Train Like A Hero: Exercise Principles for Sustainable, Progressive Results
Key Exercise Principles:
Leave 2 Reps in The Tank: Stop an exercise 2 reps before failure to reserve energy and prevent injury.
Train for Success: Every time you fail on a set or collapse, you are reinforcing what it feels like to quit.
Leave the Gym Feeling Better Than When You Entered: Exercise should be invigorating and energizing. Stop your workouts before you reach the exhaustion phase, and tailor your exercises towards what makes your body feel better, not tired.
Only Count Reps That Are Controlled and Show Optimal ROM: Hold yourself to a strict standard of technique that includes controlled movement and consistent, optimal range of motion. This will prevent injury and ensure true progress.
Reserve High Intensity Sessions for Every 4th Workout, or Once Every 1-2 Weeks. Employ them during hypertrophy periods or for occasional assessments. Otherwise, most training should be within your means.
It goes without saying that one of the most satisfying fight-scenes of all time occurs in the 1982 film, Conan The Barbarian. Conan, driven by rage and a lifetime of disciplined training, ambushes a cannibalistic orgy to exact sweet revenge upon the cultists that murdered his family. It’s a timeless scene reminiscent of Odysseus’ blood-soaked homecoming to Ithaca. Go ahead, take a look.
Now, what you don’t see in this scene is Conan hissing, “Spot! I need a spot!” as he crumples under the cauldron of human-stew. He uses perfect form, and doesn’t throw up or collapse in a pool of sweat once the fight is over. Why? Because the hero always wins! Rarely do we enjoy watching the hero falter, fail, and collapse under the pressure of their task. I don’t remember Batman ever taking a day off due to DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). So, why do we do this to ourselves when it comes to fitness?
One of the guiding principles of Adventure Athlete is to Train Like You Are The Hero. Put simply, train for success, not failure. With today’s masochistic desire for high intensity workouts, crossfit, and Navy Seal inspired training, many of us are running our bodies into the ground. While it seems like a bigger pool of sweat equals better gains, let’s look at the reality.
When we train to failure, we are taking our bodies beyond the threshold needed for physiological adaptation and adding unnecessary stress to our system. Research has shown resistance training to failure increases the stress hormone cortisol while down-regulating IGF-1, a muscle growth stimulating hormone. This promotes inflammation, diminishing performance, and the breakdown of tissue, all while suppressing gains. Used sparsely, training to fatigue can be a technique that “shocks the system” and stimulates muscle adaptation. However, if you train this way over and over, you are keeping your body in a stressed out, deteriorated state. This leads to excess muscle soreness and reduced progress.
Neurologically, training to failure also requires a greater amount of central nervous system involvement. Just like muscle, your nervous system can become fatigued from too intense or too frequent use. Central nervous system fatigue can manifest as reduced strength, low energy, poor cognition, poor sleep, low motivation, joint aches, and more! If this sounds like you, you may be training beyond your means.
Rather than going to failure, I often suggest the idea of “leaving two reps in the tank.” For example, if you can complete 8 reps on an Overhead Press with 100 lbs, only perform 6 reps. If you are working at a 5RM, only perform 3 reps. This will still ensure you are putting in enough work to adapt, but reigns in any unnecessary fatigue. This will also reduce muscle soreness, allow for quicker recovery, and translate to more quality training sessions.
Next, by training to failure, we are conditioning the body to embrace failure. Physiology aside, we should consider the psychological effect of pushing our bodies past the point of adaptation. While failure masquerades as training toughness or pushing our body to greater limits, we are really teaching the body what it feels like to quit. Which athlete is going to feel more confident on game day: Athlete A, who performed 50 reps and never missed a rep or failed, or Athlete B, who performed 100 reps, but failed on half of them? This boils down to good, old-fashioned positive reinforcement. When you train until failure, you are reinforcing what it feels like to tap out.
If every workout is a tooth-gnashing fight to the finish, you’re more likely to skip the workout on a bad or low-energy day. Focus on training within your means, and each session may seem less daunting. Make it a goal to leave the gym feeling better than when you arrived. Most sessions should reinforce your confidence, add to your energy levels, revitalize your muscles and joints, and motivate you to be more active. If your exercise gives you more energy for sports, games, or social activities, then you are training well.
Finally, training to failure increases our chances of injury. As the nervous system and muscles start to fatigue, form and technique go out the window. The body does whatever it can to continue the reps, and smaller, less-equipped muscles jump in to assist. These smaller muscles, mainly joint stabilizers, quickly fatigue and leave the joints unprotected. This is why most injuries tend to occur around the shoulder, low back, and knee.
More than any other marker, I consider exercise technique as the main indicator of when to stop an exercise. Because form is directly tied to safety, familiarize yourself with the correct exercise technique and stop the exercise when form declines. Whether you have a spotter, take a video of your set, or identify a standard range of motion (such as squatting to a 16” box, or bringing your chest within 1’’ of the bar on a pull up), only count the reps that are done under control and within optimal range of motion. I say optimal here, because forcing an ass to grass squat can be just as dangerous as repping out hundreds of quarter squats. Find the range of motion that allows you to complete the rep with proper joint alignment, tension, and control, and hold yourself accountable!
Now, all this is not to say that all-out, fatiguing workouts have no place in fitness. Rather, they should be used occasionally and strategically. Because fatigue-inducing sessions do increase lactate build-up in the muscle (which can stimulate growth) and serve as a mental challenge, I reserve these sessions for use during hypertrophy periods, or for gauging overall performance. For example, every 4th training day, or even once every 1-2 weeks, push the limits a bit by challenging your body with a tough, fatiguing workout. This does not mean completely forsaking the above guidelines, and always make sure the following training session is equally as restorative and low-impact. Give your body time to recover.
By following these principles, you can train more frequently, progress further over time, possess greater energy and confidence, and experience less injuries. Remember, the hero always succeeds!