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"This is especially exciting for an advanced trainee with 21 years of lifting experience." Kevin Dye
HIT Advocate Stops Training to Failure – and Gains!
A Challenge Yourself reader recently asked me the difference between training to failure and overload. He was confused because I said that overload, continually challenging yourself to lift progressively heavier weights, is essential, but nevertheless discouraged training to failure.
As this man’s question suggests, the concept of progressive overload is simple, but the execution is more complex than it might appear. After all, doesn’t training to momentary muscular failure, the point in a set where no further movement is possible despite one’s best efforts, represent the ultimate in overload? Yes, but constant training to failure presents problems, especially for someone who has been training for a long time. As I told the person who wrote, attempting to train all-out every workout can be self defeating and ultimately a prescription for failure. Unrelenting pressure to increase training load and intensity eventually overcomes the ability of the body and the mind to adapt.
The following article by Kevin Dye, a longtime follower of the HIT (high intensity training) philosophy, is taken from the December, 1999, issue of Master Trainer, an excellent newsletter published by my friend Richard Winett, Ph.D., (www.ageless-athletes.com). Kevin, a 37-yr.-old bodybuilder from Australia, has written extensively about his experience (mostly positive) with intense, brief and infrequent workouts, in other words the HIT approach. He believes in what he calls the 3Bs: Brief, Basic and Brutal. His training background and ability to express himself makes his experience with training short of failure especially instructive and meaningful. Kevin explains the problem with training to failure -- and the value of training just shy of failure -- far better than I was able to do in an email response. We thank Dick and Kevin for allowing us to share the article with our readers.
by Kevin Dye
Out of the multitude of training methods that are available, what is the common denominator inherent in the majority? Training to failure. Reaching this point is of such significance to trainees that it is an accepted fact that it must be reached to be assured they have given their best and have stimulated optimum growth for their efforts. To some, having gone to failure is almost seen as mystical, as you have laid your life on the line, entered the pain zone, endured it as long as humanly possible, and come out alive, ready to re-enter again another day!
What is failure?
Failure can be defined as reaching a point in a set where using perfect form no further movement can be completed. The reason this point is considered so important is due to the physiological processes kicked into effect at that juncture of the set resulting in optimum gains being stimulated. But does a rep below this level do anything significant? I didn't think so for 21 years, and never trained less than 100%, less I miss out on the gains that "could" be made only by reaching the highest pain level failure provides. This was my aim every time I started a set, and I wouldn't give in until my body couldn't raise the bar any further. I could never settle for less no matter how I felt. Less would have meant a drastic drop in my manhood, which is totally unacceptable to any hardcore trainee.
But as great as my gains were my first few years of failure training, they never came close in the latter years, which left me bewildered. Without
consistent progress how could I ever hope to grow bigger and stronger? Having used most methods in my efforts to train harder and harder to force new gains, I had exhausted my options, I literally had nothing left to rely
upon to increase the intensity levels to affect my rate of progress. Considering my advanced status, this left me with just one option, challenging the one area held in highest regard among HIT, training to
Had someone previously tried to convince me that reducing my effort in the gym would lead to better gains I would have ignored him completely. I would have looked upon them as something of a wimp, and saw their efforts as a feeble excuse to train in an easy fashion so as to forgo the discomfort of true training. After all, how could less lead to more? But on second thought, isn't that exactly what happens when a trainee becomes more advanced and has to reduce their sets and/or exercises to account for the increasing stress levels? So maybe there was some worth in coaxing growth instead of forever trying to force it, but how effective such a method was would never be known until I took the initiative and tried it myself. So, my journey began.
After completing my first workout stopping one rep shy of failure on each exercise, I didn't know what to think. This approach went against all I'd believed and was so foreign it made me feel like I'd missed an opportunity to progress as there was no pain or discomfort to use as a gauge.. But immediately afterwards, I noted the lack of depletion that usually overwhelmed me, leaving me like a zombie and inoperable for half an hour or more. That was a definite bonus. But because this was so unusual for me, I had trouble accepting the avoidance of my "fix" of pain and discomfort, and mentally this didn't gel. I decided though to give it a decent trial period to assess its value, so I continued on, gradually growing used to the reduced stress every trip to the gym.
A major factor that aided me to accept stopping short of failure as a valid training method was reflecting on the immense mass of powerlifters, who never go to failure yet support some of the largest bodies ever to walk the earth. Naturally, they rely upon the most effective exercises any trainee could use; the basics. Yet their level of intensity seems far below the average high intensity advocate, in fact it would be a great deal less. As these lifters get stronger, they are forced to move up to heavier weight classes almost as a side-effect for the burgeoning strength levels. So despite their avoidance of training to failure, they grow bigger and stronger for their less than maximal efforts, a fact I couldn't ignore and one that kept me keen to keep at it.
Rational of Reduced Effort
I will provide my opinion based upon my findings and beliefs as to why training short of failure produces results. For a start, taking less away from the body allows it to recuperate faster, meaning the overcompensation process [where growth occurs] can conclude sooner. When going to failure this might take up to a week or more, yet while shying away from failure it's been my experience that it seems to happen within days. This puts the body in a better position to cope and react rapidly to the stressor. It's stress to be sure, but far from the magnitude that failure inflicts, so it's within the coping radius and disrupts the system less.
As you complete each workout feeling "worked" not "destroyed," you can easily psyche up for another dose in a matter of days. Enjoyment is no longer in conflict with uncomfortable pain inherent in reaching failure. The discomfort of lagging pain in the muscles and joints is reduced to the point of being insignificant, leaving a feeling of knowing you've trained rather than you've done such a thorough destruction to your system it might never be the same again! Having less discomfort to contend with means you function better in daily tasks and aren't crippled to the point that you feel restricted or unable to indulge in your regular endeavors, a welcome relief for many who need to manually work for a living.
The best part is the way the body bounces back, allowing another small weight increment to be added to each exercise next time around. It's the gradual build up of all these small advances that provide long term gains. While you could try to add big increments, how long could you realistically expect that to happen before you plateau?
Instead the slow but steady method provided by shying away from failure is both mentally and physically comforting, as you are seeing something worthwhile for your efforts, and that is repeated on a very regular basis, a reassurance you are getting something in return for your efforts.
Even though it's been said that the last rep of a set taken to failure is the safest, that is only true if it is done using the same perfect form you should be using throughout the set. But often egos prevail and body English comes into play, resulting in shifts in body position to get the bar up for another rep than what should have been attempted. It's these minor indiscretions that puts trainees in precarious positions where they shift themselves so far out of alignment that the stress of the barbells intended target shifts and affects areas that can't cope with such poundages. Or worse yet, they lose balance and their form totally breaks down. This is far more inclined to happen with failure training as the nature of the protocol involves seeing how far you can push. Some people interpret this credo as seeing how far they can possibly go regardless of safety or control.
On the other hand, shying away from failure tends to be conducive to keeping perfect form, strict and smooth, throughout the whole set, beginning to end. As the effort is ceased out of deliberation rather than muscular fatigue, form is kept intact and the exercise stress remains on the intended muscle's) making it safer as the trainee is always in complete control. That isn't to say a little help might be performed by other muscles to help raise the bar, but when compared to form usually involved with failure training, this is relatively minor. So in reality, you get more for your effort if only because your form remains strict and doesn't shift suddenly to entice other muscles to help continue the set to its ultimate conclusion.
As a failure trainer, I always debated the constant battle whether I had in fact gone to total failure. Maybe I could have done one more. This isn't a healthy frame of mind because you always doubt your efforts, even if you did do your best. That tends to be "the nature of the beast" when failure is the God you always seek to satisfy your convictions that you triggered the growth mechanism into action. But by avoiding failure, you rely solely upon the small weight addition next time around. This is visual evidence of your rate of progression. You no longer linger in fear or doubt that your efforts in some way might have faulted your gains. You know without doubt that enough of these small progressions will lead to both strength and size gains. Nothing else is possible, as progression is the essence of what effective weight training is all about. After all, no matter how much failure training you indulge in, if you don't see regular weight additions on the bar, then what use is all that effort?
Having only one factor to concentrate on frees the mind and provides better focus on a singular goal. With the double progression method where you complete a certain amount of reps within a chosen guideline, you are always striving to reach the maximum amount of reps so you can reward your efforts with another weight addition to drop you down to your minimum rep allotment. But with a single progression you only have to concern yourself with adding small weight additions provided you complete your rep allotment, say 5 or 6. So with constant positive feedback, you are enthused to train again. You are handling steadily increasing poundages which reinforces many training behaviors. Remember, had you really pushed yourself, you would have done another rep, but stopping short still satisfies the stimulus needed to trigger the growth process, and once your body has rested, it can then handle another small dose of stress with regularity that will amaze you!
I strongly believe that in the first year of training that all trainees should learn what it is like to take a set to the limit, for without failure how would one know where one rep shy is? Trainees need to get themselves familiar with that last rep that either makes or breaks them. Providing they use strict form, they will reap some great gains. This process needs to be gradual and ironically, cyclic. After the first month of shying away from failure to learn form and avoid undue soreness, the trainee could do a year of failure training before resuming shying away with a newfound understanding of what failure means. Where previously his avoidance would be haphazard and erratic, it now becomes a matter of knowing when the next rep would take them to the point of failure and calling it quits just prior to that point.
It's obvious that I wouldn't be praising this method of training, if I didn't believe it was of great value. From what I have seen over the past two months, its value is beyond what even I would have believed. This is especially exciting for an advanced trainee with twenty-one years of lifting experience behind him. Not only have I been able to add small steady weight increments to each exercise at a rate that is as regular as clockwork, but my joints haven't suffered from any of these poundage increases. The increases have been gradual, enabling my joints and tendons to keep pace with the workload.
After the first month I decided to weigh and measure myself to see exactly what has occurred from this method. I'd been making an effort to keep my calories down to become leaner. I was initially upset that my bodyweight hadn't changed from my usual 222 lb. Then I measured and found out the whole story. What had happened, for the first time in my life, was I'd lost fat while adding muscle, so even though my weight hadn't altered, the ratio of muscle to fat was now in greater proportion!
Overall, I added a quarter of an inch to both my legs and arms, just under one inch on my chest, while losing a quarter of an inch off my waist! And keep in mind that this was in a mere eight weeks on an advanced body that has been through a wide array of high intensity methods trying to stimulate it to become bigger and stronger. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to induce these gains using coaxing rather than forcing, and it is obvious that the steady rate of progression I witnessed on each exercise was enough to jolt my system to adaptation, despite the reduced intensity. Even now, into my third month, I am still progressing in each workout, and it never stops.
Weight additions of two pounds for the big exercises [like squats, deadlifts, and back work], and one pound for the smaller exercises [like chest and arm work] seems to be the correct rate for the body to adapt. Initially I found the hardest part was refraining from becoming too greedy and adding more than my body could cope with, but that would have been foolish because plateaus would have resulted. I'd rather add small increments regularly than larger one sporadically! So use patience to aid your long terms gains, not haste to impede them.
By now we can see that always going to failure at the conclusion of every set performed isn't the mystical ideal. It doesn't have to be achieved for progress to happen. In fact, shying away allows faster recuperation, depletes less of the systems resources, and causes less wear and tear on the body. These factors may combine for an ideal environment for stimulating progress on a regular basis. So before you dismiss this approach as just another weak-willed attempt to downplay failure simply because of lack of courage or motivation, I urge you to try it out for yourself, and thrill to the weekly weight increases that spell success for any weight lifter. Who knows, you just might learn to like it!
As mentioned earlier, Kevin sticks to basic exercises such as the squat. This photo show him doing reps with 400 pounds in his home gym.
Here's a brief outline of my training.
I've been training for 21 years, predominantly on High Intensity/Heavy Duty routines. My goal has always been to see how far my genetics will take me and seek out vast amount of resources to meet that end.
My present routine involves:
I do each movement for 2 sets of 5 reps, except deadlifts where I do one set. I stop 1 rep shy of failure and add an average of 2 lbs to each exercise except bb curls where I add only one pound. I can predict the reps I'll obtain based upon the small weight increment I add beforehand.
In the past two months I have added 15# to my squat and deadlift, 24# to my BB row, 15# to my incline press and bb press, and 8# to my bb curl. This has resulted in my weight remaining at 222#, but I added 1" on my chest, 1/4" on my legs and arms, while losing 1/4" off my waist!
* * * * * *
It’s important to note that literally carrying a set to the point where no further motion is possible using good form is only feasible on machines or free-weight exercises were the weight won’t come crashing down on you. How many people do you think continue to squat or bench press to the point where the bar actually stops in mid-rep? Not many, unless they have spotters, and even with spotters I would venture to say that most lifters stop when they know they can’t do another rep; they consider that training to failure, and rightly so. It pays to keep safety uppermost in mind, so you'll be able to continue training without injury.
To further explore the concept of coaxing rather than forcing gains, I refer you to my book Ripped 2, which relates my kicking-and-screaming conversion to this method of training. The coaxing approach is formalized and enhanced in a type of training called periodization, which generally calls for training in phases and cycles of increasing intensity and decreasing volume. With periodization, you push for a while, back off, and then push again, each time peaking a little higher than before. Many HIT advocates dislike and disparage periodization, but properly applied I believe it is far and away the best and most productive way to train. You’ll find periodized routines in Ripped 3, Lean for Life and Challenge Yourself.
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