Everything You Need To Know About Failure

Everything You Need To Know About Failure

Fitness doesn’t shy away from divisiveness and controversy. 

If there is even 0.01% chance that a certain stance could prove to be incorrect, you can bet that there is a disproportional army of contrarians taking the other side.

This space is dominated by tribalism and us-against-them mentalities. And what better way to form this bond of solidarity than to dig your collective feet in, label everyone who doesn’t agree with your group as the “enemy”, and argue in perpetuity? 

Now, I love to argue as much as the next guy. And I think I’m right more often than my intellect probably warrants. But I also like to believe that my opinions are put forth in good faith—using a combination of evidence from research, anecdote, and pragmatism that allows for a stable, yet evolving, ideology. 

The same can’t be said for everyone who throws their argument in this ring…

Some are purely bad actors; instigating controversy for the sake of being a troll. Many have no desire to find the truth and will defend their incorrect stances until the very end. And most just don’t want to admit that they could be wrong—it’s hard to put ego aside when every disagreement is given a public platform these days. 

And the failure debate has attracted all sorts of nefarious characters because of the extremism inherent to the topic. 

On one side, you have the Cult of Intensity

Here, everything should be done maximally or not at all. This line of thinking bleeds from training into philosophies on nutrition, PEDs, and general social conduct. Recklessness is a badge of honor. The future is sacrificed for the present. Nuance and context are shunned in favor of blood and guts. The Cult of Intensity places their faith in physical manifestations rather than intellectual conceptualizations. 

And then on the other side, you have the PubMed Collective

Here, nothing gets done without the backing of meta-analyses. Data is the Holy Word. Prayers are said to Saints Schoenfeld, Isreatel, and Helms. Conservatism is too risky for this group. They’re allergic to the unknown, and the antithesis of ‘move fast and break things”. The PubMed Collective would rather be scientifically validated while spinning their wheels, than risk being wrong while making progress. 

These groups have a polarity that tends to draw the moderates towards one side or the other—It’s hard to be gray in a black-and-white world. 

But someone has to bring some sense to this argument. And that’s what I hope to do here. 


Types of Failure


Before we go any further, we first should define what failure actually is. I like to break it down into 3 stages: 1) technical failure, 2) concentric failure, and 3) eccentric failure. 

Technical failure is the first to present itself and is when form breaks down to the extent that safety and/or intent become compromised. This type of failure point will be most important when performing heavy, compound exercises like squats and deadlifts due to structural (and technical) limitations that commonly present before muscular failure. Picture the knee valgus during squats or the back rounding during deads—at this point, the set cannot be continued with integrity but additional reps can be completed. 

Next comes concentric failure, or the point in which the target muscle(s) can no longer shorten against the external load. This is what we inherently think of when we hear “failure”. Images of bench presses stuck halfway up immediately come to mind. 

Last, but certainly not least, is eccentric failure. Whereas concentric failure is the inability in the muscle fibers to shorten, eccentric failure is the inability to resist lengthening under load. This is possible because of a cool feature of our microscopic sarcomeres: more tension can be controlled through lengthening versus volitionally acted upon through shortening. Eccentric failure is rarely a target in normal training, but it’s important to qualify this late stage of muscular failure to complete the picture. 

Between technical and concentric failure, I tend to refer almost exclusively to the former when discussing this topic. And the rest of this article will imply technical failure unless otherwise specified. 


Physiological Impact of Training to Failure


So now we have a solid foundation for what we mean when we speak of failure (an inability to continue the set with technical integrity)...But what are the implications of training like this? What actually happens when a set is taken to failure? 

The purpose of resistance training is to elicit specific physiological effects that amount to positive adaptations. And to achieve these effects, a threshold of intensity (I.e. proximity to failure) must be achieved. Typically, the hypertrophic cascades of intra and extracellular signaling begin around 5 reps shy of failure, and increase in magnitude with every rep that closes the gap. This is the crux of the Cult of Intensity’s theory—If proximity to muscular failure equals increased positive adaptations then ipso facto that should also mean that training should always be aligned with this conclusion for best results. 

But what is often left out (whether this is intentional or not isn’t for me to opine here) is the cost that comes with this way of training. 

While every rep closer to failure will promote a greater stimulus, it will also create corresponding increases in fatigue. If this was a 1:1 relationship, we might be able to turn a blind eye; just sleep a bit more, throw in an epsom salt bath or two, and weather the storm while soaking up all those gains. But my suspicion is that this isn’t the case. It seems much more likely, in fact, that the rep-to-rep hypertrophic potential from approaching failure sees diminishing returns while the accumulation of fatigue is linear if not exponential. This creates a perpetual trade-off—a delicate dance between training hard enough to promote muscle growth while not popping the cork of runaway fatigue. 

So despite what some would wish to speak into existence, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. 

For the sake of completeness, I want to take a quick technical dive into the low-level physiological and psychological underpinnings that lie at the foundation of the effects of failure training. Feel free to skip this section if you’d prefer to stay high level…


Let us first zoom in on the individual muscle cell:

The sarcomere is the basic unit of life-in-motion. It is a microscopic, tug-of-war machine that powers every muscle contraction, from the blink of an eye to the beat of a heart. But this biological machine is made out of fragile protein structures rather than fortified steel; and they are not indestructible. When we purposefully challenge our muscles with resistance training, we expose them to forces that are literally tearing them apart. The ability of our sarcomeres to cope with this damage is what will inevitably lead to growth and adaptation—or atrophy and degradation. 

What dictates this ability is a remarkable process that involves stretching, tearing, inflammation and repair. When we perform repeated eccentric contractions and train close to failure, we stretch segments of our muscle fibers beyond their optimal length for producing force. This causes some regions of the sarcomere to bear more tension than others, resulting in micro-tears in the filaments that slide past each other during contraction. These micro-tears trigger an inflammatory response that brings additional blood, swelling and nutrients to the affected area. But they also activate dormant satellite cells, which can fuse with damaged muscle fibers and add new sarcomeres in parallel through the expenditure of ATP (in the form of excess energy/calories) and amino acids (in the form of excess protein). This increases the thickness and density of muscle fibers, which makes them more resistant to future stretching and reduces the risk of injury.

This process of hormesis is one of nature's ingenious inventions for protecting and propagating the genome—that big and pretty muscles happen to be a particular side effect in mammals is more of a bug than a feature. In an act of biological alchemy, our muscles can turn damage into growth by harnessing the power of their own intrinsic repair mechanisms. 

Yet, this seemingly magical process betrays the fine-line of fragility under which our humanity sits atop. We’re dependent on the reliability of our immune response, the availability of the building-blocks of recovery, and the capability of multiple, complex systems to sync perfectly in an environment of relentless dynamism. 

The margins between hypertrophy and atrophy are razor thin even in times of surplus. Putting a thumb on the scale through a net caloric deficit, poor sleep, suppressed hormones, and/or overtraining can quickly shift the balance from a state of building, repair, and growth to that of regression, depletion, and withering. 


Anatomically, it’s pretty easy to follow along with the sarcomere and conceptualize why more isn’t always better when it comes to training and the intensity in which you train at. But to grasp the full picture, we need to follow a similar path through the brain:

Neurons are the living circuitry of the brain and the literal sparks of life. Their electrical impulses get blasted throughout our central and peripheral nervous systems, coordinating thoughts in our brain, movement in our muscles, and feelings in our viscera. The neuron is the instantiator and orchestrator of our being—yet they are more than just passive conduits of action potentials. These are dynamic and adaptable cells that can change their shape, function, and connections in response to experience.

Jumping back to anatomy for a second—a neuron has three main parts: a cell body, an axon and dendrites. The cell body contains the nucleus and other organelles that maintain the cell’s metabolism and gene expression. The axon is a long and thin projection that carries signals away from the cell body to other neurons or target tissues. The dendrites are shorter and branched projections that receive signals from other neurons or sensory input.

The communication between neurons occurs at specialized junctions called synapses. A synapse consists of a presynaptic terminal (the outgoing end of an axon), a postsynaptic terminal (the incoming end of a dendrite or cell body) and a synaptic cleft (the gap between them). When an electrical impulse reaches the presynaptic terminal, it triggers the release of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft. These neurotransmitters bind to receptors on the postsynaptic terminal, causing changes in its membrane potential and influencing its activity.

The brain contains approximately 86 billion neurons. Any given neuron can have up to about 10,000 connections with its neighbors. In case you don’t want to do the math, that is a lot of synaptic potential…And these massive networks enable the brain to process gigabytes of raw information in parallel, integrate and compress the inputs, and create an accurate multi-sensory projection of the outside world. At the heart of this ability to internalize the external is the plasticity of each individual neuron. By consistently modifying their synaptic strength and connectivity in response to learning, memory and/or injury, they allow for adaptation to ever-changing environments and demands.

But what happens if we begin to push this system beyond its optimal environment? How do neurons (and our nervous system as a whole) react and adapt to compounding physical stressors? 

To make the case clear, let’s use Overtraining Syndrome as our extreme example. Grossly oversimplified, OTS is a condition that affects athletes who train above their recovery capabilities for too long. We can easily intuit the physical repercussions because they are the same manifestations as acute under-recovery: soreness, fatigue, and decreased performance. But the shift from acute to chronic comes with novel problems. The negative feedback loops retreat inward. The outward, mostly-physical morph into the invisible and mostly-imperceptible. At the extreme ends of overtraining and under-recovery, our brain function is actually suppressed. 

The most glaring evidence of this lies in the neurotransmitters that modulate brain activity. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine pull the strings of our motivation, arousal, attention and reward processes. In OTS, the systems that control the release, motility, reception, and reuptake can become imbalanced due to overstimulation or depletion. The havoc that can be levied when neurotransmitters are out-of-wack is as self-explanatory as it is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s important to understand what all this means at a high-level—that neurotransmitters are how our neurons (and nerves) propagate action potentials, and dysfunction in this context literally means that our nervous systems will not work as intended. For our purposes in this article, the resultant central fatigue—a decline in voluntary motor output due to changes in brain function rather than peripheral factors—can have disastrous effects on performance and, by proxy, hypertrophy. 

But it’s not just neurotransmitters that we have to worry about when playing chicken with our nervous system…We also have particularly delicate hormones that react to stress and regulate the subsequent response. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a network of glands that secrete cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones that help us manage the challenges of daily life. With normal levels of physical exertion, the HPA axis naturally releases pulses of cortisol and adrenaline as a way to control for the acute bodily stressors and liberate stored energy to repair any damage incurred. However in OTS, the axis becomes overworked and thus less responsive to increasing levels of exercise stimuli, resulting in lower levels of circulating hormones. This pendulum effect may indicate that the body has reached a chronic state of exhaustion and is therefore unable to adapt to environmental stressors. Additionally, we have other players in this glandular hodgepodge that can be negatively affected by our pushing too hard for too long: the HPG axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal) and the HPT axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid) see a net suppression of the sex hormones and thyroid hormones, respectively. All in all, this is very bad if we’re at all concerned with being a functional human being, much less on who is big and strong.    

Alright, that’s enough of that…Let’s zoom back out and take another look at what these quirks of anatomy and physiology actually mean for training to failure as we care about it…


The Case FOR Failure Training


In some fitness circles, I’m known as the “anti-failure” guy (which is a gross mis-categorization but we will go with it for now). So I think it’s prudent that I start this section by making the case FOR failure training as well as (or better) than even the staunchest of proponents. And luckily, it’s not a very challenging case to make—that Cult of Intensity might not be so bad after all: 

As was alluded to above, it’s no big secret that the reason failure is sought after is due to the increased stimulus that comes with it. There is a concept in exercise physiology called “effective reps” that refers to those within a sufficient intensity range that actually create meaningful adaptations. The theory goes that we tend to do a lot of volume that isn’t actually stimulating yet is creating fatigue and tiring us out. Just imagine a set of 20 reps—the first 10 will be insignificantly easy, the next 5 will be somewhat tiring but not close to muscular failure, and then the last 5 will be the point where the target muscles actually hit their limit. Experientially, reps begin to be “effective” around the ~5RIR mark. In other words, consistently training below this threshold pretty much guarantees that you’re not going to be making any significant progress. But we can actually take it further—If reps begin to exert their stimulating effects with 5 in reserve, wouldn’t it make sense to collect the full dose of effective reps during every set by going to failure? 

And here is the crux of the argument in favor of training to failure…If increasing the volume of effective reps corresponds to an increase in the magnitude of hypertrophic potential, then it would follow that taking each set to failure would maximize that potential. It’s not a huge leap of faith to make the claim that failure training creates a greater stimulus. And if there is a hill to metaphorically die on, this one is BY FAR the easiest position to defend. 

As an added benefit of the increased stimulus provided by training to failure, there is also a lower volume requirement that comes as a cherry on top. No matter how much you love the gym, being able to get the same (or more) gains while doing less is an attractive proposition. Anyone who has been following me for a while knows that I’ve written extensively in the past about how different training variables relate to one another; and the majority of this work has been highlighting the relationship between volume and intensity due to their almost perfect inverse correlation. That is to saywhen one goes up, the other must come down by a proportionally equal amount. This might seem like a relatively innocuous add-on, but for certain individuals (very strong and/or advanced trainees) and in specific circumstances (compromised recovery), the reduced volume requirements can be even more impactful than the increase in hypertrophy. So as we analyze the merits of taking our sets to failure, it’s impossible to overlook how convenient it is to not have to do nearly as much work or spend as much time in the gym. 

Continuing along our pursuit of truth and justice for failure advocates, we must also make note of the increase in objectivity provided by having a tangible end point to each set (i.e. technical failure). As much as I will argue vehemently that everyone needs to have a clear grasp on their intraset training intensity, I also am acutely aware that it can be really damn hard to estimate how close you are to failure in the moment. It takes years to refine this skill and expecting it to be intuitive is a bit of a stretch even for me. But when training to failure, there is very little guesswork that needs to be applied. Did you fail?—Yes or no? If yes, the set is over. If no, keep going. And that simplicity is attractive when there are already so many other things that have to be considered during a heavy and hard set! Removing that subjectivity takes the human error out of the equation (which is almost universally a good thing). 

We can actually apply this same line of reasoning a bit further as we thing about how progress is tracked over the long-term. If we misjudge a single set within a single session, it’s really no big deal. We’re probably in the ballpark in terms of accuracy anyway. But extrapolate that subtle error out further…and further…and further. All of a sudden, being off on your intensity estimation by even a little bit begins to create the really large problem of chronically under/over shooting your mark. And that begins to call into question the validity of your progress over months or even years! Nobody wants that, which is why it’s often much easier to log training when it’s taken to failure. It’s already hard enough to compare and keep track of one, three, five, eight, ten, and twenty rep maxes. Compound that issue with trying to coordinate the soup of variables like tempo and ROM and exercise sequence while tabulating the efficacy of single set versus volume PRs—and it’s enough to make your head spin even without trying to worry about how close any given set was to failure. 

The argument is pretty straightforward here—Just go to failure and don’t worry so much.


The Case AGAINST Failure Training


But is it really that simple? Does going to failure actually reduce the things that need to be worried about? Or is it all just smoke-and-mirrors? 

Let’s now turn to my friends over at the PubMed Collective to let their side of the story breathe a little: 

We’ve established that training to failure has some pretty undeniable benefits if our goals revolve in any way around being the biggest and strongest we can be. But we need to put these benefits in perspective and weigh the downsides as well. 

Without a doubt, the argument against failure with the most validity is that it carries a poor risk-versus-reward. In other words, taking sets to failure will most definitely create a larger stimulus (as we’ve established in the previous section) but it will also increase the chance of injury. There are going to be multiple underlying reasons why this occurs, from the muscular to the neural to the random, but it’s unarguable that more bad shit tends to happen with proximity to failure. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be an effect that scales along with effective reps. The instance of injury seems to act more exponentially once technical failure has been achieved rather than scaling logarithmically. Basically, shit gets dangerous when you get close to failure. And sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. 

This risk is present with every exercise, from Barbell Squats to Biceps Curls. But there are clearly certain movements that have an outsized associated risk when taken to failure. To demonstrate this point, I like to use Barbell Goodmornings as an example. Would you feel comfortable taking a GM to failure? What about spotting your training partner as they do? What about prescribing it to an in-person client? What about a remote client? You can see how this chain of risk gets more fragile the further extended it gets. Personally, I wouldn’t even be confident taking a set of GMs to failure myself much less recommending that a client do so. There are just too many things that can go wrong even for the technically-proficient athlete. And once we establish a variation like the Barbell Goodmorning on one side of this risk continuum, it’s not hard to start placing other movements along it as well. Would we say that a Barbell RDL is a good candidate for failure? What about Bench Press? Pull-Ups? Leg Curls? You get the point…Not every movement even meets the pre-requisites to be considered to be taken to failure—Which immediatel;y calls into question blanket recommendations and context-less statements like “Every set should be taken to failure”.  

Though not as acutely destructive or detrimental as suffering an injury, the silent effects associated with unchecked fatigue accumulation can be just as damaging over the long term. And consistently training to failure is an easy way to compound a ton of central and peripheral fatigue rapidly! When properly managed, this actually tends to not be too much of a problem. Eating sufficient calories, getting restful sleep, and balancing the increased intensity against related training variables (i.e. volume) allows for some leeway with a failure-centric approach. But if there is anything I’ve learned about gym rats, it’s that they’re really bad at eating enough food, getting enough sleep, and balancing their training. So expecting anything in the way of moderation or oversight or pragmatism is probably going to be expecting too much. And for these reasons, it’s often better to plan accordingly for fatigue mismanagement. Allowing unrestrained (or worse, unsupervised) failure training is like holding a beach ball underwater—you can’t keep it submerged and under control forever. 

As a point for failure, I mentioned that the objective end-point is much easier to hit compared to the floating target that comes with trying to adhere to a specific sub-max intensity. But that wasn’t exactly the whole story…Failure can only be objective for those who know what to look and feel for. And the reality is that MANY trainees have no clue what failure actually is. If you don’t believe me, just tell someone to go to failure on Leg Press with a load that would be about their 20 rep max. You’ll quickly see how distorted most peoples’ views of their own training intensity are. I’ve even had new clients send me videos of their “failure” sets that wouldn’t even qualify for a working set by any reasonable measure! The target of failure isn’t enough for most without any prior reference. It’s not enough to program “AMRAP” and expect it to actually be carried out as intended. For some, this is a fixable problem once real failure is experienced. For others, they will never be able to consistently push themselves that hard. And rather than expecting people to develop innate masochistic personality traits overnight, sometimes it’s easier and more effective to modify the program around the individual instead of vice versa. 

While the above points certainly weaken the FOR case, it is the intrinsically unsustainable nature of failure that ultimately provides the final stamp of disapproval on the argument. We can all agree that sporadically training like a lunatic can be beneficial (even if accidentally), but there is a reason why the motivation to push that hard tends to ebb and flow: our bodies aren’t designed to be redlined for long durations of time. Evolutionarily, we’re optimized for bursts of high-intensity effort and output followed by periods of recovery and rest. As overplayed as the analogy is, it’s useful to think about the parallels between our ancestors hunting big game followed by their enjoying the spoils of a successful conquest—kind of like a sprint. Or conversely, we’re also pretty good at doing a LOT of low-to-moderate intensity work as long as it stays below a specific threshold. For this, we can imagine those same ancestors tracking a herd of potential food across the Serengeti for multiple days—this is more akin to a marathon. However, what we’re not very good at is maintaining a sprint for any significant amount of time. High intensity demands a correspondingly high amount of recovery in humans (at least, until we evolve into our meta-human, machine-augmented form). 

Wrapping back around to how these biological and physiological restrictions impact our ability to get really jacked, consider that taking every set to failure poses the exact same unrealistic and impossible expectations on our bodies as sustaining an all-out sprint across the grasslands after a very determined-to-live wildebeest. We can max our systems out for a short burst then rest, or we can maintain a moderate effort for longer durations. But we can’t do both—it’s literally science. And attempting to outsmart science doesn’t seem very smart to me. 


Methods of Regulating Intensity and Proximity to Failure 


But all hope for training hard isn’t lost. Just because our systems have built-in restrictor plates that put a soft ceiling on our physical abilities doesn’t mean that we have to accept those limitations at face value. In fact, we don’t have to outsmart biology in order to train harder for longer—all that’s needed is a bit of critical thinking and strategy…

And the simplest place to strategize from is one which places controls on intensity to allow titrations up or down in accordance with recovery and other extrinsic circumstances. 

There are two primary methods for modulating intensity: RIR and RPE. 

Reps In Reserve (RIR) is meant to be an objective measure of how close you are to failure. In other words, how many reps away from failure you are at any given moment should be able to be assigned a value. And that value would be the RIR. Therefore, taking a set to 0RIR would be the same as taking a set to failure. Almost all worthwhile training will live between 0-4 reps in reserve, with anything less intense being insufficiently stimulating and anything more being beyond the realms of sustainability (even the most ardent members of the Cult of Intensity would agree with this). 

I’ve alluded to this concept of RIR in previous sections (such as when talking about effective reps), but those allusions did not give necessary dues to just how impactful this concept can be. The ability to intuitively understand how close you are to failure at all times is potentially the greatest skill a trainee can acquire. But as I’ve also alluded to in previous sections (when discussing the merits of failure training), integrating RIR into your programming as a guide can be stressful, confusing, and even counterproductive for those that cannot accurate judge their intensity. The objectivity of RIR is both a blessing and a curse—as being able to manage fatigue accurately in terms of proximity to failure is undoubtedly a powerful tool, but that tool loses its effectiveness rapidly when accuracy and precision are diminished. 

In conjunction with RIR, we also have Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) which is a subjective estimation of intensity and effort. Note the intentional use of terms here: objective versus subjective. The implication is that RPE isn’t meant to be perfectly accurate or even reasonably gauge your proximity to failure. Rather, it’s just a measure of how hard you feel like you’re working. That’s it. And that simplicity is a feature that clearly draws the line in the sand between the utility of RPE compared to that of RIR. 

In other words, when you want accuracy, use RIR. And when you want to defer to real-time biofeedback, use RPE. 

I’m going to attempt to shy away from injecting my opinion on which I prefer…But I will say that, anecdotally, RIR seems to be more useful when goals are more closely aligned towards hypertrophy, and RPE seems to be similarly useful for strength and power training. Personally, I use both religiously in the programming that I write as I find each to be invaluable tools independently. 

The best advice I can give to a beginner or intermediate trainee who is trying to establish good habitual practices is to pay attention to what you’re feeling as you approach failure points. Listen to the feedback your body is giving you. Track your training and accumulate quantitative and qualitative data over time. Learn how to use RIR and RPE in your training—trust me when I say that this is invaluable. 

As we used RIR as a launchpad into RPE, it’s prudent to use RPE to push us forward into the final (common) way in which intensity and fatigue are managed: auto-regulation. 

At the risk of sounding condescending, auto-regulation is literally the process of self regulating as you go. In some ways, it’s the culmination of mastering RIR and RPE in which both tools are used loosely to inform how training should go, but ultimately, planning and structure can be scrapped and an audible called based on biofeedback in the moment. Relying on auto-regulation as a foundational progression model is strictly for advanced trainees, and even then, very few individuals will actually be able to get away with “going by feel”. The reason for this should be obvious to anyone who has made it this far: our bodies don’t want to be pushed outside of their comfort zone and being homeostasis. Why a method like training to failure all the time can actually work so well in practice makes sense when overlaid on top of this backdrop. And auto-regulation assumes that the trainee can consistently and intelligently override their body’s natural emergency brakes to continue to push it to do the things it really doesn’t want to do. 

While I think this methodology has merit and can potentially even be the best way for certain (advanced) athletes to train, I don’t trust human nature enough to expand my programming ideology to include vast reliance on auto-regulation. In specific circumstances and at certain times, I’m comfortable leaning into the benefits while controlling for the inescapable drawbacks. But in my humble opinion, the bulk of any good program should be rooted in the principles espoused by RIR and RPE.


Methods of Mitigating Impacts of Failure


The chronic impact of high intensity training is unavoidable even when every possible control is implemented. And when I refer to high intensity, I’m not talking exclusively about failure training—anything that would be considered sufficiently stimulating (I.e. effective reps) is intense enough to warrant mitigation strategies. It’s not enough to track your RIR and RPE and listen to your body; your programming must be built with fatigue management in mind. 

Anyone who has been coached by me understands my affinity for planned and structured deloads. Despite the baggage the concept carries and the vocal opponents’ vociferous strawmanning, there is no better way of controlling for the negative effects of sustained hard training while allowing for the propagation of the positive ones. 

Before we go any further, it’s probably useful to go over what a deload actually is and why they’re useful:

A deload is a period (typically one training week but can be as short as 3-4 days) where the goal is to reduce systemic and local fatigue through reductions in volume, intensity, and relative load. They’re usually implemented after the culmination of a hard mesocycle and are meant to prepare you physically and psychologically for the next phase of training. In short, deloads are meant to be planned, easy training. 

Most don’t like the last part of that definition…”easy”. And many would object to the abstract reference to “hard” training that a deload is meant to punctuate. But despite objections, there are clear markers that “hard” has been exceeded (at least acutely) and “easy” is necessary to facilitate continued progress. 

Here are some signs I look for in my own training, and in my clients’ check-ins, to determine that a deload is the best course of action moving forward (skip this section if you've read Training Explained)

Excessive DOMS—When soreness indicators are becoming excessive and constant after bouts of training, it is generally a sign that recovery capacity has been exceeded and a deload is needed to wash the fatigue out before attempting to push back up again. 

Performance Plateau or Regression—The goal of overloading training is quite literally meant to overload or “do more” than the last bout. Doing this frequently and long enough will add up to more muscle growth. However, this is not sustainable linearly or indefinitely. At some point, we will experience a halt in progress and, in some cases, we will see performance markers actually go backwards if fatigue is high enough and remains unaddressed. If this is notable for 2 training weeks in a row across multiple sessions, it is time to deload.

Chronic Sickness—This should go without saying but having a sickness or ailment that just “won’t go away” is a very clear sign of a compromised immune function and one of the biggest contributors to this is a summation of hard training. Random stomach bugs and head colds are inevitable but if you find yourself constantly struggling to kick even the simplest of symptoms, like a cough, it may be time to pull back on training for a while and allow your body to fully recover.

Aches and Pains—To a degree, this is going to be unavoidable when you are training hard no matter how intelligent you go about programming and planning, but the compounding achy joints and strained muscles can be a clear indication that too much of SOMETHING is being done in the gym and not enough of everything else is being done to accommodate that training. If you find yourself accumulating nagging injuries at an accelerated rate, think about tapping the breaks for a bit and allowing those to heal before they set in and become chronic issues. 

Life Events and Travel—Training is always secondary to enjoying life even for the most serious competitors and eventually, things will be scheduled that necessitate a leave of absence from the gym. If we have some forewarning, we can plan training to crescendo right before the leave so that we can use this event/travel/vacation as a deload.

Once we come to the conclusion that a deload is necessary based on one of (or multiple) the factors above, the next step in the process is to figure out how exactly we should go about implementation as there are a few ways we can go about it: 

Combined Reduction—This will be the method that is most effective for dropping accumulated fatigue while also maintaining training qualities, like technical aptitude, and stimulating further recovery through increased blood flow and ROM. For this, we recommend tapering volume significantly, by 40-50%, and intensity moderately, by about 25-30%, from the last overloading training week before implementing the deload. 

For example: 

Week 1:

Squats 2x8-10 (4RIR) with 100lbs

Week 2:

Squats 3x8-10 (3RIR) with 1005bs

Week 3:

Squats 4x8-10 (2RIR) with 110lbs

Week 4:

Squats 5x8-10 (1RIR) with 115lbs


Squats 3x7 with 80lbs


Load Reduction—Though load on the bar is still a distance behind volume as it pertains to its ability to accumulate fatigue, combining high relative loads, as a % of 1 rep max (RM), with high relative intensities as a proximity to failure, will put a ton of stress on our local and global systems. When most people talk about deloading, they typically are referring to the load reduction method because “lighter” is used as a blanket term for this period. 

For example:

Week 1:

Squats 2x8-10 (4RIR) with 100lbs

Week 2:

Squats 3x8-10 (3RIR) with 1005bs

Week 3:

Squats 4x8-10 (2RIR) with 110lbs

Week 4:

Squats 5x8-10 (1RIR) with 115lbs


Squats 5x8 with 50lbs


Volume Reduction—Volume will be the biggest contributor to fatigue, so it should generally be the variable that we attack first to reduce it. This can be done through a reduction in total sets, reps per set, or a combination of both. 

For example:

Week 1:

Squats 2x8-10 (4RIR) with 100lbs

Week 2:

Squats 3x8-10 (3RIR) with 1005bs

Week 3:

Squats 4x8-10 (2RIR) with 110lbs

Week 4:

Squats 5x8-10 (1RIR) with 115lbs


Squats 3x5 with 100lbs


Modified Hypertrophic—Though the combined reduction of volume and load leads to the best specific outcomes with regards to dropping fatigue and preparation for the next mesocycle, employing what we like to call a “modified hypertrophic” deload typically lends a bit better to long-term outcomes when the goal is STRICTLY muscle gain. This still has elements of decreased volumes and loads to drive the recovery process but with the added element of increased voluntary contraction. In other words, we want to focus more heavily on the MM connection now that volume and load are no longer driving the intensity level. 

For example: 

Week 1:

Hip Thrusts 2x8-10 (4RIR) with 100lbs

Week 2:

Hip Thrusts 3x8-10 (3RIR) with 1005bs

Week 3:

Hip Thrusts 4x8-10 (2RIR) with 110lbs

Week 4:

Hip Thrusts 5x8-10 (1RIR) with 115lbs


Hip Thrusts 4x6 but the weight is autonomously chosen so that the athlete can perform the movement with the best execution and greatest perception of sensation in the glutes.


Time Off—This would be a period of completely taking off from strength training in lieu of a structured deload. Low intensity cardio can still be performed, and is recommended, but it is advised to steer clear of the gym fully during a planned time off to accommodate the psychological recovery (burnout) as well as physical. We do not recommend this more frequently than 2-3 times a year, but implementing at least one consecutive 7–10-day active rest is probably a very good idea.


I understand that this is a lot to take in and probably feels like an overkill, but it cannot be emphasized enough just how crucial periodic and planned reductions in training intensity (and volume) are for long-term progress. The dismissive hand-waiving of deloads as a beneficial tool for the hypertrophy athlete is the epitome of “losing sight of the forest for the trees” that is all too prevalent within certain circles (notably, the Cult of Intensity). These camps put forth the supposed counter-argument that “the body will you when you need a deload” as if that is in any way incongruent than the multitude of points I’ve made above. However, where their argument falls flat is the same place that I have decided NOT to hitch my wagon (as alluded to with respects to auto-regulation): on the naively optimistic assumption that human nature can be trusted. The anti-planned-deload crowd wants to believe that people will always be honest in their reporting and accurate in their subjective biofeedback tracking and not fuck everything up. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to believe this fairy tale…Call me a pessimist, I guess. 

Deloading isn’t about looking for an “easy way out” or trying to avoid “doing the hard shit” or whatever other nonsense argument gets spun by detractors. It’s based primarily on an understanding that humans are fallible, and this fallibility has to be controlled for even if the resulting approach is overly conservative at times. 

I’d rather deload too early than too late. And I’d rather deload too frequently versus not enough. At worst, the former leaves some gains on the table. However, the base case for the latter is burnout, injury, and dysfunction. As a coach, it seems pretty clear which trade-off I’m willing to make for my clients. 


Ok, let’s move on from deloads (you’re welcome) and talk about a couple of programming strategies that can be used to further mitigate and control for the inevitability of rising fatigue with progressive training:

First up, we have the intra-mesocycle increase of relative intensity from week to week. In lay terms, the idea is to start a new training block conservatively in terms of proximity to failure (i.e. ~3-4RIR) and gradually push closer to 0RIR over subsequent weeks. At it’s most simple application, the program would start at 4RIR for Week 1 then progress to 3RIR (Week 2), 2RIR (Week 3), 1RIR (Week 4), and then culminate at 0RIR (or failure) during Week 5, which would be followed by a deload. 

Obviously, we can imagine scenarios in which this way would be suboptimal or even contraindicated—Would we want to start at 4RIR for a DB Lateral Raise? Would we want to end with 0RIR for a Barbell Goodmorning? Would we want to progress like this for a non-overloading movement such as a Cable Glute Kickback (in which, the intent is specified to be improvement of the mind-muscle connection)? Would we want to linearly decrease RIR each week for a novel movement that needs technical practice? 

The answer lies in establishing a principle of progression loosely based off this strategy but biased towards the middle-ground and edge cases. Intensity, load, and/or reps don’t have to be added every single week if the entire program is slowly shifting from less intense, heavy, and voluminous to more. Pushing the training along a defined path allows for estimated timelines to be established and deloads to be planned, even if modifications are made at times. Extrapolating out, this means that starting and ending a training block in the same spot runs counter to this staged, deliberate, and, at times, forced approach to progression; whether the start and end points are at failure or 5RIR won’t change the argument here. Jumping into a new program all gung-ho and pushing the intensity too hard too fast (like with going to failure right out of the gates) will artificially cap any progressions that might have been possible with a more titrated approach. Conversely, starting out conservatively (maybe even a bit easy) and easing into the training over the course of several weeks, allows for momentum to be built, confidence to be established, and real progressions to be made in terms of sustained hard training. 


Now that we have our plan outlined for how to approach our microcycles within each block, we need to figure out what to do at the next level up: mesocycles. 

Despite what you may have heard, sticking with the same program for exorbitant amounts of time (no matter how good or close to optimal it may be) is probably a poor idea for most people. Outside of beginners and those who are able to make slow, continuous gains from moderate intensities and volumes (think detrained athletes and those recovering from injury), most trainees need some degree of evolution built into their programming. This can come in all shapes and sizes ranging from the nearly imperceptible (volume titrations) to the drastic (phase changes between blocks). But understand that while it might be slightly dramatic to say “evolve or die” is a paradigm worth applying here, it’s also not completely incoherent. 

I often defer to a simple analogy to explain the concept of phase potentiation:

Imagine you have a button that controls your muscularity. At first, the sensitivity is profound, and every time you press this button, you see immediate feedback in terms of more muscle and added strength. But over time, you start to notice that the button isn’t working as well as it did before. Now you’re pressing it harder and more frequently just to get the same, if not less, of a response. Until eventually the button becomes worn out and ineffective, yielding nothing no matter what you do. But what if you could replace that button and patch up all the old wiring and circuitry to go back to what it was like before? 

Physiologically speaking, that’s actually possible through strategic use of phase shifts throughout a macrocycle (I.e. between mesos)! But how? 

Let’s flip the analogy back to training and hypertrophy: 

That button is akin to training—the impudence that creates the desired effect. And just like our button eventually wore out, so does our hypertrophic response to resistance training. And just like we can replace the button and refresh its components, we can resensitize our bodies to growth by periodically rotating the focus of our training and the primary pathways we use to achieve it. 

In some respects, this is obvious, intuitive, and something we do without even thinking about it. Variation in exercises, rep ranges, sequencing, tempo, and even rest periods are all ways in which we can subtly refurbish our hypertrophic buttons. These are variables that most trainees already adjust pretty frequently even if it’s not with the explicit goal of potentiation. And that’s a great start! But when you get to a certain level of advancement, things don’t tend to happen by accident…More must be done. 

When training, do you think about which mechanism of hypertrophy you’re biasing? Are you aiming for mechanical tension? Or metabolic stress? Or muscle damage? Or maybe something tangential like trying to improve your work capacity? And when programming, do you look at how different systems can be maximized, minimized, or supplemented throughout the macrocycle? And when planning your macrocycle, do you think about how short-term goals can often strategically deviate from the long-term goals but still end up a more optimal strategy? 

I apologize if I feels like I’m speaking in code here but these are all very tangible ways in which we can think about breaking our training down into constituent parts to create something greater than the sum. Phase potentiation is just a fancy way of saying that we structure the programming (specifically, the meso to meso design) in a way that allows the blocks to amplify their effects. While more progress is certainly nice, it’s actually the attenuation of stagnation that is the really big deal here. 

If we can build our training in a way that undulates intensity, volume, frequency, exercise section, and other variables in order to properly manage fatigue and prevent physiological down-regulation, we can effectively train hard year-round with minimal risk of injury or burnout while maximizing rate of growth. 

I know this seems too good to be true but let’s take a walk down this path and see how this could be implemented in practice:



Primary Pathway

Primary Intent

Primary Rep Range


Rest Periods

Volume 1

5 wks + 1 wk deload

Mechanical Tension





Volume 2

5 wks + 1 wk deload

Mechanical Tension





Metabolic 1

4 wks + 1 wk deload

Metabolic Stress

Metabolic Stress




Intensity 1

4 wks + 1 wk deload

Muscle Damage





Volume 3

5 wks + 1 wk deload

Mechanical Tension





Volume 4

5 wks + 1 wk deload

Mechanical Tension





Metabolic 2

4 wks + 1 wk deload

Metabolic Stress

Metabolic Stress




Intensity 2

4 wks + 1 wk deload

Muscle Damage





Active Recovery

2 wks


Fatigue Reduction





As you can see from the table above, the mesocycles are meant to complement one another. They’re ordered strategically so that the qualities developed in the previous meso carry into the new one and allow for a higher starting point than would be possible otherwise. When transitioning into a metabolic block, for example, the constant pressing on the overloading/mechanical tension button gets a break in favor of a more novel route towards that same hypertrophy. And even though metabolic stress isn’t nearly as effective at building muscle as mechanical tension, the shift allows us to kill two birds with one stone: giving our overload pathways time to recharge as well as stimulating potentially untapped (or at least, neglected) gains. 

Pulling it back around to the purpose of this article, I’d like to make note of the “intensity” blocks, specifically. The classification is vague on its own, but for me, these are meant to be phases where failure training is implemented more liberally, though still strategically and in line with the greater macro. 

Intensity techniques can even be thrown in the mix at this point. This is the block to go for broke, try to eclipse those rep PRs, and make the Cult of Intensity proud. Now, you’ll notice that this type of mesocycle rolls around once every 4ish blocks (which equates to about 6 months) as it’s presented here. It’s not that failure can’t be implemented more regularly than this, but doing so at this level, within these progression models, and as the culmination of previous overloading training, necessitates scarcity and extremely deliberate, if not hesitant, implementation.


Recommended Intensity Ranges by Advancement


Not everyone will be a good candidate for failure training. But this isn’t necessarily an indictment on it’s own. Why go to failure if you can make the same (or better) progress with less intensity? And why go to failure if the risk isn’t worth the reward? These are questions that every trainee should be asking themselves as they evaluate their programming and keep in the back or their mind as their situational backdrop evolves. But you’re not here for high-level abstractions so let me walk through some basic intensity recommendations for varying levels of trainees…

Novices/Beginners: ~2-5RIR

Despite the connotations attached to “newbies”, I think we can all agree that we’d give a kidney to go back and experience those rates of progress again. When you’re just starting out in the gym, shit happens fast, and not much is needed to propagate this cascade of anabolism. Ironically, this is also the time when motivation and excitement for fitness are at their peak, and the foresight to delay short-term gratification in favor of building a proper foundation is at its trough. 

It’s easy as a beginner to get lured into chasing the dopamine high of a brutal workout and the DOMS that follow. But the most long-term progress will come to those who can fight those urges and, instead, do lots and lots and LOTS of the boring shit for the first couple of years in the gym. Our bodies are incredibly pliable, plastic, and impressionable when we’re just starting out. The skills and habits that you nurture during this period will be the skills and habits that become your unconscious baseline as you scale up the totem pole. The devil on your shoulder telling you to max out on squats every week isn’t going to be there to support you when your knees start degrading years later. Your gym broswho continue to fan your irrational confidence with their all-you-bro’s while you squirm under 120% of your 1RM bench press with shit form—certainly aren’t going to have that same energy when you inevitably have to start back over at ground-zero after a pec tear. And that negligent coach—who can’t be fucked to actually pay attention to their clients’ needs and instead take the easy, money-hungry way out by giving blanket prescriptions of failure training to everyone—isn’t going to accept the blame when your fire for the gym burns out because your body has been run into the ground. 

Instead of being impatient and short-sighted, use your time as a beginner to learn how to go through all major movement patterns with resilient technique. Develop requisite full-body strength and learn how to integrate that strength systemically. Establish the mind-muscle connection throughout your body and understand what contractions are supposed to feel like. Train and improve your mobility and proprioception. Keep volumes and intensities low but frequencies relatively high—practice, practice, practice. Eat lots of protein, get lots of sleep, and enjoy lots of low-hanging gains. 


Intermediates: ~4-1RIR

Most of our training lives will be spent in the intermediate stage, whether we like it or not. And I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty uneventful and boring being stuck there. You no longer have the allure of seeing your body change and get stronger on a weekly basis. And you’re not quite at the point where it becomes practical to start experimenting with things like intensity techniques, novel training splits, and unique exercise variations. Being an intermediate is characterized by long stretches of very slow progress across a wide swath of different qualities. Here, maybe even more than as a beginner, it can be incredibly tempting to throw caution to the wind. Hell, I really couldn’t even blame you if you did.

But for the years stuck in intermediate purgatory, the best course of action is to continue to build proficiency across as many exercises and rep ranges as possible. Get comfortable with the concepts of RIR and RPE and begin applying it. Begin to grasp what failure feels like with low-risk accessories, but stay well shy on heavier compounds. Since the easy hypertrophy and strength gains have already been exhausted by this point, intermediacy is the time to solidify your technique against the perils of escalating intensities. It’s the time to learn to love all of the supplemental things that make for a great athlete. It’s the time to erect the scaffolding of what is to become your masterpiece—on top of the (hopefully) robust foundation that’s already been laid.


Advanced: ~2RIR-Failure+

Everyone wants to be able to say that they’re “advanced” but I’ll be the first person to say that it fucking sucks. Being an “expert” or “advanced” in most endeavors corresponds with a scaling-up of benefits to reward for the time, dedication, and achievements of those who have made it to that rarified air. But fitness isn’t one of these endeavors.

With training specifically, more time under the bar just means that making any additional progress has less room for error and requires more effort to be expended and sacrifices to be made. I made it a point to highlight the very slow progress of the intermediate stage, and while that’s definitely not pumping us full of dopamine like the newbie gains did, at least we’re making consistent progress! With the ascension to an  advanced trainee, dependable growth becomes a thing of the past. Regression is just as likely as progression here unless you are on top of your shit and know what you’re doing. This requires more attention to detail, more fine-tuning towards individuality, and yes, more intensity.

The paradox of advancement is that you need more stimulus to further progress but this must be balanced with a requisite decrease in volume tolerance. In other words, the bigger and stronger you get, the more efficient every unit of volume becomes at—not only kickstarting hypertrophic signaling—but also creating fatigue. So the previous progression model of adding volume with moderate intensities (as is typically best practice through novice to intermediate) will no longer be suitable here. Instead, advanced programming typically will see a decrease in total volume, increase in specificity/prioritization, and increase in absolute intensity.

Failure (and beyond) should still be strategic and diligently planned, but now it becomes a (potentially) very impactful tool that can be used to force stagnant progressions and break through plateaus.


Individual Differences with Failure


No matter what your training age or level of advancement, it’s important to understand that generalized rules won’t be universally applicable to YOU and YOUR specific circumstances. I can do my best to give refined and detailed recommendations for intensity and volume and exercise selection across a vast spectrum of use cases and applications, but at the end of the day, we’re all genetic and environmental snowflakes. And if you really want to take hold of your training and be able to customize it according to your intensity needs, we will need to propose a framework for how to approach the base case (i.e. the average) as well as the long-tail of variability within our sample population (i.e. the outliers).

Smack-dab in the middle of the bell curve, we have our typical gym enthusiast. They are an intermediate, relatively physically healthy, natty af, train ~4 days/week, and are clueless as to the differences between Men’s Physique and Classic Physique. They just love training hard, eating healthy, and feeling good.

Does this person need to train to failure? Fuck no.

They need a balanced program that allows them to hit all muscle groups at least once per week, with a variety of movement patterns and variations to test their technique/skill, and a sufficient intensity to make them work hard without subjecting them unnecessary risk. This trainee should leave the gym feeling better than when they went in. They shouldn’t be worried about building their day around the gym. And they definitely shouldn’t be in training-induced pain.

Despite the narratives we tell ourselves about our abilities and goals and dedication, most people (including me right now) are going to fall in this bucket. Sure, they would probably make faster progress with a more aggressive approach. And I’ll concede that a more aggressive approach would also be more engaging and fun for the trainee as well (remember our friend, dopamine). But expeditious excitations are only optimal when the real goals actually align (emphasis on real and not the stories we’re telling ourselves). In other cases like this one, forsaking risk-management, practicality, and sustainability in search of a shortcut or adrenaline-boost is a game of Russian Roulette that you don’t want to be playing.


Ok so now that you’ve read through the above section and convinced yourself that everything I said doesn’t apply to you because you and your goals can’t be lumped in with the average…I guess it’s a good time to talk about how to apply failure training to the outliers (still mostly likely not you but we’ll go with it for now).

Outliers are, by definition, going to be individuals that deviate from the norm in both directions. We like to glorify the extraordinary while conveniently forgetting that for every LeBron, there’s a Danny DeVito somewhere in the world (sorry Danny). So any comprehensive analysis of how to think about failure with outliers must include the unfortunate as well as the privileged.

Let’s begin at the top (literally) and lay down some mental models for the genetic elite—more specifically, professional bodybuilders.

Contrasting to our middle-of-the-road recreational lifter above, this subset of a subset of our sample population represents the highest tier of muscular advancement, strength, and monomaniacal dedication towards training. They’re willing to do anything it takes to gain an extra 1% advantage. We can also assume that their diet, recovery, and stress management are optimized for hypertrophy, with little in the way of external distractions. Their sole focus in life is to get really jacked and strong, and they have the genetics to promote that goal to the maximum.

For this group of people, moderation isn’t realistic. But that doesn’t mean recklessness is the answer either. While it’s not unreasonable to say that a majority of their sets should be to (or beyond) failure, the way in which failure is achieved, the exercises it’s used on, and the individual underlying context should all be considered and evaluated independently rather than making sweeping recommendations. But we can go over a few key points of differentiation that will be almost universally applicable among our genetic elites (and get more applicable with more standard deviations of separation):

  • Pro bodybuilders will need a greater average intensity to continue to make progress

  • Arsenal of exercise selection should narrow and become more specific (The lifecycle of exercise selection should look like Beginner> Narrow to focus on building a proper foundation, Intermediate> Broad to refine technical prowess across all variations, Advanced> Retracted as injuries accumulate and individualization is applied, Hyper-Advanced> Narrow as there will be few exercises that provide a strong enough risk:reward to justify their inclusion)

  • A greater proportion of work should be done with “less risky” exercises and modalities, such as DBs, cables, and machines. This isn’t to say that more traditional movements like Barbell Squat, Bench, and Deadlift shouldn’t ever be done or don’t have any benefit here—It’s just that the local growth stimulus (at the target muscle) dwindles as genetic limits of muscularity are approached, and with rising strength and technical mastery, in comparison to the potentially deleterious acute and chronic effects of these movements.

  • Heavy, compound movements taken to failure should mostly be done using machines or similar fixed/stable modalities to reduce risk, maximize force production, and modify according to the specific anatomy/limitations of the trainee.

  • Isolation work and accessory volume should, almost exclusively, be taken to failure (at a minimum) once acclimated to the variation

  • A spotter (or training partner) should be available at all times to maximize output and minimize risk.

  • Less time will be needed to acclimatize to a given workload or movement because of the increased technical skill of this demographic

  • Longer recovery times will be needed between overloading/disrupting sessions

  • However, strategic undulations in volume, intensity, and exercise selection open up greater creativity for getting in additional frequency, and thus, stimulating volume

  • Intensity techniques can be implemented more liberally, though should still align with the broader intra-meso progression model

  • With the reduction in acclimation time and more aggressive progression models, mesocycles will tend to be shorter than those of other populations. It’s not uncommon at the highest levels to see 3:1 week paradigms of overloading-to-deload training due to the rapid accumulation of fatigue.

  • Novel techniques such as blood-flow restriction, loaded stretching, and accommodating resistance should be considered.

  • Novel periodization strategies such as AM/PM sessions, atypical microcycle splits, and phase-based body-part prioritization should also be considered.

Clearly, this is a non-exhaustive list. But the main take-home here is that the higher up you get in advancement, the more specific, refined, and intense the training must be to continue to make progress.

Does the same hold for the other end of the spectrum?

These hapless folk probably aren’t what you’re thinking…When envisioning the exact opposite of a professional bodybuilding, such images as Brenden Fraser (in The Whale) or John Daly probably come to mind immediately. Our brains instinctually lunge to the furthest thing we can conjure from “jacked and ripped”—and that tends to land in the ballpark of morbidly obese, slovenly, or completely disinterested in health. But that’s actually not what I’m talking about here.

The genetically unfortunate relevant to our particular discussion at hand are those who actually DO care about their health. They want to improve their physical fitness and appearance. And they have actually tried to follow a structured plan to no avail. This group is commonly called “hard-gainers”, but let’s push it a bit further here and highlight the “no-gainers”—that is, those who just can’t seem to make progress no matter what they do. I’d even venture to guess that framing it this way makes you think of someone you know in your real life. Or maybe they’re even a regular at your gym. These people aren’t the caricatures that conceptualizing the antithesis of professional bodybuilders would seem to point to…They’re just regular humans whose regular nucleotides arranged themselves in regular ways that, when put together, created a desolate void of athleticism and resistance training responsiveness.

As bad as I’ve made the outlook for this population seem (and yes, it’s not great), all hope is not completely lost. Every gram of muscle gain will be a monumental effort. And every pound of weight added to a lift will require an attention to detail that would make Steve Jobs blush. However Herculean the challenge appears on the surface, something can always be done. Here are some guidelines for how to properly utilize intensity titrations and failure for those who just can’t seem to make any progress:

  • Limit volume and frequency in favor of higher specific intensities. This group will have a drastically lower recovery capacity than the average so leaning into the intensity rather than volume as the primary driver of progress will be a good idea.

  • Failure should be kept to minimally-fatiguing and low-skill movements due to the aforementioned recovery decrements as well as vastly lower baseline levels of coordination and proprioception.

  • Utilize mostly machines and cables in lieu of free-weights especially when training at high intensities. This is due to the aforementioned poor coordination and proprioception.

  • Unilateral movements should be used liberally and trained with moderate-to-high intensities. The upshot here is that unilateral work forces symmetrical neural adaptations, strength, and muscle development where an over reliance on bilateral movements has a disproportional likelihood of creating dysfunction in this group. Conversely, the downside is that having to perform everything twice will generate central fatigue much quicker, which can be a big issue when recovery is already a limitation. A few good rules of thumb here are to 1) keep the unilateral work non-axially loaded, 2) use free-weight variations to promote coordination and systemic integration, 3) while machine/cables provide stimulus via intensity, 4) emphasize variation with greater ROMs and more level resistance curves.

  • Rather than methodically tapering the intensity up throughout the training block (like we’ve previously discussed with other sample populations), the relative intensities (i.e. RIR and RPE) should remain mostly consistent with much less aggressive progressions. Main movements should stay on the outer bounds of the minimal intensity threshold in order to control for systemic fatigue—so around 4-5RIR. The accessories will then have to bear the load and be pushed much harder—we’re talking from 2-0RIR depending on the exercise.

  • Mesocycles will also have to be run for MUCH longer than would be typical. Once the hypertrophic wheels begin to turn for the no-gainer, the last thing you want to do is pull the e-brake. It requires consistency in doing things over and over right just to get to the point where their bodies’ begin to acquiesce. Once you get there, try to stay there as long as possible. If fatigue becomes unmanageable, rather than taking a traditional deload, employ novel strategies like consecutive off days (3-4 as needed), substituting an overloading session for a recovery/light session, or accessory-only training days. These strategies should be used for as brief of time as possible before continuing with the original training.

Even after presenting the above guidelines, and even if they are all used perfectly in practice, there is still no guarantee that progress will be made when we’re talking about the outliers of the outliers. The best we can do is to understand (and accept) the circumstances and do everything we can to optimize the training, and use of failure, in order to maximize the probability of success.


Implementation and A Case Study 


I understand that this article is probably a bit longer and more detailed than you bargained for. And if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! There’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo littering this piece, and knowing myself, I’ve probably got side-tracked and gone off on a tangent once or thrice. So as a reward, I want to present a case study. And using this real-world example, I want to show exactly what I did from a programming standpoint, down to the last detail, so that some method can be put to the preceding madness.

So let’s jump right into it!

The case study we’ll be analyzing is…*drum roll*...Me :)

Or better said, me from 2018 when I was laser-focused on bodybuilding and my programming was fine-tuned down to the last detail.

Rather than copy/pasting everything into tables and trying to organize it to not be the world’s biggest eye-sore, I’m just going to leave the link to my training log.




Note that this is my commentary to myself. There are LOTS of abbreviations that might make absolutely zero sense without a legend to translate, much of the feedback I left myself is as comments on the cell (hover your cursor over the cell to view), and I don’t think it’s a reach to say that the specific implementation was suboptimal in a lot of ways. Even though I knew I was experimenting back then, I should have NEVER been programming for myself and I’m probably lucky that I didn’t come out of that with more aches/pains than I did. But on the other hand, I made more progress during this period than any other time in my life.

So feel free to look through the training log in its entirety, from the progressions to the summaries to the specific use of exercises to the changes made from meso to meso. My hope is that seeing and reading this can help tie together some of the high-level conceptual stuff that’s been put forth throughout this article. And if your brain is complete mush right now, hopefully the case study can at least spark some cool ideas next time you sit down to program!


Wrapping Up


It is through a near-100% failure rate that life has adapted and diversified over billions of years, testing the limits of what is possible in a hostile universe. Natural selection itself is a cosmic game of failure, played out on the grandest stage, with every misstep and dead-end ultimately leading, no matter how improbable, to life as we know it today. Humanity was forged out of trial-and-error. We are no strangers to the concept of failure—it’s literally etched into our DNA. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that failure also plays a key conceptual role in our self-directed evolution (i.e. fitness).

The debate surrounding failure in resistance training is clearly a complex and polarizing topic, with extremists on both ends of the spectrum. The Cult of Intensity advocates for balls-to-the-wall training while damning nuance and context. The PubMed Collective plugs their ears to experiential anecdotes while clutching tight to their sacred texts: data and meta-analyses.

However as we’ve seen throughout this article, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and it's important to approach failure in resistance training with a balanced and pragmatic perspective.

I’m not sure if all of my methods and ideas are correct. In fact, I’m certain I’m wrong on at least a few things. But my opinions aren’t fixed—my thoughts are always evolving—and ironically, getting less controversial over time.

We can simultaneously acknowledge that failure, when used correctly, can positively supplement our training goals while also recognizing that it can be dangerous if approached recklessly or without proper oversight.

We should strive to find a balance between intensity and safety, between “in the trenches” and “in the lab”.

We need to elevate the importance of context and condemn sweeping generalities, recognizing that each individual's training needs are unique.

And most importantly, we must begin to approach the failure debate (today, and in the future) with humility and a willingness to learn from both sides.

By doing so, we can incubate an industry that is more focused on getting closer to the truth versus validating pre-existing dogmas.

We can celebrate the highest achievers and the concessions they have to make, while not building our ideologies around them to the detriment of everyone else.

We can collaboratively build a sustainable, unbiased approach to failure, backed by experiment and experience, that makes reasonable concessions between rate of progress and risk mitigation, and with inherent allowances to be an imperfect human.

We can (and should) remember that none of this is that serious. It’s not worth name-calling, arguing, getting upset over, or making a rebuttal series on social media every time your beliefs are challenged.

There are much more important things in life to dedicate your precious time and energy towards—Stressing about the theoretical difference between 0 and 1 reps in reserve certainly isn’t one of them.

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