Technical Proficiency and Failure Training – How To Know When It’s Safe To Push To Failure
I just read a great article by Charles Staley that adds a whole new dimension to evaluating your experience level with lifting weights. I’ve written in the past about how to rank yourself from Newbie to Pro but his take is refreshing and simple.
The context here is about how close to failure you should go when weight lifting. And tellingly, it depends on the lift in question. If you are mechanically proficient at a lift, the closer you can get to muscular failure and still be safe. If you are unstable as you fatigue or as you take on heavy loads, you really shouldn’t push to failure. For isolation movements (single joint exercises), it’s pretty safe to push. But I strongly recommend the vast majority of your routine revolve around the compound, multi-joint movements.
Now, he mixes “fatigue” with “max weight” in his article, and he obviously knows better – those are two different phenomena. The “way” you fail after doing 20 squats with a light load is different than how you fail going for a heavy triple. That said, since most of the routines I recommend are in the 4 to 12 rep range, I think we can conflate the two issues just like he does.
Proficiency Definitions From Charles Staley
1. Incompetent: You don’t know how to, and/or aren’t able to perform the exercise properly.
At this stage, you are just too new to the lift to load it properly and/or push yourself. Practice with light loads is what you need to do. Let’s say you’re just learning the military press. Most likely, maintaining alignment is nearly impossible even with light loads. You don’t have the full range of motion, your back arches, elbows flare, etc. So you just need to practice with the bar for a while striving for perfect form. Once you learn perfect form, you can start loading it and move to the next stage.
2. Unstable: With moderate loads, your mechanics are fine, but once you reach a certain weight on the bar, you start falling apart.
This is the most common thing I see in the gym. Guys (mostly) who know their way around the gym but really haven’t mastered the lifts. Part of moving past this stage is deliberate practice; part is just total number of hours (years) under the bar.
3. Stable: Your technique – while not necessarily perfect – looks the same no matter how much weight you’re attempting.
If you are doing a 10RM for 10 reps, and rep#1 looks essentially just like rep#10, you probably have stable form. Similarly, if you then try for a heavy double and your form looks essentially just like the 10-rep set, then you are stable. Here, if you fail, you simply fail: if you drop into the hole (the lower position of the squat) and you just can’t stand back up. It’s not that your knees cave or that you turn it into a “good morning”, you simply have exceeded your momentary strength.
So how would you rate on each of The Big 7? For example, I would rate myself:
- Deadlift: Unstable (I think, by Staley’s definition, most people start to breakdown on heavy deadlifts)
- Squat: Stable (I’m not as strong as I’d like, but I think my form is very stable)
- Bench: Unstable (my elbows start to flare with heavy loads)
- Overhead Press: Stable
- Row: Stable
- Dips: Stable
- Chins: Stable
I would rate my daughter, who is still learning to lift and so to be fair, hasn’t really tested at max loads:
- Deadlift: Stable (she might be gifted in this lift)
- Squat: Unstable
- Bench: Incompetent
- Overhead Press: Incompetent
- Row: Incompetent
- Dips: Incompetent
- Chins: Unstable
What about you?