Is Failure Good?

Should you train to failure during your workouts? Some people will tell you the answer is never. Others will say it’s the only way to get the most from your sessions.

First, let’s define failure in this context. There’s absolute failure where you literally cannot lift the weight off you. There’s a good chance you may have experienced this in your training. It’s not particularly pleasant, and it’s a good way to get injured.

There’s also technical failure. This is when you can no longer complete repetitions with proper form. To keep the weight moving you have to use a little body English. It’s not as dangerous as going to absolute failure but it’s still inviting injury.

So why do it? Pushing yourself this way lets you know your limits.

I don’t think it’s a good approach for a few reasons. Obviously, there’s the risk of being stuck under the weight. If you’re going to go to failure, make sure to take the precautions of having a spotter or set up the rack so you won’t be crushed. A quick YouTube search will provide plenty examples of what people getting folded by weights looks like.

Another reason is you want to train the right muscles. If you’re doing bench press and you have to contort and wriggle to get the bar up, that means your chest and triceps aren’t able to push the load and other muscles are pitching in to save your ego.

A subtler point is to keep in mind what is the point of training.

Are you there to see just how many repetitions you can do today, or are you there to improve your strength over time? Hopefully it’s the latter. If so, your goal isn’t about just one workout. You can push yourself hard without going to failure.

A big part of training is gaining experience. Part of gaining experience is learning your limits. It takes time to  figure out what’s too little and what’s too much. It’s true in many things, not just fitness. For those of you who drink alcohol, remember how you learned how much is too much?

When you were first learning to drive it probably took a while to figure out just how far to turn the steering wheel to get the car moving in the desired direction. You turn too far, now you have to spin it back the other way. (You don’t have to turn it as aggressively and dramatically as they do in the movies.)

Training to failure is part of the learning process. Early on in your training you do it because you don’t know any better. It’s okay as long as you take the lesson and apply it. You don’t have to crush yourself in order to stimulate your muscles to grow stronger.

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Happy Memorial Day!

Hopefully you have today off and are enjoying the holiday. It’s the unofficial start of the summer which means lots of opportunities for barbecue, burgers, and drinks.

You can enjoy being social without undoing your gains, if you use a little strategy.

First, plan ahead. You can “save” your calories for the party by limiting your intake beforehand. Getting your protein in early will help you feel more satiated. Reduce your carbs and fats intake beforehand.

Second, be mindful. You can enjoy some of your favorite foods at the party but there’s no rule saying you have to stuff yourself to the gills. There’s no need to track every calorie (unless you want to), but don’t just fill your plate, shovel the food your mouth, and repeat. Take some time to enjoy the food.

Third, you can have a drink. If you choose to drink alcohol, remember you don’t have to drink all of it. Be careful of calorie-loaded mixers like soda which can easily add hundreds of empty calories to your intake.

Fourth, have fun!  Depriving yourself of fun times and good people for the sake of fitness doesn’t make any sense. Unless it’s your job to be top-tier fit, there’s definitely room for an occasional indulgence. So enjoy it with zero guilt, and return to your regularly scheduled training and nutrition programming tomorrow!

Fitness Q&A

 

 Instead of the posts I usually do, this one’s going to be a little different. I’m going to answer a few questions I’ve been getting from clients and friends. Here goes!

What’s the best way to get lean for summer?

 If you’re looking to drop a few pounds for summer you’re going to have to eat a bit less. I know “a bit” is a little vague. In order to lose weight you must consume fewer calories than you burn.  Try to reduce your calories by 10-20%. It doesn’t seem like a lot, and that’s intentional. Cutting your food intake by 40% or more may get you some fast weight loss initially but there are serious drawbacks. You’re going to be miserable if you drastically drop your intake suddenly. After the initial weight loss, your progress will slow. You keep cutting your calories by 40% and soon you’ll be at or below the minimum your body requires just to function.

  A more modest deficit of 10-20% gets the scale moving in the right direction without making you miserable and leaves you some room to gradually increase the deficit if and when it becomes necessary.

  You can track your calories if you want. I’d recommend that for most people. But you don’t have to. It takes some discipline to stick with it, but consistency is imperative to achieve your desired results.

  In order to get really beach ready, include 2-3 strength training sessions per week. They don’t have to be excessive. Strength training cues your body to hold onto muscle despite your reduced food intake.

What’s your daily diet like and how does it affect your training?

 I must confess, I’m not a foodie. I like food but not the way a lot of you do. I know I’m missing out on all the joy that delicious food brings. I like to have a few go-to meals and basically eat them most of the time.

 I eat chicken or beef pretty much every day. I include plenty of vegetables daily as well, usually carrots, spinach, or broccoli. I don’t need a ton of variety but when I do get sick of having one thing, I’ll switch things up. I spend a couple hours on Sundays preparing most of my meals for the upcoming week. It’s more convenient for me than cooking daily.

 I don’t eat before I work out. You might feel your workouts suffer if you don’t have something before you train. That’s cool. As long as your total daily food supports your training, it’s not all that important when you eat.

  My diet is very consistent but it’s not perfect. You don’t have to eat totally clean in order to be healthy and make progress in the gym. I include room for things like burgers, whiskey, and ice cream on occasion. My goal isn’t to be single-digit body fat, super shredded. I can enjoy stuff like that in moderation without it affecting my training.

What’s a good pre-workout meal? What’s a good post-workout meal?

  If you’re going to eat before you hit the gym, that’s cool. Simple carbs like a piece of fruit can give you a little energy boost without making you feel sluggish. A heavier meal will take longer to digest. You don’t want your body focused on digestion when it’s time to workout.

  After a workout, you can refuel with some protein and carbs. Maybe you’ve heard about an “anabolic window” post-workout? Basically the idea is that your body is primed to use nutrients for muscle repair and growth right after a workout. There is some truth to it, but it’s largely overstated. The most important thing is that you hit your protein and calories targets by the end of the day.

Does it really matter how long you rest between sets?

 The short answer is yes. If you don’t rest long enough, your ability to do subsequent sets will be less. But you don’t want to rest so long that you cool down, either. Most of the time 1-2 minutes between sets is enough to recover. But if your workout is more strength-based, meaning you’re doing reps in the 1-5 range, you might need a little longer to recover, 3-5 minutes.

 If you feel recovered after 3 minutes, there’s no reason to take 5 minutes. Go ahead and hit that next set. If you’re new to training this may seem like eternity, but as the amount you’re lifting increases those few minutes will start to feel like seconds.

Thanks for the questions, keep ‘em coming!

No Motivation?

The truth is I don’t feel like training. I love working out. But the past few weeks my motivation has sucked.

I’ve skipped a couple workouts. In the grand scheme it’s no big deal, but it’s not something I normally do. Which isn’t to say I’m anywhere close to perfect. Workout adherence is a strength. I’m much worse at dietary adherence.

Anyway the point here isn’t to whine or make excuses.

Understand that your motivation is not going to be high all the time. Build good habits that drive you towards your goals and you can rely on them when motivation is on vacation.

You may be able to figure out a reason why. Perhaps you’ve been training at a high intensity or volume for a long time without easing off. It could be due to a change in diet or increased stress. A lack of sleep can also negatively impact your motivation.

It’s important to have a plan for when this happens. A few days or a couple weeks with low motivation isn’t a reason for concern. When it extends beyond that, you probably need to change things up.

Taking a week off from training is often enough to reset your mind and body. That’s not a call to spend the entire time on your couch. You can still be active, playing sports or going for walks.

Another thing to do is switch up your training. Been focusing on primarily strength for a few months? Try emphasizing hypertrophy. Change your sets, reps, and rest times. Been thinking about trying a totally new workout? Martial arts? Dance? Go for it.

Trying something new engages your mind and body in a new way. Learning new skills and training your body in unfamiliar ways are only going to make you better in the long run.

If your motivational malaise extends into your life outside the gym, that may be a bigger concern. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to reach out and talk to close family or friends (you’re not burdening them!), or even a professional. It’s not a sign of weakness or deficiency.

Where Are You Now?

The single most important piece of information you can have in relation to your goals is understanding where you are now.

Maybe you know where you want to go. Your destination can be literal or metaphorical, but for now let’s treat it as literal. You want to go to Los Angeles. As valuable as it is to know where you want to go, you have to know where you are right now. The directions to L.A. are very different if you’re in New York than if you’re in Miami.

It works similarly when it comes to fitness. You probably have an idea what your fitness goals are. Take an honest evaluation of where you are right now. It’s not the most comfortable thing but it’s necessary.

It’s not about blame or shame here. Returning to the travel metaphor, you’re lost right now and you’re only trying to orient yourself so you know which way to head. There’s no value in beating yourself up about how you got lost or how long you’ve been lost. That’s just wasting time and making you feel bad.

Once you know both where you are and where you want to go, the only thing left to do is figure out a path and start moving.

No matter what fitness goal you’re after, there’s a really high chance someone has accomplished it. In fact, many people have done it. That’s good. First off, if they could do it, so can you. Second, the path is already made, so you don’t have to wander around in the dark.

Ask. Research. Google. Do a little digging to learn what paths they took.

This part shouldn’t take you too long (hint: if they’re in great shape, they probably ate and trained consistently). Many people get stuck here because there’s just so much information out there.

Search a handful and you’ll see they have certain things in common. Trust your BS detector. If something promises instant results or bare minimum effort, that’s not the one. Put another way, there are no shortcuts.

You don’t have to know the exact path before you start moving. If you can lay it out, that’s great. But whether you’re in South Beach or Manhattan, to get to L.A. you’re going to have start moving west.

So get going.

A general direction is enough to start. So start.

As you go, you can adjust your route as needed.

A few last things to truly beat this metaphor into the dirt:

  • Obey the speed limit. Trying to get there as fast as possible is dangerous.
  • Avoid unnecessary detours. Sometimes you’ll have to adjust your route to get there. That’s okay. But getting distracted and deviating too much from the plan will get you lost again.
  • If you get lost, that’s not the end of the world. Now you know, just figure out where you are.
  • Enjoy the ride. Appreciate the journey as you go.

How Often Should You Train?

Training 3-4 days a week is most likely the best way for you to achieve your fitness goals.

Seems like everyone’s talking about being on their “everyday grind” but is that the most effective way to get fit?

Your training frequency (or how many times per week you work out) is just one variable on your path to progress. But it can have a big impact.

Generally speaking, training more often is better. As with most things, there comes a tipping point. More sessions means more opportunities to stimulate the muscle. Lifting relatively heavy lets your muscles know, “hey we may be asked to move heavy weights so we’d better get stronger.”

We don’t actually get stronger from that. It’s the recovery phase, in which the muscles utilize nutrients from food to repair and build. So the stimulus and the recovery are equally important to your progress. You could make the case that recovery is more important as it takes much longer to happen. You can do an hour-long workout at still be recovering 48 hours later.

When you’re a beginner more frequent training is beneficial for a few reasons. You’re becoming accustomed to the exercises, so the more you do them the better they become ingrained movement patterns. Plus, you build the habit of actually going to the gym. We know habits are hard to build and even harder to break.

If one person practiced playing the piano an hour a day and another practiced 3.5 hours twice a week, who do you think would improve faster? It’s similar with training. Learning to squat with a barbell on your back is a skill. Doing it more frequently when you’re starting out will help you learn it better. Seems like a good time to say here that it’s much better to learn the right way to do early on, than it is to relearn once you’ve adopted poor movement patterns.

Beginners generally aren’t using a lot of weight in a more objective sense. Doing sets of higher repetitions (e.g. 8-12 per set) helps you internalize the movement and stimulate muscle and strength gains without approaching your 1 rep maximum weight.

I would say wait a long time before testing your 1-rep max but most people don’t listen. I’m included in that group. Testing isn’t training. It doesn’t really make you stronger. Training is training. That makes you stronger, so spend most of your gym time doing that. Besides, when you’re a beginner, your 1 RM isn’t likely to be all that impressive anyway.

A beginner can make great strides doing a full-body workout 3 days per week. A full-body workout will include a compound exercises that work the legs, the upper body push muscles, and the upper body pull muscles. Taking a day off between sessions will allow your body adequate time to recover.

You really could do this for the first several months of your training life.

At some point your training needs will change. This is where you can get creative with your programming. Over time, you’ll need higher weights to stimulate the muscles to keep getting stronger. This greater stimulus also means you’ll need increased recovery time.

It’s now a great time to switch to a split workout. A popular and effective split is to do upper body exercises in one session and lower body exercises in another. One example week looks like: Monday – upper body, Tuesday – lower body, Wednesday – off, Thursday – upper body, Friday – lower body, Saturday and Sunday – both off. There’s nothing magical about those particular days, you fit the days to your schedule. If you’d rather workout Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, that’s cool.

This has you training four days a week in a way that allows you to work hard yet with enough time for recovery. Your Monday and Thursday sessions can be identical or you can slightly alter them. It’s tough to do deadlifts and squats in the same workout, so perhaps it makes sense for you to do one on Monday and the other on Thursday. You can do the same thing with upper body lifts.

If you still prefer training 3 days a week, you can keep that model with only a slight change. One way I like to structure this is an A, B model, where one represents your upper body training and the other is your lower body training.

One week it’ll be Monday – A, Wednesday – B, Friday – A. The following week you reverse it, Monday – B, Wednesday – A, and Friday – B. Alternating the weeks like this will keep you getting stronger and perhaps stave off feeling bored.

The pertinent question is how do you know when it’s time to change? There’s no one size fits all response. When your progress really starts to stall, that’s a good indicator. I don’t mean you hit a plateau for a week or two. Sometimes that just happens. When you first start you can increase the weights sometimes literally each workout. Your rate of improvement is fastest at the beginning and tapers as you get stronger.

One popular workout schedule out there is the “Bro Split”, where you have a designated day for each major body part. The theory is you beat the hell out focus on 1 or 2 body parts per workout. It often looks something like: Monday – chest, Tuesday – back, Wednesday – legs, Thursday – shoulders and calves, Friday – biceps and triceps.

The upside is you can really work on developing body parts you feel are lagging. One of the downsides is you’re only hitting each muscle group once a week. This works for some people but I don’t think it’s optimal for most people. If you’re planning on being on stage, then making sure your calves are as peaked as possible may make sense.

If your training is about you getting stronger overall, and feeling better and healthier for life in general, I don’t think doing a bro split is going to get you the best results. I mention it because it’s an option, and ultimately, you choose your own path.

Most of us just want to be a little healthier, look a little better, and move through life a little easier. There’s no question a three-day routine can help you accomplish that, provided you put in the effort and give it some time.

Level Up Your Fitness

 If you’re not into video games it might be hard to even understand their appeal. If you are, you may not have thought past “they’re just fun.”

 This isn’t about liking or disliking video games. We can take something valuable from how they’re structured.

 When you begin a video game (think of just about anyone you can think of), it usually follows a similar path. Orientation, exploration, mission, acquisition, and reward.

 First you’re immersed into that world and there’s an orientation. You learn how to move and what the buttons do.

 Next you find out your objective, maybe it’s slay the dragon, save the world, or win the championship. Of course, you don’t just go straight to the dragon’s lair. You start with smaller missions. This is exploration.

 This is, you may be thinking, when game really starts. You set out on your mission, a short-term goal that advances the story. You begin skill acquisition. How to run the plays in a sports game. How to defeat the low-level bad guys and loot them for their weapons, money, or xp.

 You improve pretty quickly and what happens? Your avatar levels up and becomes stronger and more capable. This is the reward part of the cycle.

 Then the loop essentially resets but everything is a little more difficult. The missions are more complex, the bad guys are harder to defeat, you get more skilled, and the rewards are bigger.

The cycle holds you engaged by keeping you right at the edge of your ability. A game that’s too easy won’t hold your interest. If the learning curve is too steep, the frustration is too high and the game isn’t fun.

 The key is to find that middle ground where you’re challenged. You feel perpetually pretty good. You know how to play but you need your full concentration in order to keep advancing. You may “die” some but it doesn’t feel hopeless.

 The same basic model is true when it comes to fitness. You start out in a strange new space called the gym. Your mission is to get stronger.

 The so-called “light” weights feel heavy as you orient yourself and get used to all the movements.

 There’s no clear-cut bad guys (well, I sincerely hope not) so you progress first by just surviving the early sessions. Each time you workout you’re a little bit stronger. Just like a good, challenging video game, you won’t just sail through. You don’t “die” like your on-screen counterpart, but you will have obstacles and sticking points. And you overcome them the same way, by persevering and learning.

 Adding weights to the bar is the easy corollary to leveling up. The reward is a more capable body and an improved appearance. And the cycle continues as the heavier weights and harder workouts are a greater challenge than before.

 While sitting in your chair playing video games won’t get you in better shape, hopefully now going to the gym can feel more like you’re heroically saving the planet from destruction.