Of “Failure”, “Intensity”, “Inroad” and “Frequency”

TTP reader Will asked the following question, in reference to my recent “Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate” post – and just as I was beginning work on this piece; nice timing, my man  🙂  Here’s Will’s question:

A very thought-provoking post (and comments). Thanks very much from a new reader of your blog. I do have a question about how you and your readers conceive of ‘HIT”. I do a modified version (with free weights and cable exercises) but I do not go to absolute failure, stopping instead when my form begins to break down. In terms of ‘intensity’, I question whether absolute failure is necessary (and, therefore, I question whether machines – while they may have many benefits – are necessary to a HIT program. For what it’s worth, my own program usually results in two full-body routines with no more than one set per exercise (but, multiple exercises for larger muscle groups). To restate my question: what evidence is there to support the claim (and, I’m not sure you or your readers are necessarily making this claim) that ‘high intensity’ = absolute failure in a given set?


Thank you, Will, for the thought-provoking input.  The tough part about answering any question related to “intensity”, “failure”, “thorough inroad” and “training frequency”  definitively is that these factors are inextricably tied to highly individualistic intangibles such as training “age”, available tools, and the trainee’s personal goals.  Of course, individual genetic factors also come into play here as well, especially insofar as these factors influence each individual’s recuperative ability.  And, too, we need to keep in mind the differences between effective and efficient strength and metabolic conditioning, sport-specific training, and what I generally categorize as “play” – a catch-all phrase encompassing anything from tennis to Metro Dash, to a couple of my personal favorites, fixie riding and mountain biking.  Add cyclocross to that list as well, as this is on my “new sport to dabble in” RADAR.

So when attempting to answer a question such as yours, I first have to ask “what is your ultimate intent, or, what do you hope to achieve with this training session?”  Now this usually invokes a WTF?? look on the face of the trainee, but I assure you that it is the most important question a trainer can ask of a client, or that a trainee can ask of himself.  And the answers here can be as varied as the individuals themselves – everything from “dude, I jus’ wanna get swole” to “I wanna be a better, faster athlete”, to the stay-at-home mom (or dad) who just wants to be as fit as possible with a minimum time investment.  The thing is, these are all legitimate answers to the same question.

Now, if our ultimate intent is to strengthen and/or hypertrophy our muscles to the greatest extent possible and reap the anaerobic (and by extension, the aerobic component as well) metabolic conditioning benefits in the safest (i.e., easy on the joints, tendons, ligaments), most time-efficient manner possible, then yes – in my opinion, a machine-based, HIT/single-set-to-failure, infrequent, total body workout is the way to go; the ideal, so to speak.  The first limitation we’ll encounter, however, when attempting to realize this ideal, is access to the proper tools – in this case, machines which exhibit proper strength/force curves for each exercise movement.

A quick aside/caveat: yes, I wholeheartedly believe that free weights do indeed play a significant roll in the training of an athlete (a topic for another day).  However, even when the trainee is an athlete (or has athletic aspirations), I do believe that the individual’s strength/hypertrophy gains are best realized via the aforementioned HIT/single-set-to-failure methodology.  Sport-specific skills, including sport-specific explosiveness, proprioception, power-production, CNS efficiency and coordination, rate of force development, etc., are all entities that must be trained appropriately and in addition to strength acquisition.  Note, though, that the degree to which any (or all) of these other aspects must be trained is in direct proportion to level of importance placed on athletic achievement and the available time commitment.  That is to say, a professional athlete has much more at stake (and more available time to commit to training) than the weekend warrior.  And your average trainee, who is simply in search of maximizing his/her health and fitness in a time efficient manner, need not worry at all with these additional aspects.   First things first, though: it’s the rare (and I can’t over-emphasize the term “rare” here enough) individual indeed — from accomplished power athlete to housewife to grandma and grandpa – who wouldn’t benefit from becoming stronger and in possession of a better-conditioned, anaerobic metabolism.  In fact, the dilemma of the necessity of chasing further strength gains only really becomes an issue when available training time is at a premium; in other words, if as a coach I only have a finite amount of time to devote to improving an athlete’s performance, how best do I approach that?  What attributes do I endeavor to improve – and how do I prioritize those attributes – under a given time constraint?  For a little more about that, see this post.  One HUGE benefit, then, to HIT/single-set-to-failure protocols, performed on appropriately designed machines, is that training time then becomes as near a non-issue as can be imagined.  Hell, I can always find a half-hour every 5 days or so to devote to strength training, especially given the fact that performing strength training in this manner will substantially decrease the amount of time I need to devote to anaerobic conditioning.  Indeed, it’s a time-efficient, two-for-one special.  The problem, of course, is access to appropriate and available tools.

As it is, very few trainees have access to a well-appropriated bank of intelligently-designed machines – those designed with a proper strength/force curve.  Nautilus and MedX are the gold standard for the most widely (relatively speaking) available equipment; by far and away my favorite, though, is CZT equipment.   What a properly designed machine allows the trainee to do is reach utter muscular failure – both total (i.e., the muscle/muscle group as a whole), and of each muscle fiber type within the muscle/muscle group as a whole (slow, intermediate and fast twitch).  Free weights, irrespective of all their other benefits (and there are many), simply do not allow for reaching this level of intensity and the attainment of ultimate muscular failure safely, and while maintaining proper form.  If you look at the embedded video of me in the CZT link, you’ll realize that there is simply no way that I could approach that level of intensity, and push to that degree muscular failure (and therefore, degree of inroad) via the use of free weights.

More specific to you question, though – is the achievement of muscular failure necessary, or, is ‘high intensity’ necessarily defined as absolute failure in a given set?  Well, kinda, maybe…sort of.  I guess what really needs to be kept in mind here is the difference between the spirit and letter of the law.

My own personal feeling is that all single-set-to-failure type protocols are a subset of like-intentioned protocols that would collectively and appropriately fall under the HIT — and its fraternal twin, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) — training philosophy.  Personally, these labeling distinctions mean little to me beyond the point of facilitating ease of communication.  I much prefer to look at questions of training in a “desired outcomes”, “available time”, and “available/appropriate tools” kind of way.  This also prevents me from slipping into dogmatic mentality, or attempting to shoehorn a trainee into an existing protocol/modality.  Even through the bulk of my training is centered around a multiple-set framework, with no single set taken to the level of failure reached in (for instance) my run-in with the CZT, I’d still consider it to be HIT/HIIT-like training.

As an example, compare and contrast the RDL hyper-reps I performed on the CZT machine vs what can be approximated via the use of free weights; you can read my post-workout notes here, but the gist of the matter is that I totally wrung all that I could from this movement in a single, 5-repetition set that totaled approximately 50 seconds.  Now, how many sets of conventional RDLs would I need to perform to even come close to this level of accumulated intensity and muscular failure?  Quite a few.  And, in pursuing the conventional route, I’d have to maintain vigilance, as I approached muscular failure, against injury.  As anyone can tell you, pushing one’s self to the ultimate edge, and safeguarding against injury are two conflicting ideas and, ultimately, the safeguard against hurting your fool self will throttle-down your intensity no matter how deliberate you your attempts otherwise.  It’s simply human nature, my friend.  The machine then adds a “safety net” factor which allows for the psychological “freedom” to push further into the failure abyss.  The key, however — in each of these scenarios – is the reaching to, and tapping-out of, all available muscle fibers; especially so, the fast twitch fibers.

All easy enough you say – straightforward, even.  Ah, but there’s one other element we have to account for, and that little variable is time; specifically, Time Under Load (TUL).

So, yes, ideally we want to fatigue the fast twitch fibers in a given muscle (or group of muscles), but we also want to fatigue the slow and intermediate twitch fibers as well, as we’re looking for total bang for the buck here (note: in some instances this will not be the case [e.g., weight-class athletes], but that’s a topic for another discussion).  What machine-based protocols allow for is a specific loading, such that a specific and continuous time-under-load can be utilized until total muscular failure is realized in a single, prolonged set.  And set duration is of the essence here, with the requirement being that failure must be reached within a time span of (roughly) 40 to 90 seconds.  Why such a precise time requirement?  Because this forces the fast twitch fibers – which will not engage unless the lesser fibers have either failed, or their force production is inadequate for the task at hand — to engage and fail before the slow and intermediate fibers have had a chance to recover and re-engage in the effort.  This is tough to accomplish with free weights and thus the necessity, when free weights are the only tool available, of multi-set (and more frequently performed) protocols.  The same ends can be approximated, it’s just a much more efficient operation when utilizing proper machines.

Studies of this subject, as I alluded to in the “Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate” post, are kinda like statistics in that the same data set can be used as support to argue both sides of the debate.  The problem is that the control variables are just so damn hard to account for.  Again we get back to trying to nail down terms such as “intensity” and “failure”; add to this fact that the all-important recuperative ability is an ever-changing and highly individualistic factor.  That said, though, here are a couple of studies that seem to support the single-set-to-failure methodology:

The Effect of Weight Training Volume on Hormonal Output and Muscular Size and Function

Strength training. Single versus multiple sets

My suggestion is to use studies such as these as indicators in formulating your own, n=1 path.  My own n=1 experience leads me to believe that, given access to the proper tools, single-set-to-failure is the best method by which to gain strength and hypertrophy, with a kick-ass side benefit of improved anaerobic metabolic conditioning to boot.

Sprints and Iron; Yeah Buddy!

I hit some Vibram-shod sprints on Saturday, then took my dog-and-pony show inside the gym for a little iron tossing.  Not a bad way at all to spend a pleasant Saturday afternoon, I must say.

I set up the sprints in a 15-seconds-for-max-distance format, full recovery (about 2 minutes or so) between efforts.  As my CNS is much more cycling-specific tuned these days, I decided to pull the plug (assign a drop-off) of being when I ceased to improve, distance-wise, in a single effort.  You just can’t imagine how movement-specific your CNS becomes until you concentrate on one endeavor, at the near exclusion of another, for quite some time.  In my first few sprints I felt as clumsy as a school kid.  In attempts 4 though 7, though, I felt like I was flying.  In attempt #8 I failed to better my previous mark, and so I pulled the plug, headed inside and readied the iron.

I hit a superset of BTN push-presses and Atlantis machine pull-downs.  Not that I think the Atlantis machine necessarily offers a particularly suitable strength/force curve mind you, but because I left my friggin’ weight belt at home.  Ugh…anyway –

btn push-press: 115 x 6; 145 x 6; 165 x 3; 185 x 3, 3; 205 x 1; 215 x 1, 1, miss; 185 x 3, 3

Atlantis pull-down machine: 180 x 8; 270 x 7; 360 x 5; 410 x 4, 6 (rest-pause singles).  Each concentric was performed as fast as possible, each eccentric was at a 6-second count (6-0-x-0).

I finished –up with a round of Nautilus 4-way neck work: 55 lbs x 12 front, side, side and 65 lbs x 12 to the rear.  Total TUL for each of the 4 angles is approximately 45 seconds.