Quality Has a Quantity All Its Own

Training to failure... is it really necessary?


Whether or not they realize it on a conscious level, the majority of people who lift weights for bodybuilding purposes regard fatigue as the primary goal of training. This has always struck me as odd and unproductive, yet all the current trends in modern exercise culture support my premise. In fact, two of the most popular exercise trends today, Tae Bo and Body Pump, are superb examples:

In Tae-Bo, the participant performs hundreds, if not thousands, of pseudo martial arts maneuvers to music within the course of a single class. After one year of regular Tae-Bo training, the quality of your martial arts skills will be somewhat less than a beginning martial arts student on his first day of class at the worst dojo in town, but the quantity of techniques you'll have performed will exceed what a 10th degree black belt has experienced over 25 years of training.

Nevertheless, most participants are happy with the program — after all, they leave the class thoroughly exhausted.

I also have warm and fuzzy feelings about Body Pump, which is essentially an aerobics class with miniaturized rubber barbells. The class participants perform endless "squats," "bench presses," and other conventional strength training exercises (even "clean & jerks"!), modified to fit the class structure involved, and the lack of proper equipment and proper instruction.

Body Pump is quintessentially high on quantity, low on quality. Like Tae-Bo, people love it because they leave the class sweaty and exhausted.

Here's a new concept: pain, discomfort, and fatigue should be the (sometimes) unavoidable side-effects of training, not the GOAL of training.

For example, if a bodybuilder's objective is to gain lean body mass, he or she may often experience fatigue and discomfort during the process of training. But success is judged by the ability to gain lean mass, NOT the ability to suffer the side-effects of training. If a trainee can gain 10 pounds of muscle a month without breaking a sweat or tearing a callous, I'd call that success. If they end up losing some sweat or experiencing some soreness along the way, I'd still call it a success.

However, most trainees are amazingly unaware and unconcerned about making progress — as long as they're suffering along the way. You never hear someone say "Today, I'm going to make a sincere attempt to exceed my best 3-rep performance on the front squat." But you always hear people saying "Yo — let's do sets of 100 on the squat till we puke!"

If you can relate to the latter reference, let me save you some time — open a 20-oz bottle of coke and mix in about 3 teaspoons of salt. Get a large bucket ready, and attempt to drink the entire bottle in one chug. This will give new meaning to the term "Body Pump."

Last week, I received an e-mail asking my opinion about how frequently I recommend training to failure, since a colleague of mine had apparently recommended once every three weeks. This question reflects the immense state of confusion that most people are laboring under.

Let me state this again: the goal is to make continual, gradual progress. Occasionally, along the way, you may reach failure as you push your limits to the maximum, but failure is NOT the goal! It's NOT something that you should put in your schedule, much like a lunch meeting!

Personal training is not immune to this phenomenon. Interestingly enough, people seem to revel in what a personal trainer will do TO you, not what they can do FOR you. A trainer who fails to make his clients sweat, or who fails to leave his clients in a partial state of paralysis after a workout will be a disappointment to his clients.

Often, workouts are designed for this sole purpose (to create a hih level of fatigue), rather than to elicit a training effect. I'm not sure if I blame trainers for this. After all, if you don't give the client what she wants, she'll find another trainer who will!

Where Does Our Obsession with Fatigue Come From?

Over several years of training, many athletes learn to form an association between effective training and the side-effects of that training. In other words, during the month of July, you trained hard and made a lot of progress. During that month, you were frequently sore, and your joints ached.

In August, you were on vacation, and didn't train at all. Accordingly, your skills and fitness levels declined. Before you know it, over years and years, you learn to develop an association.

That association is deceptive, however. Just because you're experiencing pain from your training doesn't mean your fitness levels are improving. And conversely, effective training doesn't always hurt.

I once worked with a college level football player who hired me to prepare him for the NFL combines. Of particular concern was an upper body strength test which involved bench pressing 225 pounds for as many repetitions as possible. Our goal was at least 25 reps, and my client could perform about 13 reps with that weight when he hired me.

(Incidentally this particular test is somewhat idiotic, since it tests strength endurance, rather than absolute or speed strength, which are the target motor qualities in football).

This particular athlete had a tremendous work-ethic. This is a great quality to have when you're an athlete, but it also leads one down the road of associating pain with success — often a big mistake. In any event, he was used to training in the weightroom for 5-6 days a week, for 2-3 hours at a time. This was aside from all his football training, sprinting, and so forth.

Knowing that strength endurance is based on absolute strength, the first part of the program I wrote for him focused on improving his single repetition maximum, or the most weight he could lift for one rep, but not two. This number was about 315 pounds when he hired me — 225 is about 71% of that number. I hypothesized that a weight he could lift 25 times would correspond to roughly 60% of his "1RM." So our goal was a 1RM of 365 pounds, which, multiplied by 0.60 gives us 225.

Improving absolute strength typically requires heavy resistances, but low repetitions and ample rests between sets. This type of training is difficult, but does not leave you feeling "trashed" like a typical bodybuilding-type workout (composed of high repetitions and minimal rests between sets).

I got a call from my client after he had been on the program for about 12 weeks. "How's training?" I asked him. "Well, I don't know" he replied. "I really don't even feel like I'm training I don't usually even break a sweat." I could tell he was enormously concerned. "How's your bench press performance?" I asked. "Oh, that's doing great!" he exclaimed. "I did a 355 two days ago!"

I then asked "Look, do you just want to be in pain all the time, or do you want your performances to improve?" In the silent moments that followed, I could almost hear him make a new association. He had in fact, improved his bench press from 315 to 355 in only 12 weeks. Upon reflection, it suddenly occurred to him that this was more improvement than he had made over the past 3 years combined — years where he was in almost constant pain and exhaustion from his herculean training schedule.

Now of course, don't lose sight of the point — I'm not suggesting that everyone in the reading audience automatically tone down their training I'm simply suggesting that we all do a bit of reflection in an effort to clarify our objectives.

The "All-Pain, No-Gain" Workout Program

Now, as I said earlier, I do realize that if I don't give you what you're looking for, you'll just go to someone else who will. The following is a lower body workout that will REALLY trash you. Trust me on this one.

Note: at the commencement of each workout, I recommend picking up the phone, putting the reciever off the hook, and dialing "9" and "1." In this way, should circumstances dictate, all you'll need to do is to dial the last "1" for immediate medical assistance.

(Lower Body — Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays)

A: Depth Jumps

10 sets of 10 reps. Rest: 15 seconds

Notes: Select a box that is 66% of your height. For example, an athlete who stands 6 feet tall should use a 4 foot tall box. Use bare feet and land onto concrete surface wearing a 50 pound weight vest. Upon impact, tense up as hard as possible, visualizing that you are trying to drive your feet through the concrete.

B: Downhill Running on Stairmaster "Gauntlet"

10 intervals of 3 minutes duration each. Rest: 30 seconds

Notes: This is the Stairmaster unit that reseambles an escalator. Most people use it improperly — here's the right way: face backwards and step down 3 steps at a time- you'll have to basically jump down from step to step, due to the distance between the 3 steps. Continue for 3 minutes or until your tibea shatters and punctures through the skin on your shins. Rest 30 seconds and repeat.

C: Super-Slow Stiff-Legged Deadlift (100's)

1 set of 100. Tempo: 30-0-30

Notes: That's right — 100 reps where each rep lasts 60 seconds. Look, if you want just "average" pain, follow some one else's program. If you want REAL pain, professional level pain, this will do the job. Stand on a bench and make sure to touch your shoelaces with your knuckles in the bottom position (rounding your low back will be necessary to accomplish this).

Cool-down: take a one hour Tae-Bo class immediately after your work sets. That's it. Don't waste precious time twitching around on the floor trying to stave off a coma — those muscles need lycopene, and they need it NOW!

Post-workout meal: 6 sliced tomatoes with hot fudge sauce. The lycopene ingestion must be immediate (the hot fudge delivery system will help to speed it to your muscle cells).

Feels just like Deca. Well, kind of.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook