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.

Thinking You’re Really Good At An Exercise Might Mean You Suck At That Exercise

For me it’s Clamshells. Every semi-literate and internet-accessing runner knows they need to clamshells and I hated clamshells. Not because they were hard but because they too fucking easy.

I would test myself – can I do a hundred, each side, unbroken? Yep. Then I’d do¬† three sets of a hundred.

Then I’d get bored and figure I graduated to the harder stuff. Single leg deadlifts, pistol squats, 30k long runs.

Now I’ve been to a physio with the aim of improving that running and he’s got me back struggling to do 2 sets of 8 clamshells. Why? Because my body was compensating and I didn’t know it.

I have a weak left glute and my hamstring takes over. Totally undetectable in normal life or in moderate running but training for an ultra marathon as I am is like UFC fighting – when you’re just highschool wrestling or doing kid’s karate or something you can have big holes in your fight game with no consequences but the UFC will expose every flaw you didn’t know you had and you better plug those leaks or you are going to get killed.

But, but, but… I’ve been doing all the exercises runners are supposed to do, I’m supposed to have plug those holes, I wasn’t negligent…

Nope, it just took someone outside of me, who really knew what they were looking for, to see how I was cheating the extremely simple exercises of the clamshell (and the bird dog) and now not only do I have to do them properly, I have to unlearn doing them wrongly.

Because if the body is getting the outcome it wants it does not care about long term sustainability. If you’re running then your body assumes you’re running away from a tiger and it gets you fucking running, if you eat a bazillion tons of sugar your body assumes this is the only food you’ve found and are going to find and it tries to store it all. Until it can’t do those things and that’s why North America is full of diabetics with fucked up hips.

As a metaphor: You’ve worked at a company where one or two people were doing 50% of their job, right? What happens? People around them end up doing 125 or 150 percent. And who gets burned out, maybe quits? Not the 50%ers. They’re just coasting, loving life. But who looks like the problem, who complains, who snaps at people? The actual backbone of the team.

You, as the executive of your body, don’t get feedback from the 50%er that’s chillin’, you hear from the overworked, bitchy, 125% bastard that’s trying, that wants to put in the work and can’t. And that’s why we end up playing wack-a-mole with illness and injuries.

Unless of course you find the, sometimes very quiet, upstream problem. And maybe it’s something you think you excel at…

From Couch To Spartan Sprint – Exercise 10.3

Thou Shall RUN.

Running is the most important part of Spartan and often the most neglected.

Lots people hate running just because they’re bad at it but you know what? You’re probably pretty bad at sex too and it’s not stoppin’ ya. Or at least stopping you from trying.


I’m writing this on the fourth day of Fall which means that winter is upon us in Canada, and I’m headed indoors to my beloved treadmill.

This wraps up another 2 week segment of Spartan Training Videos. I like to leave big gaps between the segments so I’m not putting an overwhelming amount of ideas out there. Like, if someone says here’s 10 suggestions 5 might stick, if someone says here’s 50 none will stick.

So if and when I get another handful of ideas I’ll do this again in a while. Til then, Stay Strong Spartan and Leave No Doubt.



From Couch To Spartan Sprint – Exercise 8.3

Thou Shall Pull…

All the other motions that aren’t up.

If I had any foresight when I started this serious I wouldn’t have ended up with 10 things. I did everything excitedly off-the-top-of-my-head and then just had to live with it, like everything I do.

Pull ups and Pulling All The Other Directions are not that different, but in Spartan they will serve different purposes, like the difference between monkey bars and sled drags.

Plus it’s a good opportunity to move explosively and train the fast twitch muscle fibers.


From Couch To Spartan Sprint – Exercise 6.3

Thou Shall Grip.

And rather than just train the strongest part of your grip to be stronger, train the weaker parts of your grip SO THERE ARE NO WEAKER PARTS!!


Also, seriously, people have an unaware habit of hooking things in their fingers and letting gravity do the work – that’s poor grip strength and leads to forearm problems down the road.

Make sure to grip things by rolling them deep into your palm. Then play around with which fingers you can lift and for how long.

From Couch To Spartan Sprint – Exercise 3.3

Thou Shall Squat.

But I’m out of ideas for the squat right now so Thou Shall Swing The Kettlebell.


It’s also a matter of having a cool idea to share and then deciding where it sort of fits in. I learned these side stepping KB swings in Exercise Theory and it fit in with this idea I’ve been having of designing a work out for a too-light kettlebell.

With a dumbell movement you can always add more reps when you’ve gotten stronger and it feels light. With KB swings though, once it feels light you’re not actually deriving any benefits. So I was thinking about what a person could do now that they’ve outgrown their first one, when this move came up in class.

If you want to make a too-easy movement challenging again then adding instability is the easiest way. As a beginner the search for stability is your primary goal, always find the strongest safest way to move. As an intermediate though you can play with that.

It’s like any skill or discipline – first they tell you what you never, never, never do and a few years down the road they quietly tell you when to do it.

From Couch To Spartan Sprint – Exercise 10.2

Running time again.


Any – literally any – interval is a good interval.

What matters is rest. You can do same rest, half rest, or double rest. You probably want to start with double rest so, obviously, whatever your interval was you rest for twice that long.

And the shorter the interval the harder you want to run. Like, if you’re doing 2 minutes it’ll be a 7 out of 10 on the effort scale, if it’s 30 seconds – go 10 out of 10.

You should be running twice a week at this point. One longer, slower run and one interval session.

It’s important to remember that running (and getting wet I guess) is the one thing you can’t avoid at Spartan. Anything else you can fail and do burpees but it’s not like you’re going to walk the whole course. It would take forever. And I’d fucking disown you.

So it’s the tenth commandment of Spartan training – thou shall run.

From Couch To Spartan Sprint – Exercise 8.2


It’s on the pull up bar but it’s a rope climb work out.

Really just get hanging with bent elbows and practice raising your legs. Knees to Elbows and eventually just for a Spartan Bonus, Toes to Ceiling.

Because the core work is the neglected piece of the rope climb masterpiece. You can get on a rope with bent elbows and lock your feet in but if after that you still try and climb with your hands you’re still gonna have a bad time.

After you grab the rope you bring your knees to your chest, lock the feet, and stand up. You push down on the rope with your feet and shimmy up your hands up. Once you’re fully stood up you release the feet, bring knees to chest and lock them in again and repeat.

In a good rope climb your hands are doing as little work as possible because no matter what they will be the most taxed.