A1: Note the tempo here. Keep everything nice and slow on the eccentric and get hard contractions. Make sure to keep your shoulders back against the back pad rather than hinging forward further at the hips. Take the last set to 1RIR.
A2: Note the tempo. Elevate your toes for more ROM and use your upper body for balance. Try to contract as hard as you can at the top of each rep. These should feel like a cramp setting in!
B: Hold the load in your contralateral hand and use your free hand for balance and stability. Make sure to start each set with your weaker leg then match reps on your stronger side. After the first set, immediately perform an isohold in the mid-position of the rep for 20 sec while holding the load. After the second set, immediately perform the same isohold but continue the set by dropping the load by 50%, taking that to 1RIR with the same tempo, then performing another isohold for ALAP. You're going to have to take ample rest between each leg and set here so do not try to rush.
C1: Adhere to the tempo on these. Control the eccentric, allow the load to settle on the floor for a sec, explode on the concentric, then nail the contraction with a pause. If extending the ROM to the floor forces you into a suboptimal pattern, put blocks under the plates to elevate the bar and shorten the ROM to accommodate. Rest 60 sec before C2.
C2: Adhere to tempo. Elevate each foot independently and hold the KB between your legs. Your stance should be slightly wider than with traditional squats and feet should be externally rotated. Aim to keep the tension in the glutes here by maximizing the ration of hip flexion to knee flexion. Abduct your hips hard the duration of the set and try to maintain vertical shin angles. Rest 60 sec before C3.
C3: Band around the thighs and hold a parallel wall sit. Abduct hard into the band the duration of the set. Add load to your lap as needed to fall within time range. These should BURN! Full rest before returning to C1.
D: Use load that would be about your 15 rep max. Push these hard but leave a rep in the tank. Get hard contractions on each rep. Rest ~60 sec between sets.
E: Use load that would be about your 12 rep max. Perform 1-2 feeder sets to get comfortable with the pattern and load. For the working sets, rest ~20 sec between the clusters. Take the last one to 1RIR even if it exceeds 5 reps.
If I could narrow down the root of failure and why most trainees don’t see the progress in the gym that they’re hoping for/expecting, it would be a severe inability to accurately judge their effort.
I don’t think it’s surprising that we all have an inflated idea of the truth but our estimations typically deviate wildly from reality. This isn't just apparent in the gym either; it traverses through many domains:
We tend to think we work harder than we actually do in our jobs.
We tell ourselves that nobody is as committed as we are.
We believe that our positive habits outweigh our negative ones even when all evidence points to the contrary.
We like to wishfully think that we're always the hardest working, most dedicated, and most on-top-of-our-shit.
The problem is often deeper than that of laziness or inability—There are physiological and psychological barriers that our bodies just don’t want to surpass. So that leads to artificial restraints being placed on us, not by our conscious decision-making, but by biological adaptations. Historically, effort has been useful up to a point of diminishing returns. Beyond that critical point, our ancestors were forgoing safety, security, and probability of survival as the cause of such supramaximal effort was typically that of the malicious kind (like sabertooth tigers and and famine and stuff).
Modernity has luckily moved past that moment-to-moment fragility of survival but the handcuffs are still hardwired in our DNA. Our systems do not want to push beyond those glass ceilings and we have ample feedback mechanisms that scream at us to “STOP!” and “SLOW DOWN!”. Our delicate physical vessels are constrained by oxygen and lactate clearance and nociceptors and ATP recycling while our resource-hogging brains are limited by glucose availability and afferent signals and archaic “shutdown” mechanisms that kick in at the first signs of trouble.
Some of these inherent limitations are obviously beneficial for our survival even now. But some of them can be hacked and overridden. We can yell back at them “SHUT UP! I CAN DO THIS!”.
It’s not meant to be easy, but it can be done.
The first step is self-reflection and honestly about how hard you’re actually working compared to what is possible.
In all of the years that I’ve been coaching, there have been only a handful of clients come to me in what I would consider to be a “ready” state—That of being able to accurately judge effort and control it as needed.
The overwhelming majority come in calling themselves “advanced”, running some sort of “high intensity split”, and reporting that they want something “harder” and to be “pushed” further.
The harsh reality is that very few people are actually advanced by my definition: being able to take any movement to failure without critical technique breakdowns.
Most views of high intensity are actually closer to high volume with some drop sets sprinkled in here and there.
And wanting to be pushed harder is generally just lip-service that everyone thinks a new coach wants to hear.
Once the bullshitting is filtered through and data collection can begin, the truth comes out very quickly. And it’s definitely never as first reported.
Just as a primer, the litmus test I use for gauging a client’s ability to train hard is a set to failure on a leg press. What I’ll usually do is give a client ~2 weeks of acclimation with sub-failure volume work so they can get a baseline estimate of their strength and perceived effort. Let’s just say for the sake of this example that Week 1 would be “Leg Press- 3x8-12 (3RIR)” with the client reporting “100x12, 100x11, 100x10” for each set, respectively. Then Week 2 could look like “Leg Press- 3x8-12 (2RIR)” with the client reporting “110x11, 110x10, 120x9” or something like that.
But here is where the fun begins…For Week 3, you cut the bullshit and show your true hand—“Leg Press- Slowly work up to a set to failure with 120lbs”. You tell them to have a spotter watching them and barking motivation. The environment should be optimized to pull every last drop of effort and intensity out of them. You also require they record the set for your eval.
See where this is going?
When the pressure is on and there is nowhere to hide, the client will generally blow past their previous efforts to the tune of 15 to even 20+ reps. And when this happens (it always does, trust me), your response can accurately be to tell them that they need to train with that underlying level of intensity ALL the time. Not the sets to failure themselves, but the same absolute focus and drive and effort.
I like to use the leg press example because, more than any other exercise, it can filter through the bullshit. Few other exercises allow the same levels of pain and misery to be achieved with the same low risk-profiles. Plus it’s just kind of fun sometimes to watch people suffer through 3 minute long sets.
In a twisted ripple of fate, I learned all of this because of my own failures.
For nearly my entire training history, I believed I was pushing my intensity to the max. There was nobody who was going to outwork me. I was taking every single set to failure and beyond...While also training 6 days a week with high volume. (Sound familiar?)
And then I got a harsh wakeup call.
I started interning at a private gym with a staff populated by powerlifters and strongmen (shoutout The Spot Athletics OGs circa 2013). What I thought was pushing to failure was laughable in this environment. What I believed to be training hard was their warm-up intensity. What was previously 3-4 sets of 6-8 exercises per session quickly turned into 1-2 sets for 3-4 exercises.
Now let me circle back around here and say that not being able to train with an absolute level of intensity like this is NOT a dealbreaker. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to make progress. And it says nothing about who you are as an athlete, your character, or your future prospects of success.
I’ve had plenty of clients (actually, I’d say most of them), who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to consistently train with this level of intensity and focus. Shit, I’ve been there the majority of my training career as well.
All it means is that there has to be a certain degree of error correction ingrained into your programming. Understanding WHAT real failure feels and looks like is the absolute first step to accurate judgement. Whether you’re someone who takes every set beyond failure or just feel more comfortable hanging around 5RIR truly doesn’t matter that much.
All that matters is that you have a realistic view of what you’re capable of and consistently doing.
Within your own introspection, there needs to be a clear understanding of where you’re presently at both physically and psychologically. Both of these play incredibly important roles in our abilities to consistently train hard. And training periodization should be set up in a way to play off this phenomenon—Plan for volatility within your own motivation, energy, and effort. Structure mesocycles so that some allow you to really push while others allow a bit of a reprieve.
None of use are robots living in a Petri dish of carefully optimized and controlled variables (as far as I know). Plan for the cyclical waxing and waning that comes with being a human.
And this logic can be applied to those who are coaches as well. Understand the limitations of your clients. Predict that they’re fallible and will generally overestimate themselves. Rather than relying exclusively on their feedback to determine progressions and periodization plans, build proactive peaks and valleys into the structure. Account for your athletes’ faults ahead of time and be pleasantly surprised when they exceed expectations.
Here are a few mental models that help me:
1) Less intensity means more volume is needed for the same training effect. If you program 3 sets to 2RIR and your client is calling it with 4 reps in the tank, it might be a good idea to preemptively increase the volume to offset the undershot intensity. Remember: volume and intensity are inversely proportional.
2) Program periodic “Gut Check” sets to reinforce training intensity and effort. I’ve talked before about how intensity is a skill that can be developed with practice. But it can also be detrained or forgotten if those intensities aren’t incorporated at least periodically. To work around this, I like to throw in AMRAP sets at least once per mesocycle (as long as it’s not contraindicated by the overarching goal) on a movement that will test the resolve of my athletes. Think of things like leg press, Bulgarian split squats, hack squats, and high-rep single arm DB rows. Notice how most of these movements are lower body…That’s not a coincidence. Intensity is most frequently overestimated when it comes to leg training due to the sheer magnitude of discomfort that comes with taking those sets to failure. Though doing so too frequently or haphazardly can create some serious problems, utilizing this feature every so often can be a good way to keep those muscles (figuratively and literally) fresh.
3) Lower body intensity will generally be depressed while upper body tends to be overshot. As alluded to above, this is pretty clear when you compare something like a machine pulldown to a hack squat—Which are you more likely to take to failure? Program for your clients accordingly.
4) Not all intensity is created equal. Some exercises when taken to failure will create recovery deficits that last for days while others have a negligible impact both locally and globally. Think about conventional deadlifts versus DB lateral raises—Which will have more impact when taken to failure?
5) Intensity techniques are a phenomenal tool, but most trainees won’t be able to take full advantage of them. Once traditional methods of failure have been exhausted, additional stimuli for adaptation must come from somewhere. And one of those somewheres is what we know of as intensity techniques—or methods for taking sets beyond conventional failure points. This might seem obvious but the concept loses some of its efficacy when even normal bounds of failure cannot be consistently achieved. Trying to circumvent training harder with the addition of intensity techniques is putting the cart before the horse.
6) Stage intensity progressions that account for natural undulations. This can be applied to pretty much every level of training periodization from macrocycle design all the way down to how we approach individual sets. But I like to think about it in “blocks”—Blocks of training weeks that are progressively more intense followed by an intentional reduction in intensity (i.e. deload) and blocks of mesocycles that are progressively more intense followed by an intentional reduction in intensity (i.e. maintenance phase or active recovery). By utilizing this approach, we can ensure that no single training week or phase is overwhelming, they each build off the last, and they preemptively reduce intensity in stages to allow for recovery.
I know this is a lot to unpack for someone who probably thinks they’ve been training at 10/10 intensity for years. But believe me when I say, more progress will be made by admitting the truth versus continuing to feed your ego.
We can all train harder—That’s not really the point of it all.
The idea is to understand what training hard, like really hard, actually feels like so we can tap into that when the time comes to make that push. And until then, we can be still training with intensity but within an accurate representation of what intensity actually is.
The differentiating factor isn’t whether training to failure is better than maintaining 2RIR or vice versa. Those who make the most long term progress are the ones who can strategically navigate that spectrum, without ego and without bias.