In high-intensity training (HIT), what does going to failure mean?
Does any of us know well enough to illustrate and teach it thoroughly?
If so, would we all agree?
I’ve observed thousands of HIT followers “going to failure” for 40 years. And there’s one thing for sure; there’s no practical consensus on how to end a set properly.
Many HIT enthusiasts have misunderstood this cornerstone component. And rightfully so. How can a one-sentence description in a book illustrate something so complex?
Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden are the developers of high-intensity training. And decades ago, when asked, both men told me their thoughts about when to end a set:
Arthur Jones remarked: “Always be in control of the weight and only use good form. I know when I’m on my last rep. I don’t need to attempt another rep to prove it.”
Ellington Darden instructed: “In a normal high-intensity training set of 8 to 12 repetitions, you reach failure when you can no longer perform the positive phase in good form.”
The perplexing thing is, you can interpret both instructions in numerous ways. And back then, it bothered me that neither offered a more helpful answer. So I observed Darden’s workouts and asked about Jones’s training. And that gave much-needed insight into what going to failure meant to them.
Arthur Jones’s Training
Ellington Darden and other reliable sources told me that Arthur trained machine-like. His form was exquisite, and he gave no outward clues when approaching failure other than ending the set – there was no stopping mid-rep, no grinding to a halt, no grimacing or grunting. Despite his stoic appearance, Arthur trained with high intensity, and his muscles visibly pumped up as he progressed through a workout.
Ellington Darden’s Training
I’ve seen Ellington work out many times, and it’s similar to Arthur’s style. Ellington trains with high intensity and is always in control of the resistance. He moves smoothly through a deliberate range, uses excellent form, and ends a set on the last good rep he can complete. He works hard and focuses on his performance – no mid-rep grinding to a halt or unnecessary extraneous movement.
Please Clarify, Dr. Darden
Over the last forty years, I’ve learned a lot from experience, experimentation, and doing projects with Ellington Darden and a host of brilliant fitness insiders. And even though I agree with HIT’s primary thesis, it’s been years since I’ve trained with the HIT of the 1980s.
You can’t devote your life to a technical career without striving to advance the underlying science with experimentation. And how sad would it be if there were no insights in forty years?
Coming full circle back to the 1980s, I recently asked Ellington to clarify what he and Arthur meant about going to failure. I told him not to tell me what he’d say about the subject today. I wanted to know what he meant back then. Here’s what he wrote:
From Ellington Darden, PhD:
My original failure description is precisely what I meant. BUT, you’re right, Tim; it’s deceptively ambiguous and subject to various misinterpretations. It’s been a source of numerous contentious debates and sometimes even got me off track with my answers.
So a complete illustration of my original intent is long overdue. I’ll start with the basis for HIT and work through the layers to the failure tie-in.
The HIT Ethos
HIT is a training system designed around efficiency, delivering the most significant exercise effect – for gaining muscle mass, strength, and metabolic conditioning – with the least amount of mechanical work. We want to conserve the body’s reserves for recovery and growth.
Here are the HIT components that comprise the programming and workout design:
- Methods and techniques
- Exercise selection and order
- Workout pace
- Rep scheme and style
- Set/Rep performance
These five factors are difficult to master well enough for most people to implement. So, I don’t believe HIT has done a good job mentoring its master coaches, which should be the topic of another discussion.
After you get access to a well-designed program with workouts, there is only ONE cornerstone HIT component a trainee must master – set/rep performance.
The genius in the workout is in the set/rep performance – it’s the application of the entire system. (Workout pace is critical too, but not on par with successful set/rep execution.)
Every HIT devotee should be obsessed with rep quality. And here’s how I define old-school HIT quality:
Find the Right Resistance: Select a weight that allows between 8-12 quality reps.
Isolate the Muscle Group: Use only the involved muscles to move the resistance, using the least amount of body English and extraneous movement necessary for handling the load. (There’s such a thing as being prissy with performance. It’s just as bad as being sloppy.)
Perform Reps Like a Master: Do every rep smoothly with intense, calculated, and deliberate intent – as if you’re in a rep-performance contest.
Understand What Reps Are Doing: Every repetition is essential and each one establishes a layered effect for the next rep to build upon. (Doing seven so-so reps, ending with a great last one, still makes the entire set so-so.)
Know the Last Full Rep: Learn to know when you’re on your last concentric repetition to take full advantage of the following eccentric. (Arthur was emphatic: a seasoned lifter should know the last rep several reps before it occurs. And I agree.)
Exploit the Final Negative: Ideally, most of your sets should end in the contracted position in preparation for the final, most-important eccentric stimulus. Even if you’re wrong and could’ve done one or even two more reps, that’s okay. Doing that last emphasized negative will produce the full effect.
Fix a Failed Positive Quickly: If you attempt a rep and it becomes obvious you won’t be able to complete it, don’t grind to a halt. Instead, slow down and pause, then put extra emphasis on the partial negative.
End With the Right Move: Conclude a set with a 5-10-second stretch/hold for optimal growth stimulus.
Once you fully understand all eight points, then I believe you’ll appreciate the meaning of this directive:
Complete as many quality reps as possible, then exploit the last negative for maximum growth impact.
Tim, this is what I was doing, and I believe Arthur was doing. And it’s what I wish we would’ve taught in the early years of high-intensity training.
Like you, I believe in the HIT ethos, and I believe we’ve advanced the principles to the next level and beyond.
Efficient, effective, thinking-man’s training.