Training to failure

I e-mailed this to my kettlebell supplier on 24 September 2004, in response to his admonition not to 'train to failure'.  He backed up his advice with the advice of Pavel Tsatsouline.


Not training to failure? I reckon training to failure is natural. Let me explain; it is what fit people have done with their fit bodies for millions of years. Nothing else makes sense. Sure, scientists are able to come up with some reason which shows that training to failure doesn't match with the best current science on optimal physiological outcomes. But modern science is so reductionist that it misses the point: we have a whole, thinking organism working in its social and physical environment. Reductionism is way off beam.  Training (per se) to failure, I agree, is not necessarily natural. But exertion to failure is natural. What's more, it exemplifies Darwinian natural selection. At times and at events critical to human survival, individuals pushed themselves to the absolute limit. The alternative meant shame, loss of a spouse, loss of a child or even death. So, people had to push themselves to the limits to survive.  Those who didn't do so did not survive to pass on their genes. Training to failure is damned uncomfortable. My dead lifts are presently 185kg and not enjoyable. Three years ago I held for a short time the world record for my age group (for that year) in the 500m indoor rowing - it was the most unforgettably unpleasant experience I have ever had - and the worst of it lasted only 30 seconds. Even farmer's walks till you drop the weights are unpleasant. But I do all these things because it is what our bodies and minds (in unison) were made to do. Training to failure may not be 'necessary' for fitness. But it is an essential part of our genetic inheritance and I believe, we should do it, not daily, but often enough not to lose touch!  In fact, doing it too often would get it wrong - exerting to failure, life-and-death, are rare events. I should add that 'training to failure' for me includes my work on the rowing machine, it includes bounding and burpees where it is not the weight that causes failure, but the required skill or energy levels.

I reckon Pavel is wrong here. Pavel is a great trainer, innovator and example. But, could it be that he is selling himself (and, boy, is he a salesman!) to people who will be turned off (from paying hundreds of dollars for) his courses if they know they will have to push themselves to the max in front of others. I bet when he gets them on his courses, they are pushed to failure!


The next day, my 'bell supplier wrote:

I do understand what you mean, I was a commercial fisho off Tasmaniaís southern coast for a few years.  No such thing as backing off when things were going pear.  That is the real sharp end when itís down to you and the guy with the scythe.

In those days we worked till we knocked off and some of the out of body experiences were extraordinary after 48 hours no sleep.  What I think Pavel means is to train until you almost break, not actually break.  Breaking takes so much out of you it is detrimental and almost breaking is where the building is.  Practice in breaking is useful though I agree so you know what it feels like and how much further you can push your self next time to extend the limit.

The thing that irks me as a retailer (if 2-3 sales a month is retail) is how I know how 40% of the bells I bust my guts over will sit in a corner because the folk who bought them donít grasp the idea that it isnít the bell itself that gets them fit or loses the weight.  

To close, I sent a raw bell to a guy in the AFP (Australian Federal Police) today. I told him in the email that if the handle rusts, heís getting fat. I think I owe you for the idea.


Another subscriber to the Evolutionary Fitness list (Wally Day) wrote later the same day: "I like to imagine what it *might* be like to be in a natural ev-fit situation. For instance, let's suppose you are moving logs around to build a house. You would likely move as many logs as possible (until you could not move another one), rest until you felt recovered enough to continue, then move the next bunch (set) of logs, rest, etc. It's unlikely anyone would stop anywhere short of "failure" before starting the rest period - doing so would be a complete waste of time and would extend the total working time indefinitely."

Evfit home    e-mail your comments    Read about the alternative: gentle exercise

Page last updated 30 April 2010