Thursday, January 20, 2011

Drawing A Line In The Sand

When you are training and you start to fatigue, do you push through with poor technique, or do you terminate the set? If the set calls for 10 reps, do you do 10 reps come hell or high water? Do you have some guidelines for what constitutes an "acceptable breakdown of form"? When and how do you make the decision that enough is enough?

It's almost cliche to say that "practice makes permanent", but it is true. If you regularly practice poor form under stress, eventually your mind and body will come to anticipate fatigue and prepare itself to prematurely dole out the slop that it has become accustomed to under those conditions.

Understand that we become sloppy because it is easier to be sloppy. Proper form may use bigger muscle groups, effectively "spreading the load". As we fatigue, major muscles may be activated less to conserve energy, and more stress may be placed on "stabilizers", bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments - all in an effort to give rest to the prime movers.

Also understand that training with exercises that put you in compromised positions is not the same as arriving at compromised positions because you've fatigued to the point of technical breakdown. Training with an Atlas stone, or doing deadlifts from a sticking point is quite different than doing a set of squats to failure with 25% of the reps looking like a very "bad morning".

If you practice being sloppy when fatigued, you will become better at being sloppy when fatigued. You will make the hard stuff harder.

Training should be PURPOSEFUL. Is your purpose to fatigue yourself, or is it to be stronger?

I'm not going to go so far as to say you should NEVER push to the point of technique deformation but, if you view training as practice (and not simply exercise), then isn't it important to practice proper technique when fatigued? (Depending on your goals) isn't it MORE important to practice good form when fatigued? If you can no longer practice good form, it might be time to hit the showers or, at the very least, call it a set.


Red Boar said...

"Training to failure is training to fail": not only in that exercise, but also in keeping yourself healthy. Once fatigue kicks in, it's just a matter of time to get your joints, tendons, etc, harmed one way or another.

Hitting fatigue here and there should be OK, but for that you must be aware to take extra cautions: good spotters, power rack pins, safe way to drop weight, etc.

Training through fatigue is also a tool for advanced athletes...

Just my opinion, anyway... Hope more experienced comrades will give more insightful comments.

Paul B./Chicago said...

Actually, the concept you've written about Boris of leaving a reserve of energy towards the end of sets, and not training through fatigue (correct me if I'm not paraphrasing that correctly)--I've implemented that to good results. Mainly, it leaves me with a reserve of motivation (extremely valuable commodity).

This post builds on that concept I think. Added benefit: at 40 years old, there's the pitfall of bad form=certain injury--which I didn't have in my 20s.

Thank God for yoga training also. Those teachers are mean as hell about form unlike anybody else, even more than kendō training in Japan.

Boris said...

Thanks Paul and Red. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that fatigue is to be avoided, but that "losing" to fatigue should not be practiced.

Mark Reifkind said...


I find this problem arises when one is just 'working out' and doesn't have a training plan that is built on progressions.

basically a bodybuilding approach. nothing wrong with that but it doesn't lead to much strength gains,especially over time.

when one is training with a plan, you know what the weight, sets and reps should be based on the last weeks training and the overall plan.

alas, so few actually work out that way. one of the best things i learned from my powerlifting practice

great post.

fawn said...

When I first discovered powerlifting I missed deadlifts and bench press all the time. I think it was refining form more than fatigue that caused the misses.

Now when I train to compete for powerlifting competition I have my workout planned from week 1 to competition (usually 12 weeks). I used Prelepin's table for reps and sets. I never get close to failure. If I miss a lift it is because there was a flaw in the set up. In the past 2 years training for competition I missed less than 5 lifts.

Now I am learning Olympic weightlifting, I miss lifts all the time. I might miss a lift 3 times at a weight before I have a successful attempt.

In my training the purpose is to learn and practice perfect form. The way I understand strength gains, most strength is gained training at 75%-85% of your 1RM, and max efforts should be saved for the meet. I don't recall ever training to point of becoming sloppy... I can't think of any program that calls for such a thing, maybe WSB's max effort day?

Boris said...

Thanks Rif - I think a lot of people and programs get overly ambitious about how progressions should, um, progress. Smolov has done me in a couple of times, for example.

Hi Fawn!
Most programs don't call for slop, but there are those that encourage effort over form - HIT is the obvious one. There are others...

fawn said...

What was your experience with Smolov? I know several people who got huge gains training Smolov, and was thinking about doing it myself if I do another PL meet.

Boris said...

I gained and then hurt myself after about 3 weeks in - twice. I think if I were ever to try it again (which I will not), I would be probably lop about 10% off of my starting 1RM and then figure the percentages accordingly.

I think it works for a lot of people, but it wasn't for me.

Fatman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fatman said...

For powerlifting progress, I have found the 5/3/1 program by Jim Wendler to work wonders. I will refrain from writing "miracles", as I do not believe in those :) My meager one-rep maxes soared with consistent 5/3/1 work.

Not trying to plug Wendler's product and I'm in no way an affiliate or anything - but this program has helped me steadily increase weight on the bar while avoiding the pitfalls of other, more "do or die" programs (the Smolov being an example of those). I have remained 100% injury free and hit lifts that I never really expected to hit. The best part is that the program is highly flexible and allows you to focus on the important things exclusively, if that's all you have the time/energy for.

I find it interesting that you mentioned taking 10% off your max for calculations, as this is exactly how you determine your "working max" in 5/3/1.

Great blog, BTW, I have visited it in the past and found some really useful advice. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

This post felt like it was written especially for me... Just came home from a bad squat session.

I'm thinking about starting over with weights, being REALLY focused on technique all the time and re-learn the most important movements (bench, deads, squats and cleans).

My knees are caving in during my squats and my bench repetitions never looks the same as the last one.

Is this a good idea or do you think I should keep pushing and adjust small bits every time?

Boris said...

Thank you. I bought Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 - I've always loved his stuff. To be honest, I haven't read the entire program, but it looked solid to me and a lot of people have used it successfully. Some of the rep schemes reminded me of BFS, and I later read that Jim patterned some of the program after BFS. There are/were a lot of things I like w. BFS - a few I really don't like. I'll have to take another look at 5/3/1,

I think there's a lot to be said for just plugging away w. moderate weights and really nailing down proper form before trying to crank up intensity and volume.