Train to success, not failure
Picture training and you often get a Rocky Balboa style montage in your head, going 100 miles an hour, running till you drop, never say die untill you make it to the top of those stairs. But is this actually how you should train to get results?
‘Train hard and smart, and you’ll see the results come over time’.
This is something I’ve repeated a lot on this blog, and it seems like the age-old wisdom of ‘work hard and you will get what you deserve’.
However someone recently asked me: in the context of training, what is ‘hard’? Should I be utterly exhausted after a set? Should I put a bin next to the squat rack in case I throw up?
It got me thinking, because I realised that simple phrase can be interpreted in different ways depending on what your perception of ‘hard’ is.
Some people seem to have a more natural capacity to work for a long time and hold their concentration, while some others are better at being more intense over a short period, while still others need certain cues or motivations to draw the sweat out of themselves.
Training hard is entirely subjective
For me, hard training is completely subjective to the person. Only you really know how difficult something is for you, or how much effort you are really giving something.
The reason is that whatever task you are performing is only as difficult as you experience it; the same task to someone else more suited for it or used to doing more will not be classified as ‘hard’ in the same way.
What’s more is that even your perception of the same task can change hour to hour, depending on your mood, your focus and other things going on around you.
We all have those days where motivation is high and things that were a drag yesterday seem almost enjoyable today, and vice versa.
The power of the mind
I’m not about to go off on some psuedo-psychology here but to me this demonstrates how much of a slave the body is to the mind.
It is really why positive people generally get positive results, and why negativity can lead you on a downward spiral to depression; you might do the same thing everyday but the way you perceive it makes the difference as to whether you’re going up or down.
The beauty of lifting weights or training to reach a goal is that you get a tangible and measurable result from applying your mind. You basically get a physical manifestation of your minds visualisation; some bodybuilders quote this feeling as the reason they love their sport, as they feel like they can actually create their visions and mould their body like a sculptor, just by harnessing the desire of their mind.
What is important therefore, when training, is to foster the correct mindset; this is what is going to carry you through to your goals and this is what is going to hinder you from getting there.
It’s not being too busy, not being too tired or not having the right equipment. It’s not having the right mentality.
So back to the question: what do I mean by training ‘hard’?
Knowing how to train hard is something that comes with experience, and broadly I would equate it with knowing how hard to push to get close to, but not reach, failure (when you attempt another repetition and you can’t complete it).
I’m not saying you should never fail a lift.
If you did that you’d never really know what your maximum was as it is extremely important to attempt challenges that are difficult to the point where you could fail, a point which applies well to life in general.
You don’t know what you are capable of unless you have failed.
However I don’t subscribe to the mentality of ‘busting a gut’ each and every time you workout.
It is a popular ‘badge of honour’ amongst serious weight trainers to have been physically sick after a leg workout, such is the effort expended, and there are still trainers who claim that you ‘should be nervous’ before working out, or that every set should be done to failure.
In the context of forging a resilient mindset it seems to make sense to push yourself 100% everytime you train. Your definition of hard should evolve and become ‘harder’ over time, and it will as you get stronger and better through practice.
However in reality training to failure all the time is not a great way to make progress
Smart is as important as hard to forge the right mentality
If you train to failure all the time, max out every session and generally fail a lot of reps you are effectively reinforcing the feeling of failure. It is a negative feeling and a negative action.
Everytime it happens you feel defeated, no matter how impressive the lift would have been.
Worse, ‘grinding’ out reps is a great way to fry your central nervous system (CNS) and can cause an injury if you get into a bad position through straining (like rounding your lower back on a deadlift or squat).
This will set you back for the next session or even longer in the case of an injury, as it will take more time for your body to recover. You will also now associate that weight with failure.
My example: creating a mental block through failure
Deadlifts have always been a good lift for me and using the all-out training to failure method (i.e. I didn’t know what I was doing) I quite rapidly built up to 200-210 kgs (rapid, as in a couple of years after starting them).
But at a certain point, this method stopped working. I kept failing at the same weight, trying it every deadlift session, just believing if I applied enough intensity it would come up.
For me this was at 220 kgs (5 x 20 kg plates each side); it got to the point where just the visual cue of those five plates was enough to make me start doubting myself even before I started the lift, because I had failed it so many times.
I could put 218.5 kgs on there and it would come up almost every time without too much problem, but as soon as that fifth plate was added I could feel the negative thoughts building in my head.
I had basically built up a failure mindset; I knew the feeling of that weight not coming past my knees so many times I had a mental block.
If I could pull 218.5 kgs without too much problem, 220 shouldn’t have been too hard; the strength was there. But the mental clarity was not.
As a result my deadlift number was stuck there for a good 2 years, each failed attempt just adding to the inertia.
Finally I saw the light and started to train smart; I backed off, researched some programs to build up to a maximum once every 12 weeks and managed to eventually overcome it.
I basically stopped training a failure mindset; the only time I was in danger of missing a lift was when I tested my max after the training block.
Looking back on it, and how I applied the same all-out mindset to all my lifting I was pretty lucky not to have injured myself. But I thought that giving it everything every time made sense to progress; you have to force your body past its limits to make it adapt, right?
In fact I made much better progress by only going all out very occasionally.
The rest of the time I learned how to push close, but never up to the limit. I always trained with intensity but if I thought I was going to fail the next rep, I stopped.
In this way I benefitted by both being fresher for each session and also by not conditioning my mind to fail. I got stronger very incrementally, in small steps.
So by the time I was ready to test my max I was fresh and positive. And these days, most of the time I test a max (very rarely), it goes up.
Mentality is the key
As I said, knowing how to train hard is a personal and individual task that is learned through experience. Mind-muscle connection, focus and coordination take time to achieve. Undoubtedly you need to go to failure sometimes to find out where the boundary really is for you.
What is important is to try and minimise the number of reps and sets you fail, so as to not develop a negative pattern or thought process.
If you are a beginner, maxing out and testing your limits should not be on your agenda at all. Your focus is on learning the movement patterns and building a solid base, not going below 7-8 reps on any set.
As you get more experienced and progress starts to slow, you should start thinking about training in cycles of 12-16 weeks, where you build up in intensity to break through plateaus and hit new maximums.
I’ll be posting up more templates and examples of such cycles in the near future.
The aim should be that you feel confident before each attempt, because you are used to completing every rep you had planned.
Indeed as you start working up to really good numbers a positive mindset is a must; half the battle is won through visualising and having confidence in completing the rep even before you touch the bar.
So don’t train to failure all the time. Find out what your limit is and then practice getting close to it without touching it most of the time.
Build confidence into your mind and when it comes to retesting that limit you’ll already be completing it in your head.
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