” training stimulus lay if say, each were paired with a differing level of shut-down threshold? Does the neurology (and therefore shutdown signal) automatically adjust to the ability of the host physiology so as to make “failure” a universally accurate measure? I don’t know, and I’m not so sure that science has adequately answered that question, and so we’re left in large part to rely upon our training expertise, empirical knowledge, and (hopefully) a bit of temperance as we forge forward.

  2. It seems that most define muscular failure as concentric muscular failure. Of course this premise is determined by how much you can lift over the course of time or per given repetitions. What is very interesting to me since the advent of the CZT System machines is to note how much faster concentric failure occurs prior to eccentric fatigue. What does this mean? I am not exactly sure but I do know that our muscles are limited to how much we can lift (i.e. concentric strength and “failure”) but there is much more capacity out there on the eccentric side of the equation. If carefully managed and not diving into overtraining I suspect we are just on the tip of the iceberg for what our muscles “need” and all other lifting is for shall I say fun and/or psychological fulfillment.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, in that muscular adaptations alone require a (relatively speaking) limited stimulus. The great unknown, though, is that of neurological adaptation and efficiencies. It seems to me that we (and sports physiology in general) knows just enough to be dangerous here. It has always amazed me how it is that an otherwise unremarkable 170 lb man can DL 500+ lbs with seeming ease, while a fairly muscular & well conditioned 205-pounder (me), even with periods of concerted effort, has never hit that mark. Even if we assume perfect structural leverages, that’s still cause for some serious head-scratching, at least on my part. Something’s going on “inside the box” that we, as of yet anyway, just haven’t been able to grasp. I’m inclined to go along with the theory that hypertrophy is, in evolutionary terms, an inefficient means by which the body attempts to compensate for (i.e., recuperate from) the training stimulus, whereas neurological compensation is not nearly so costly (in evolutionary/survival terms), and therefore preferred. But if this is the case, then what training methods preferentially affect the neural-physiology? And, can that neural-physiology even be positively affected beyond what is genetically “programmed” and, if so, to what extent? I’m speaking beyond gains made via technique betterment and “learning the lifts”, I’m speaking more toward altering the actual neurology. Some studies suggest that certain training methods affect the nerve sheathing in such a way as to “limit conductance losses”. It seems to me, though, that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I do know that this physiological Rubik’s cube is interesting as all hell to me 🙂

  3. For every client who can get to disgusting “high level” fatigue, there are 10 who simply never get there. That’s not to say they don’t work as hard as possible, they do, but their ceiling is not the ceiling of a “fatigue elite” if you will.

    So for every Bill Sahli (3 exercises every 5 to 7 days, maintains 205lbs at 5’5″) there are mere mortals who never quite seem to get to that level of inroad/need more exercises per bodypart/increased frequency/etc.

    • Exactly. Some people are just “wired” so as to be impervious to pain and, by extension, fatigue. Curiously, these are the same people — or, at least they are found in a much higher concentration (my empirical observation) — in competitive sports and military special forces. Which is also the same training group whose biggest training mistake is overtraining. Hmmmmmm…. Of course, this is a continuum, not a black/white divide, so to speak. In any event, though, we’ve come back ’round full circle — in answer to “dude, which protocol?” — to “it depends” and, it’s an n=1 issue; something the “shoehorners” (is that like “birthers”?…anyway…) are loathe to admit.

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