This is a revision of an article from 2012.
You see the imagery everywhere. People laying on the floor completely annihilated, covered in a pool of sweaty chalk ready to piss excellence and hit post on some #Insta fitspiration how, “The only bad workout is one you didn’t do”…Bro.
Hell, the image of pain sells. No one’s joined a gym after seeing someone perform a nice crisp jumping jack. People want to associate themselves with the very best, those who push to the brink, run fast, lift heavy,
take their shirts off during the warm up and perform superhuman feats.
A lot of folks feel that if they’re not plastered to the mat after a workout then they failed. I will never knock someone for maximally exerting themselves, but is that continued display of exertion really excellence? Do you really become stronger, fitter, more athletic, etc. this way day in and day out? While you may acutely survive it, are you really improving by unleashing complete hell on your body five times per week to the point where you must immediately assume a horizontal position after you workouts?
The answer is most likely ‘no’, and often times stalling and even reversal of gains can be occurring right under your nose without your noticing it.
Routinely pushing yourself is one thing. Committing seppeku on yourself during every workout is another.
We are all guilty of it to some degree in the fitness industry, and if you’re crime is working too hard then, my friend, there are certainly worse problems to have.
But, does effort correlate to quality?
And is it sustainable long term?
At Performance360, we try our best to slow down rather than speed up. To focus on range of motion over speed, intraset recovery, taking a minute to breath if it means reps six, seven and eight will be quality. Resisting the urge to go from A to B to C as fast as humanly possible. Focusing on your own clean reps and not the speed of they guy or gal next to you.
But boy, it’s hard.
It’s all based upon the ultimate question.
Does training to frequent failure improve or retract from your results?
The Science of Failure
In the training world, my eyes were first opened to the concept of efficiency over long duration in 2001 by our then new college Strength & Conditioning coach Jim Roney, who as a competitive power lifter could squat 650# and deadlift 585# from a 165 pound body (google him). To date, the best coach on any level or any sport I’ve ever had.
He brought a power lifting background to baseball-specific movements, shortened the workouts from 60 to 30 minutes, trained what was needed and allowed no wasted movements. It was based around a single heavy movement of the day like a squat with complimentary work such as box jumps or GHDs.
This seemed incredibly strange at the time. 30 minutes?!
I mean, this crazy asshole was so range of motion obsessed he had a device we strapped around our knee that beeped when we broke parallel on squats. If it didn’t beep, no rep.
The first year he was our S&C coach we went on to set the school record of 53 wins, won an NCAA Regional, achieved a top ten national ranking, had multiple All-Americans, a Golden Spikes finalist and made it further than any Richmond team in school history.
The previous year we barely broke .500 with almost the exact same players.
Now, here’s the amazing part.
The frequency of our strength training? Two times per week.
The programming worked. More importantly, the increased efficiency and reduction in training hours worked. We weren’t training to be good at training, it had purpose.
Muscle failure = training to the point where a muscle can no longer contract concentrically
Simply put, he avoided constant muscle failure and applied the Minimum Effective Dose to our training, as defined by “the smallest dose to produce a desired outcome”. This idea was popularized in Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Body based on the idea of as little as needed, not as much as possible. It’s a concept used by top strength track & field coaches around the world and more popularly brought from theory to practice by the mad Russian Pavel Tsatsouline who never takes his athletes to failure. And his athletes are bad mother fuckers.
Too much stress does not equal too many results.
Coach Roney prescribed exactly what was needed to make us substantially stronger and more explosive, while not overdosing into what would restrict us on the field.
Only years later did I realize what an unbelievable coach he was and the reason he remains the biggest influence over our programming ten years later.
When you constantly take your body to failure the following occurs on an acute level.
- You tax your Central Nervous System. When your motherboard is fried from constant heavy lifting or failure-based training, you simply cannot function optimally.
- You’ve torn down muscle tissue. It takes muscles more than a day to recover from hypertrophy tear down. When you up and train the same muscles on a previously failed body you’re going to get sub-maximal output.
- You’ve decreased power. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the first point of the CNS, but constant hammering of the body will acutely and chronically reduce your maximal muscle contraction, or “burst” for athletes.
- You build up lactic acid faster than you can flush it out. You end up callin’ dinosaurs in the bushes, a process that is completely unnecessary for any training, but especially for everyday people.
Over time repetition of those acute side effects can cause chronic damage in the following areas.
- Continuous taxing of joints and ligaments.
- Promotion of fat storage. Training to failure repeatedly can ultimately throw your testosterone:cortisol hormonal balance out of whack, decrease insulin sensitivity and tell your body to continue to store the fat around your belly rather than burn it as fuel (2). If you find yourself unable to burn fat despite healthy diet and exercise, you may just be so pumped full of cortisol your body is refusing to let fat stores go.
- Permanent decrease in strength and athleticism. Training on a weaker version of your body every day will eventually achieve a self fulfilling prophecy.
So What is that Minimum Effective Dose (MED)?
Full disclosure, I am not a MED guy. Do I think competitive athletes need MED to have them at peak performance on the field? Yes. But training for me is just as much hobby and release as it is results based, so I will always overdo it. I just will. I’ve accepted it.
I don’t have a damn clue the exact amount that most people should do for ideal results as we’re all different, but it definitely does not entail thrashing yourself more often than not.
Beginners can likely continue to trend upward at a frequency of five days a week for six months before seeing any of these side effects, sometimes up to a year. Those more advanced folks who have more time under their belt should be more goal-specific and focus on those workouts for goal.
You do not train at the same day and frequency at all stages of your development.
As your results move up the curve, your frequency should move down the curve.
You have to find what’s right for you and typically it’s going to live somewhere around three to four days per week, give or take.
I recommend the following.
- Stick to 70% output – On average, this is a good range in which to train.
- Avoid heavy lifting three days in a row. Heavy squats on Monday and heavy hang cleans on Tuesday will leave you pretty cooked on Wednesday, so probably don’t try and hit a PR then. Better yet, get a light circuit in or take the day off.
- Short & sweet. Don’t stretch out your workouts for the sake of it.
- Infrequent maxes. Make them strategic, not out of bravado.
- Periodization. Have a plan and schedule of progressive reps for your goals. Fluctuate reps and load.
- Recover properly. Stretching, massage, yoga, etc. And get eight hours of sleep. It’s one of the most important things you can do to stay fresh in the gym.
- Stop fucking jogging in place. This mentality of my heart needs to feel like it’s on cocaine at all phases of my workout needs to be scrapped. If you’re planking or jogging in place between your heavy sets, you’re making a hot mess of your workout.
The goal is to challenge but not completely fry the circuit. You know the feeling.
There are certainly some athletes who see results with daily high intensity, but for the majority of us, “If you ain’t first, you’re last” mentality is counterproductive.
You WILL NOT go backwards by trimming non goal-oriented days off your routine.
Typically speaking I think the breakdown should be as follows.
- Months 1 – 6 = 4 days per week as you build up a proper base level of fitness.
- Months 6 – 18 = cycle goals that last anywhere from one to three months and focus on those workouts. If it’s strength, attend all strength classes with a complimentary light weight circuit class here and there.
- 2 Years – Three days a week will do just fine.
If you don’t care about specific goals and just want to be a jack of all trades, good on ya’. I’m actually a big time proponent of that. This article is not meant to scare you into overtraining hypochondria (most people don’t overtrain), just to raise awareness.
I’m not saying don’t work hard, just to pump the breaks a bit and dial it back if you’re an all or nothing kind of guy or gal.
Just like Jameson, Drake and drivers who make slow right hand turns, we all have different tolerances to different things, so listen to your body and pay attention to the curve of your results.
If your current program or routine is working for you then by all means don’t overhaul it. If you are fatigued or stalled, cut it back a day, downshift a gear and leave your C4 at home.
Apply your energy in the focused areas you want to improve, work hard but keep it sane, get plenty of sleep, eat diverse healthy foods and you’ll be setting yourself up for true long-term fitness.
Dave Thomas is owner of Performance360 in San Diego, CA. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it.