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.
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?