HIT FAILURE: Observations, Conversations, and Clarification

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:

  1. Methods and techniques
  2. Exercise selection and order
  3. Workout pace
  4. Rep scheme and style
  5. 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:

  1. Find the Right Resistance: Select a weight that allows between 8-12 quality reps.

  2. 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.)

  3. Perform Reps Like a Master: Do every rep smoothly with intense, calculated, and deliberate intent – as if you’re in a rep-performance contest.

  4. 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.)

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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Wouldn’t it be great to see a video of this in action, a demonstration of the set/rep performance

I finally learned this during my 30-10-30 workouts

Why don’t you post a video of your rep/set performance, so Ellington and I can help coach you?

I will work on that, i workout alone at 5am at LA Fitness, gonna have to find someone to do the filming

Get a selfie stick/tripod for your smartphone.

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@Christian_Thibaudeau made a terrific explanation why not going to failure here. Brilliant!

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Or just put your phone on the ground against something and press record…

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(No one ever thought of that. :wink:)

We encourage lifters to get a small, lightweight, inexpensive tripod for filming exercises. It makes “a perfect shot” setup easy and almost instant, significantly improves video quality, and increases the likelihood of doing more videos.

We want more videos.

It makes it a lot easier to coach exercise performance.

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For sure, that’s why poeple still think they need someone to film there lifts…

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Just lean your phone against a dumbbell or something

Edit: And I’ll now see how late to the convo I was

In other words, just shoot the video!

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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.”

This is it. How did things get from this to the intensity porn it became?

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It’s easy for instructors to scream at trainees until they collapse. It’s hard work teaching and coaching proper form.

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And where would you like to see these videos, Tim?

Thanks to your question, we just created a new forum:

Video Form Coaching

Be the first to start a thread.

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Because heavy, high reps DO lead to growth. They’re not necessary for growth, but they work. I have done many a destroy-myself-til-I-can’t-stand leg day, and the only reason I ever felt run down in the days following was when I didn’t recover enough, aka not enough sleep or not enough food.

Do every day people who just want to build some muscle, look good, and lift for longevity and health need to do any of that? Hell no.

In terms of bodybuilding, I think we’ve been discussing technical failure this whole time. Technical failure is great, and it’s how I operate most days. But failure - the type of failure that Tom Platz talks about in this video - that’s what builds champions. I know myself well enough to know that even if I had the potential to become a champion, I wouldn’t want to do what was necessary to get there. It’s like when I watch @T3hPwnisher’s videos - I see his physique, I want a similar physique for myself, but I don’t want it bad enough to do what I have to do to get it.

In terms of marketing a strategy for the masses, I think getting away from focusing on that type of self-torture is smart, and is more likely to have somebody keep coming back to lift. I’m fully onboard with that. I just want to make sure that we don’t forget that giving it your all DOES work, regardless of the toll it takes. I see people wave away the accomplishments of the biggest and best BBers of all time with “genetics” and “drugs”, but in a room where everyone is genetically gifted and on boatloads of drugs, the people willing to push themselves the furthest will rise to the top.

To finish, I’ll just say that I’m never going to watch a video of somebody consistently lifting to technical failure. Others will - in fact, I’d bet more people will be interested in that. But for those of us who love to occasionally or frequently dive into “deep waters” (shamelessly and deliberately stolen), it is the “intensity porn”, as you say, that draws us to this weird hobby.

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Who said they didn’t?

@billdes didn’t say heavy high-volume porn; he said INTENSITY porn.

I understood “intensity porn” to mean obsessing with and insisting on doing failed reps at the cost of form and all things good.

I believe most informed coaches would agree that there’s a place for challenging high-rep sets.

It seems you’ve spent a lot of effort making a point that doesn’t need making.

That video, and my post, are about intensity. I don’t know how that video wouldn’t qualify as intensity porn. The reps are irrelevant - Tom Platz and myself were talking about failure, true failure, and

To answer that, you were the one who said this about that type of failure.

I wasn’t even disagreeing with you, I was letting other readers who might take this to mean that that type of failure doesn’t work, that it does work, but it still not might be worth it for most.

I was actually kind of agreeing with you, but clarifying a point that I thought might be misinterpreted by others.

I guess we disagree about whether or not the point had to be made.

@billdes: “How did things get from this to the intensity porn it became?”

@flappinit: “Because heavy, high reps DO lead to growth.”

I don’t understand your comment’s relevance when you conflate traditional HIT with Tom Platz’s training methods.

This entire thread is about classic “HIT FAILURE,” and its evolution from the high-intensity training attributed to Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden.

“Intensity porn” was coined in the context of the traditional, one-set-to-failure HIT devolving into an amorphous frenzied act.

I don’t think anyone would confuse Tom Platz’s training with classic HIT or an amorphous frenzied act.

His workouts included high volumes of focused, brutally intense sets. Tom Platz is impressive, and I would enjoy working with him. I think he’s great. And I appreciate his contributions to training and admire his drive and love for his work.

He specifically speaks about high intensity in the video I posted, and Tom Platz’s videos feature him screaming at the top of his lungs, as somebody holds down the leg extension machine while he violently quarter reps the weight until he can’t move.

He was and still is the ultimate high-intensity guy.

I feel like you’re focusing on that one sentence of mine, having quoted it twice (I admit it could have been worded differently), when everything after that sentence directly speaks about failure - the type of failure that destroys you, and the type of failure that I believe billdes was speaking about when he said intensity porn.

I didn’t mean to offend, if that’s what happened. Wasn’t looking to disagree with anyone initially either. I mostly train to technical failure.