Why Is Strength Training Obsessed With Failure?

Posted on 03 Mar 2015 19:53

There is an entire series of posts, here at the GUS Blog, that are centered on failure. However, they are not about failing, but about how failure seems to be built in to so many methods and theories of strength training. The strength training culture often seems to place more emphasis on failure than success. You may wonder why I would go to the trouble of placing primary focus on it myself, to the extent of writing a bunch of articles around it. Well, you are going to fail, but failing should not be built into your training! Success should be built into it.

We fail to make a lift. We fail to progress. We fail to have a “good” workout. We fail to stick to our plan. We even fail to get our reps or sets.

All so different. So why would I combine them? I combine them because together they inform our “experience” of training.

Our experience of training is just as important as what actually happens in training. In fact I could argue that it is more important. Because our experience of training often has nothing to do with what actually happens! We can’t really rely on what we perceive as “how our training went” because we are not objective observers and our memories and experience often don’t match.

Considering that we can have a very good workout and still feel bad about it, perhaps you can see why I would react so strongly against training systems that have failure built into them.

80% Nutrition and 20% Training?

Have you ever heard that progress is 80 percent nutrition and 20 percent training? Such hare-brained quantitative notions are the height of nonsense as training is a multifaceted and interrelated process that can’t be sliced up like a pizza. But that is not the real problem with such statements. The real problem is that a big part of progress is mental. I talked about slicing up training aspects and how psychology is overlooked here.

The good strength trainer works out the technical parts pretty quickly. The psychological parts are where the real work begins. A great part of the psychological aspect of our training and everything that goes into it is not what we actually do, but how we experience what we do. Can we go to a movie and both have different opinions of the movie? Can it be as if we watched completely different movies? Yes. You've experienced this. Well, strength training can be the same, and especially so since so many people just follow instructions and zone out as if they are a spectator instead of the central figure.

Good Workouts Gone Bad

Let’s say I assign seven near maximal singles to a trainee. The trainee goes into the workout thinking he can hit 350 for his max that day which would be a personal record. He fails at 350 but re-groups and manages to hit 345 which is also a personal record.

The fact is that going for a personal record and failing then coming back and achieving a lower personal record is a great achievement. It’s still a record. And if the required number of singles were performed at percentages of greater than 90% of that then we would have a great day in the gym.

But the typical trainee would call this a bad day. The personal record of 345 and the seven successful singles and such high percentages, all after a fail that can take so much out of you, should be a great experience. But it is “ruined” by the trainees failing at 350.

You see that what actually happened, a record lift, and how the trainee experienced and perceived it did not really match up very well. Objective, it was a good lift but objectivity in training is a hard-won skill. More than just his memory of the workout was the problem of the trainee judging his workout based on expectation rather than really experiencing it. Even when we have a great personalized plan for progress which is built on successive success we have trouble being positive if we base our training on expectations rather than experience and results.

How can we hope to progress when our entire routine is just “getting it done” until we run up against a wall? This kind of program causes a trainee to simply passively go through the motions rather than experiencing the training and learning from it. Yet, too many strength training programs treat you like you are a crash test dummy. Smash it! Hit the wall. Hit it again! And again. This may work in intense circuit routines are cardio exercise where the success of the workout is measured by how exhausted you are, but in maximum strength training we have very definite and quantifiable goals. We don't want to hit a wall in our training. We want to hit bigger and bigger weights.

Becoming Receptive to Learning

Many people tell you that the more programs you do the more you learn. You learn what “works” for you and what doesn’t. This is not always the case because in order to learn we have to set up an environment that makes us psychologically receptive to learning. Mundane and repetitive training dulls our perceptions and reactions and as a result we do not actually “learn” anything that informs our future training. Instead we memorize tasks and then move on to the next task.

Think of an assembly line where each worker is responsible for assembling a separate part of a machine. The worker does not know how to build the machine or how it works. Nor does he need to. In fact he doesn’t even have to know what the end product is supposed to be. He only needs to know how to perform rote tasks related to assembling his part.

Such factory work makes for very unhappy and unproductive workers! So much so that now most factory workers are trained in all aspects of the production process from beginning to end and are cycled through each station routinely so that they are a part of the entire process and feel invested in the end product. The end result is that production and quality goes up and so do the profits.

Training Investment

You have to become invested in your training. Not just go through the motions.

You may have noticed that Yoga is many times more popular than strength training. Although it has been watered down and commercialized there is a central factor in its popularity that has little to do with the results of the actual practice of Yoga. That is Yoga is an “experiential” practice. You cannot practice Yoga and feel disassociated from it. The very idea of it is that it is a centering and meditative process. This experience itself is a large part of what attracts people to it. It may not be what sparked their interest but it is what keeps them interested.

Most strength trainees, on the other hand, are entirely disassociated from their training. Sure, we see trainees paying lip service to the “almighty Iron” but if you pay attention you see that they have very little understanding of why they do what they do in their training.

Like the factory worker assembling one part so are the blind men and the elephant. Each person has a different idea based on his or her experience of one tiny part.

To avoid this learn to always start with the general before proceeding to the specific. If you focus in on the details you cannot experience the whole. And you MUST learn to experience the whole before you can benefit from minute focus.

Too many trainees say things like “I’ve figured out what supplement to take and how much protein to eat. Now I just need a training routine.”

They haven’t “figured out” anything! You don’t figure out your training any more than you figure out your life. It is an integrative process. You are not a sky-diver until you jump out of a plane. Now I've exhausted my quota of philosophical tidbits, but hopefully you get the gist.

This page created 03 Mar 2015 19:53
Last updated 14 Apr 2016 21:25

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