Failure is always an option

If you’re a little nerdy, you’ll attribute this phrase to Mythbuster’s Adam Savage. I’m unable to verify his exercise credentials, nor would I assume to do so. And though his words had a different arena from that of which I intend to delve, the sentiment remains. Failure, in physical exercise, is always an option.

Having worked in gyms for 25 years, I’ve seen the standard model of exercise intensity, namely, moderate. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least, that’s how we encourage people to do something less enjoyable that washing dishes. The truth is, moderate sucks. In fact, in practically every arena, from politics to astrophysics, a moderate approach implies lack of effort and often mediocrity. Why should your body be any different?

To fail is to be a loser. That’s the mantra obsessive life-coaches end up selling. They’ll use quotes similar to ‘failure is an option – but you can choose to succeed’, which I personally find as meaningless as telling someone, ‘nothing’s impossible.’ Nothing’s impossible? Really. Hmm, last time I tried, I couldn’t make a calorie free pizza. Or change the body-shape of a 5’ humanoid sphere into a 6’ beanpole. I’m afraid to say, some things are impossible and success isn’t always a choice. But I digress; Failure is ALWAYS an option.

Failure has a bad rap. It’s a word synonymous with, well, ‘failure’. You know what I mean, it’s such a foundation word—everyone knows it, it’s taught from such an early age:

‘Young Billy, if you fail math, you’ll never be an astronaut!’

‘Little Samantha, if you fail physics, you’ll never be an engineer!’

‘Donald, if you fail to grasp emotional intelligence, you’ll never be…’ – scrub that one…

Anyway – you get the point. Aversion to failure actually implies a lack of effort. In any given task, reaching failure means you’ve likely tried all available avenues. In which case, you’ll adapt, or you’ll learn. Often a slap on the head from a loving teacher can knock a new idea into the brain box. Of course, that approach stopped a long time ago when it became unfashionable to hit children. Good thing to. I didn’t like getting hit in school… 

In exercise, failure is a moment of adaptation. In truth, it’s very difficult to achieve. Our bodies are machines that require fuel to perform any task. Reaching failure is tough. Our brain chomps through sugar at a crazy rate and our bodies will metabolise carbs (for sugars), fats and protein for any manual effort. There’s a hierarchy of sensation aligned to whatever physical work you’re doing. Different intensities use different fuels in different ways.

Low level effort (such as a stroll, or even typing) uses a large proportion of fat as the energy source. As our bodies are reasonably efficient at low level work, we don’t use many calories doing easy things. Therefore, we can do them for long time periods, without discomfort. Realistically, failure is not something you experience at this level. I can’t recall falling from my chair, clutching fingers and moaning about how extreme typing has caused cramp and stress fractures. Never needed an electrolyte intake and a protein bar after typing for seven hours. Just beer. Writer’s reward.

Medium level effort (a jog, or an aerobic workout) begins to use more stored sugars at a higher burn rate. This is the de facto level of exercise for 99% of people. Whether you wear lose joggers and baggy tees, or painted on Lycra and a brand-new wax, you’re probably in this category. Yeah, on that Lycra statement—don’t be fooled by apparel. Fashion is not an indicator of effort, experience, or ability. Lycra alone isn’t a crime but Lycra plus immaculate make-up usually implies low effort. This may sound sexist but it’s an observation. Similarly, guys who wear tight cycling shorts to the gym, often don’t own bikes. I wish they did, so they’d take away those obscene banana hammocks.

High level effort is all about sugars, and in extreme cases, body resources such as creatine. A rapid burst of power (100m sprint, 5 reps at maximum effort) will tank your creatine phosphate (CP) reserves. Rest for a few minutes you can go again. Slightly lower duration, or effort will be a carb fest. A whole bunch of calories will be expended but the work load isn’t sustainable. Failure is often an option here.

With a brief fashion and physiology lesson fresh in the mind, it’s simple to discuss failure. At moderate intensity, failure is hard to achieve. It hurts like hell. This is the domain of the well-known term, the ‘burn’. It’s real and it sucks. A mixture of fuel shortage, a build-up of exercise by-products (lactic acid) and lowering work efficiency make the ‘burn’ a hellish experience. Taken to extremes, you’ll suffer wobbly legs, nausea, and in some cases, you will be physically sick.  Yummy! That sounds super-awesome. It’s not. It’s awful. Yet, if you want to be the best at some sort of moderate time frame event this is how you’ll train. Now bear in mind this is also where most exercisers tend to gravitate and you’ll understand why people avoid failure. Frankly, if you puke all over the treadmill, I’ll personally send my minions to throw you out the gym. I jest. They’ll just clean your carrots and oatmeal with a congealing gel and call me an asshole boss. Hey, I’ve cleaned poop from a guide dog’s mess—I’ve done my tour of duty.

So, if I said ‘failure is always an option’ but paint it in such a poor light, what’s the point? Ah young Padwan, you forgot about the high-level, short-burst duration intensity. This is where failure works best. This is where glory is found in gritted teeth and high-pitched squeaks. This is actually where we should all train if health is your goal.

Before going any further, it would be wise to add an advisory. In all seriousness, pushing to failure in exercise carries risks to those with certain health conditions. Apathy, lethargy, and low motivation are all…. No wait. I was reading from the Fascist Gym Instructor’s Handbook. Let me get my stethoscope. So, here we are: heart conditions, unstable angina, respiratory problems, and certain joint problems, among other things will not play well with exercising to failure. In short, don’t try it unless you know you are medically sound.

Press-ups. Or push-ups. Whatever. This ‘Failure’ post came from humble beginnings. I was on holiday and thought I’d get back into the press-up regime. Every couple of nights, I’d do a whole bunch until failure. First couple nights I didn’t count. Then, I did. I pushed until about 99% effort to get 52. In my younger years, I’d reached 100—proper ones, arms passing 90 degrees, ankles, hips, and shoulders in a straight line. Regardless, 52 isn’t a huge number but it’s a good start. To make sure I was pooped, I tried more after five seconds. Managed two. I’d say I reached failure. Now here’s the golden moment; when you realise how effective certain things are. I stopped doing them for over a week, after doing them for only one week. When I tried again, I did 60, then 65 to actual failure. To be clear: I worked out ‘close to failure’ on press-ups for about four sessions. Stopped doing them for 7-9 days. Tried again, managed over 60.

What happened to get such an improvement? Simple, I trained to failure. This is how systems work. Your body works within tolerances, as though a finely tuned pedal-bin. Use it within those tolerances and it’ll give you years of carefree enjoyment. Don’t use it (be sedentary) and it’ll seize up. But if you use it all the time, things change. In the pedal-bin analogy, you’ll probably want to get a bigger bin (or eat less). But the body is a wonderful and adaptable thing. When the body is pushed to its limits, it releases hormones. These remodelling chemicals promote growth in active tissues. In effect, the system gets a message that its not robust enough, so to adapt to the immediate stresses, it rebuilds. Without those stresses—that push toward failure—it wouldn’t need to change (that mediocre level).

But what about puking? Short term high-intensity work tends to fail on mechanical grounds. Muscle fibre recruitment maxes out and the system can’t give any more. It takes grunt and a whole world of focus but it’s much less painful than the burn. Mental effort to summon your ‘maximum’ strength isn’t easy. I’d argue that compared to the ‘burn’ it is much more pleasant. Not all things suit failure. Pressing a heavy weight above your head until it collapses on you is exercise Darwinism. But you can train close to failure. It takes experience but learning your body’s limits allows you to push it close. The rewards are high. The pukiness, low.

Wait, you say, I can’t even do a single press-up. Excellent. Try one. Push as hard as you can. Create an air gap between your body and the ground, try, try, try. When you realise you still can’t move, it doesn’t matter—that was failure. You tried (really hard, with all your red-faced effort), you failed. That is good. Better if you accidentally vented some ass-gas. That’s a trumpet of noble effort. Try again tomorrow, the next day. Slowly, that push will rise higher. Your body will adapt.

Failure is always an option.

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