Don’t “Go To Low-Intensity Failure”

Static Contraction = True High Intensity

Static Contraction = True High Intensity

I’m sure many millions of words have been written in the world of fitness and strength training on the role of “failure” when performing an exercise. For the 2% of you who have never heard the term, “failure” refers to lifting a weight repeatedly until you cannot continue. For example, when doing a conventional bench press you might perform 11 complete reps and then discover that you cannot complete the twelfth rep no matter how hard you exert yourself – you’ve ‘lifted to failure”.

The key principle, we are all told, is that by continuing until failure you have guaranteed the targeted muscle has engaged all its fibers and therefore you have stimulated maximum growth. Sound good?

But there is a problem.

The fact is you can go to failure with any weight. Let’s use the simple biceps curl as an example. You could pick up a 1-pound dumbbell and start doing reps with it until you get to 200, 300 or whatever and then your arm would get very tired and you’d have to stop because you literally could not perform one more rep. You’ve exercised your biceps to complete failure. So will that ensure huge biceps?

Well, let me ask you this. When a marathon runner continues running for 26.2 miles or an ultra-marathon runner goes for 100 miles, do they develop massive thighs? Answer: no.

The runner with the massive thighs is the sprinter who goes all out (to failure, in a way) in 9 seconds. And when I say ‘failure’ here I mean the sprinter is slowing down after 9 seconds.

Intensity Is The Only Meaningful Measure

The real measure that matters in the realm of strength training and muscle-building is the intensity of the lifting. Intensity, in the realm of science, is usually the amount of a thing divided by time. Not just how many pounds on the bar or how many reps or how many sets of reps, but the TIME it took to do all that. So performing five reps with 100 pounds in 25 seconds is not as intense as performing those same reps in 12 seconds. This is something any skeptic can test in the gym. Test me…you’ll see I’m right about this.

I’ve done a lot of intensity measuring in the last 15 years and I can tell you this with certainty – Intensity trumps every other parameter. High intensity is more important than total weight, more important than longer duration and more important than going to “failure”. You can only increase your intensity of lifting by being stronger; by having bigger, stronger muscles.

This is why all rational roads of strength training ultimately must lead to Static Contraction training. SCT embodies the highest possible intensity of muscular overload. My recent studies are teaching us even more about this. We can measure one second or less of peak muscular output and when the duration is reduced to so little time the weights are staggering and new muscle growth is stimulated.

What If?

And that’s a key point. If humans performed 2 or 3 seconds of high intensity muscle contraction but did not get stronger or otherwise trigger an adaptive response, all this high intensity stuff would be moot. For example, if it were a biological law that a human must exert a muscle or muscle group for 60 seconds of intense overload before an adaptive response was triggered, then every workout program would have to be engineered to accommodate that law or else it would fail to build strength. But no such biological law exists! Thus, the 9-second sprinter grows big leg muscles. And the 5-second SCT trainee does too!

Intensity is the answer… are you really getting enough?

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23 Responses to Don’t “Go To Low-Intensity Failure”

  1. Brian at #

    Once again, great article on this “intensity” business. It has many scratching heads as to why they are not getting stronger or bigger. I think about the countless workouts I have done trying to go to failure using various weights, or at near failure and although the workouts were “tough” not much on results. Got plenty of soreness though. Oh, and that’s another myth. My clients are always disappointed if they did not have soreness the next day from their workouts? Hey, our egos love the soreness, but that soreness is not going to magically create that body of your dreams. Not by a long shot. I could go on and on from a physiological standpoint, but my advice is always do not seek soreness. Pete is right-it is all about the intensity.

  2. frank at #

    Hi Pete,
    Having great success using SCT for a month now! I’ve already told you I’ve gained muscle and lost fat even though I’m on a cutting diet this time of yr. 1500-1700 calories a day. For anyone out there that wants to tell me thats impossible, save your breath, I won’t argue with you. All I can say is, I cut every spring and it’s never happened before but its happening now with Sct. Can’t wait to see what my results will be when I’m back on a higher calorie diet.
    As far as intensity goes, I wasn’t getting enough before, but I surely am with SCT. Much higher, but able to track recovery time needed. All other training in the past not enough intensity and aways guessing at amount of recovery i needed. I’m only having one problem Pete, and I don’t know if you can repond on this post. I have a combination Smith machine and power rack. but absolutley no access to a leg press. I could make a guess at what exercises to substitute that have the next highest level of efficiencey to use, but I thought since you have done all the testing, you could tell me with certainty the ones that would be the best to use. If thats not possible here please tell me where to ask. SCT is fantastic, you have put together the greatest training ever!
    Thanks Again, Frank

  3. Happy to hear that you are making unprecedented gains. With the equipment you mentioned it sounds like strong-range squats inside the rack are your only option at home. You might consider visiting a local gym with a good leg press on a “visitor pass” or daily rate once or twice a month.

  4. charlie sanders at #

    on a smith rack, i would try a pillow on the ground for the sacrum and press up with your back on the floor. think it through for safety but maybe you will have to make sure the rack is stationery and you may need extra weight…lol…
    or there is some sort of hoist that goes around your hips and the bar hangs tween your groin, no lumbar load. but again 100lbs will be necessary soon enough… also you dont have to have weight just get something immovable….lock out the bar. or build an indestructible cage..

  5. Tom Strong at #

    Regarding the smith rack idea; please make sure that you have the safty set, I would think that it would be easy to roll out of the hooks. I don’t think that I would like the angle either. Rather than the pillow you could use an adjustable bench; I’m assuming that you use one for the bench and shoulder press.

    I do like Pete’s idea of going to a gym once or twice a month on a guest pass or pay daily rate to use their leg press. Sure would be a lot less expensive than buying one. I saw a nice one on for about $2,300, thats several years of gym membership!

  6. There exist a a large fraction of the human race which is far more interested in a specific sports specialty, such as in downhill skiing or triathlon or climbing, which involves training for endurance. Yes, you and I are interested in muscle size and strength, but we are a relatively small part of humanity, and somewhat fixated on a rather vain endeavor. At 71, my personal interest now lies in optimizing the aging process and sticking around in good physical condition for as long as possible. But you couldn’t interest me in a 10k run, because there is just too much agony and prolonged discomfort involved. SCT gives me the muscle/strength (and the vanity-rewarding body shape) to know that I’ll probably be able to stand from a seated position for a couple more decade, and thus be a productive person and not a burden to fellow man and loved ones. It also lets me accomplish that with minimal time in the gym, minimal soreness down-time, leaving plenty of time for other pursuits. Being able to dead-lift 500lb at this age gives you a certain credibility as well. I love SCT!

  7. charlie sanders at #

    at what height are you lifting that deadlift sir? are you right at the top of the kneecap? is that free weight? please describe, i feel i am about to be very impressed.
    height and wt would be nice too. i do strongly suggest that you be mindful of your lumbar lordosis while in deadlift especially, protect those discs. i do definitely agree about the getting out of the chair comment, once upon a time i read something about independence being based on getting up out of a chair and if we could delay care home entrance by one month the country would save billions a year…. kudos to you.

  8. charlie sanders at #

    if only you would stop cutting, imagine the gains, food is good…at least keep the protein up…carbs are my enemy…

  9. charlie sanders at #

    ooops 1000lbs soon enough… sorry and pillow/pad to lift your pelvis a couple inches to give some angle and take stretch off hamstrings

  10. Brian at #

    Frank, 500 lbs for a 5 second lift! Wow, phenominal! What an inspiration!

  11. Tom Strong at #

    Hi Frank,

    I’m a little behind you both in age and deadlift weight; currently 70 and my last deadlift/shrug was 385; but we have simular goals. At 100 I expect to have a lean, muscular build and be able to climb mountains/go to the bottom of canyons!

  12. Tom Strong at #

    Hi Charlie,

    At age 70 I am more interested in my long term health rather than becomming a man mountain. Dr. Atkins, the leading proponent of the low carb diet, died of a head injury caused by a fall. However at the time of his death he was overweight and had heart problems.

    I prefer the food pyramid which has me going for 60% of the calories that I eat to be Carbs, 20% Protein and 20% Fat. This carbs gives me energy and the protein is enough to build muscle.

    What are your goals?

  13. Tom, at this rate, you will achieve those goals…..guaranteed!

  14. charlie sanders at #

    slipping in the snow/ice is so sad, a friend of mine in her 60s just sheared off the head of her humerus in a similar fall a few years back….which is how atkins fell, i doubt he was a shining example of his teachings though…i did not realize you were in your 70’s too. i don’t believe in the food guide pyramid. the zone proportions of 40c 30p 30f made the most sense to me as a regular program. i did atkins when i fell off track with my workout and diet that got me +50lb in 9 months. lost a pound a day for 2 weeks and never hungry or tired, i found that most don’t do it right and get themselves in trouble i was also on a major health kick then so i was getting lots of good stuff too. i would think that if you are mobilizing/losing fat then you will have energy available. resting muscle prefers pure fat for energy. carbs trigger insulin which stores fat, some say that if you eat them just once a day you benefit from having just one insulin trigger daily…i don’t know much of your particulars but i was just wondering…
    my current goal is to get back to some activity and strengthening, been laggin on diet too. in the last 9 months i lost about 25lb of muscle and gained 5 lb of fat. i feel like crum and am stressed to the max. before that i was 6’6″ and 240 leg pressing a ton, lat pulling 450 curl250 abcrunch 400+ dl550 shrug 915etc. so a goal would just be to get back to eating enough again, then taking myself to get some network spinal analysis care enough to get to the next level in my body/mind. thanks

  15. Tom Strong at #

    Hi Charlie;

    How old are you? In your 70’s also?

    You are taller, are heavier (more muscle), and lift a lot more than I do so I can’t advise you on what to eat to gain muscle. My concern with the Atkins/high metabolism diet is that the arteries will get cloged with fat and cholesterol. At this point in my life my blood pressure, my cholesterol and other indicators taken for a health checkup are always where they should be and I don’t take any meds to get there. Being a Vegan for the past 20 years has worked for me – I will continue it for the next 30+ years.

    BTW; what equipment are you using to do a ab crunch of 400+ pounds?

  16. charlie sanders at #

    not 70s. i am only almost 38, but these days i feel a mess. glad you are drug-free. i hope you are getting regular care for your nervous system too. i recommend NSA and/or at least chiropractic, so often people avoid the medical route but don’t do anything to help their body other than eat clean and exercise and yoga type stuff. i don’t really believe in the ‘normal’ bp and cholest. i have major distrust of the medical community. i have an apparatus with a steel rectangle and a forceplate that i can do my crunches etc. with. i think somebody could really make a good machine that is affordable without much gimmickry. if we had enough faith in the concepts we could use an apparatus with no measurements and just ‘test’ with conventional means. just give your all on an increasingly infrequent basis and test once in a while. think immovable objects

  17. Tom Strong at #

    I guess that I have never believed in no pain/no gain! I have never felt the need for chiropractic care or even a massage. I do believe in alternative treatment with a mind/body connection per Dr Chopra or Dyer but also go to a medical doctor for a checkup once a year. I have had good results and have had some early treatment that could have saved my life or at least a lot of pain! Usually at my annual checkup the Dr will recommend a flu shot which I will not take advantage of – I fortunately don’t ever get flu; he laughs and agrees that I am healthy enough without it.

  18. RobJ at #

    I agree with the importance of intensity when using the SCT methods. One thing I would like to say about it though is that “intensity” is a learned process. I notice this mostly when I teach SCT to my wife for instance, or my son. They “think” they are being intense but the feeling of all out exertion is often foreign for people. As their weight goes up, and more effort is required, they kind of learn what it means to really go all out for those all important 5 seconds. As a former football player, it was easier for me to be “intense” for 5 seconds, and then rest (almost describes a football play), but for others I noticed that it is a learned process.
    Another point about intensity for me is that there are days when I am just not in an “intense” mood. Could be one of a hundred reasons, but I can feel when I am just not right that day. So I don’t lift. I wait sometimes as much as a week or even two. Another great advantage to SCT.

  19. RobJ at #


    That is awesome. I am sending your post to my Dad.

  20. charlie sanders at #

    i experience this too. sometimes i workout anyway and break the spell, it seems to be some emotional or mental ‘stuff’ that releases. then the intensity comes. sometimes it is on the fifth attempt that i snap out of it….

  21. Donnie Hunt at #

    I need to give “Static Contraction Training” a lengthy, exclusive try. Hopefully will get to start tomorrow.

    This site and blog are great! I feel the message of this article is very important

  22. Carl at #

    Hi Donnie:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Glad to hear you’re ready to do so!


  23. Monico at #

    You can also try craigslist. I got a TDS commercial legpress for $400. You may have to wait a while but it’s worth it.