Training to Failure: Part 2- Lessons From The Old School


How Were the Pioneers of Physical Culture Able to Get so Strong?

People who know about my obsession with old time physical culture and the early days of strength training often ask me why there are so few people today who can perform the feats of strength that the greats were capable of over a century ago.

I mean, science, technology and training equipment must have improved, right? Plus the addition of high tech supplements and steroids has to make a big difference as well, no?

Then why is it so hard in this day and age for people to match the feats of strength performed by guys like George Hackenschmidt? How many people, in 2010, can put up close to 400 pounds overhead with one arm like Arthur Saxon did in 1906?

One of the ways Saxon got so strong was that he practiced his lifts with lighter weights and perfect technique. He always stopped while he was fresh because he knew he had to perform again the next day. It was his job. He traveled around and performed massive feats of strength for audiences on a routine basis, several times per week. The only way that could have ever been possible was by making sure he never came close to failure or “trained on the nerve,” as they used to refer to it.

To more clearly answer the question of why old time strongmen were able to perform feats that would still be impossible for most mortals today we need to address one critically important concept. This is a concept that the old timers understood very well. It’s been long forgotten in the days of “high intensity training” and Rocky Balboa YouTube montages. But in a world where bodybuilding has been confused with strength training this concept could very well be the key to mind blowing gains.

The single most important concept for people to understand is that strength is a skill and you need to treat it as such.

I’m gonna repeat that because it’s so important that you understand it…

Strength is a skill.

Let it sink in for a second.

When you think about it that way the whole thing becomes much easier to grasp.

You are training your nervous system to be more efficient.

That’s why all of the great old time strongmen, like Louis Cyr, Eugene Sandow and Earle Liederman called their workouts “practice.” Lifting was their sport so they understood, as does a good pitching coach, that you can not continue practicing in a fatigued state or you ingrain bad habits. A good pitching or tennis coach would not let you continue on when your speed starts slowing down and your form gets sloppy. They know that you’re done for the day at that point. The same can be said about a good sprint coach.

Lifting a heavy weight is really no different than serving or throwing a ball incredibly hard or sprinting at high speeds. Sure, some people may want to argue semantics, but it’s all human performance and based on the same principles at the end of the day.

You get stronger in one of two ways; improving the efficiency of your nervous system or increasing the size of your muscles. Obviously, you can’t continually increase the size of your muscles forever. But you can steadily make neural strength gains for quite some time if you train properly. That’s how athletes in weight class sports are able to get continually stronger without gaining weight.

Olympic lifters don’t go to failure and they are able to train every day because of it. Gymnasts don’t go to failure, yet they posses astonishing strength and incredible physiques.

In his 1925 book, Secrets of Strength, Earle Liederman described a lifter who trained to failure in the following way, “Literally he has worked himself out, and this is exactly the thing the strength seeker can not afford to do.”

What About the Max Effort Method?

Many of you will be familiar with the Max Effort Method, as popularized by Westside Barbell Club. This method has produced some of the strongest lifters in the world and works quite well for their members who I have nothing but the utmost respect for. They never hit failure but they do sometimes do slow, grinding singles. That’s true sport specific training for them, however. They need to learn to grind a single in competition. I don’t train powerlifters so that’s why I don’t use their exact training methods. Although, I did for many years.

The Max Effort Method was the basis for the majority of my programs for close to a decade. When I originally started incorporating it many moons ago I had all of my guys work up until they hit a true 1-3 rep max that they had to fight to the death to lock out.

For a while people got stronger. After just a few months, however, I found that almost everyone started burning out pretty rapidly and getting injured with this approach. Then they started getting weaker.

In time I modified it so that we would stop further away from a true max. Instead of working up to 100% we would stop somewhere between 95 and 97%. From a science/research perspective there was really no benefit in going higher, anyway. Results were significantly better with this approach.

I had a conversation with Jim Wendler over a few beers back in 2003 or 2004 and he told me that, “Low rep, max effort work is only testing your strength; it’s not building it.” This was an epiphany for me at the time since I had become so obsessed with the Max Effort Method.

It made so much sense I smacked myself for not recognizing it earlier.

In time I lowered the range to 90-95% and added a bit more volume. With this modification the results improved significantly. To this day I may write 3RM or 5RM on a workout for simplicity’s sake, but what I really mean is a top end set that’s about 90-95% of your true max. In addition to the top end set I also like a back off set that’s 90% of the best weight for the day. If you do that and “work up” properly you get an appropriate amount of heavy training in to build strength without burning out your nervous system.

If you like to use the Max Effort method I suggest using the aforementioned modified approach and doing so on no more than two exercises per week; one for the upper body and one for the lower body, preferably a minimum of 48-72 hours apart. The rest of your workout should consist of less stressful assistance exercises done with a lower percentage of your one rep max, stopping each set shy of failure.

This method was practiced by numerous record setting lifters like Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski long before the Max Effort method became so popular. Instead of going to 100% on a regular basis, Ed Coan was known to do triples with his five rep max and do a larger majority of work in the range of 80-90%.

This type of system is also one that many powerlifters and former proponents of the Max Effort method like Jim Wendler and Jason Pegg have switched to and found to be more effective.

That’s the approach I use in Minimalist Training and have used with all of my clients over the last several years. It makes a huge difference. This method also allows you to get more heavy work in without frying your nervous system. As long as you are training with a proper percentage of your one rep max there is absolutely no benefit in training to failure. You still get the same training effect, albeit without the negatives.

This summer I had a chance to work with two former clients, both of whom were 500 pound squatters. They had long since graduated from college and moved to different states. One was back in town for a few months and came to train at Renegade. Another hired me to get him ready for an athletic comeback and I designed him programs and consulted with him via email and phone calls. In the past I always had these guys train a lot closer to failure. This time I held them back. We never hit a true max at any rep range, instead choosing to always leave something in the tank and stop the sets when speed slowed down noticeably.

The result was that both of them made faster progress (mind you they are both in their 30’s now vs. being in their 20’s when we had trained in the past) than they ever had in the past.

If only I knew then what I know now.

That’s why I always keep on learning and experimenting.

I’m always trying to find a better way to help you guys reach your goals faster.

Hope you enjoyed Part 2 and that it all makes sense to you.

There are many questions still to be answered coming up in this series, such as:
•    How different rep ranges affect how close you can go to failure
•    Training for size vs. training for strength and how it relates to going to failure
•    If beginners can or should train to failure
•    Can you or should you cycle training to failure

In the meantime let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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