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.
…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.
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.