Beginners & Training To Failure

I shifted my mindset on something recently and I’m going to try and talk it out:

I love training to failure, pretty sure all fitness people love training to failure. And it makes sense because the brain releases a lot of endorphins when you train to failure – it thinks you just survived some massive fight-or-flight situation and wants to switch into recovery mode to deal with the fatigue and muscle damage you just accumulated.

But of course we don’t know that’s what we’re feeling even if we know that’s what we’re feeling. That neurological state merely exists and we put narrative words to it – we move from merely feeling good to feeling good about ourselves. We feel hardcore, we feel strong, we feel primal, we feel like real lifters.

This is the root of the problem with training to failure. It can feel like the only thing that makes a work out legit. Training smarter not harder can feel like not training at all. When you empty the tank you really know you did something – even if what you did is technically worse for the outcome you’re after.

Because, yes, the current state of play in exercise science is that training to failure builds up a tremendous amount of fatigue and injury risk for very little increase in muscle mass. You’re better off over the long haul doing sets to near failure so you can get in more sets of effective reps. Because after a set to failure you’re in the land of diminishing returns. But if you can stay out of the land of diminishing returns, just stay on the doorstep, you can get another set of effective volume in.

But this is supposed to be about beginners so lets get back on track. For beginners there’s no need to be training to failure at all because you’re going to get great stimuli off any exercise sheerly because it’s novel. Plus safety concerns and yada yada yada. The reason that everyone recommends beginners do a little bit of failure training is to know what failure really feels like. To know how much space there actually is between when a weight gets tough to move and when it doesn’t move. Because that golden zone of effectiveness is when you can get two more reps but you know you can’t get three.

I was recently thinking about another reason noobs should TTF and it’s, duh, the same reason that we all do it – it feels great. I was taking someone through some beginner work recently and it was light weights and safety focused and designed to work on the downsides of their desk job and – it really made working out feel like just another chore.

As an analogy – it’s like when you go to learn guitar and they insist on teaching you jingle bells, just 5 notes on two strings at too-slow a pace. And they insist this is beginner stuff and learning this is fundamental to all the cool stuff you’ll get to do later and then you quit guitar lessons. The best way to teach people is to teach them what they want to learn and then work backwards into the fundamentals. Let them have fun just because you should let them have fun but also because that’s what keeps them coming back and doing the work and building the habit.

If I could do it again, which I can, I’d say basically listen we’re gonna do all the smart, correct stuff a little bit later and I’ll explain why it’s smart and correct and why you need to be doing it but first let’s just take a day and bro out doing bench press and deadlifts. Lots of rest between sets, lots of form correction, but ultimately just work up to doing a set to failure.

And, this could be good for some clients, changing what failure means to them. Because it’s so different for us, we happy few who have been fitnessing years. A beginner might feel like I’m here to lift weights and here’s this weight I can’t lift, this reflects on me, I am a failure. Whereas for us it’s such a joyful thing, the way it reflects on our character to be failing a lift is that it makes us stronger, it’s shows our grit, it shows courage and control. It’s so great to get into that failing state and think this is the part that matters and then fight to stay there as long as possible.

As I’m writing this, and drinking coffee, I’m getting amped up. I could go do some failure sets right now. Just get on the bench and push weight up until you get that first sticky one (because, for anyone who hasn’t done it, the middle of an exercise is the toughest part. So you start the rep, go through molasses, then finish strong and lower under control) and you know the next one is going to be it. You get into that sticky spot and it’s just nope. Like god came and put their hands on the weights and they are not rising. Then you just stay there. And you’re pushing with everything you have just to make them stay still and you gotta even fight your own mind that’s giving you little bursts of fear as your body digs into adrenal reserves just so you can keep fighting this impossible battle. Against god.

Then another couple breaths and you lower them onto your chest and sit up. And you do a big exhale, you smile, you tell god good game, good game. You feel like you really did something and now it’s okay to rest.

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