failing a rep

Failing a Rep: Novice Troubleshooting

Observe the data and make small changes that will help you continue adding weight to the bar. If you approach strength training as one, big important experiment, you can never really fail a workout. You just learn.

Failing a Rep: Novice Troubleshooting

Training for strength is an act of self-experimentation, taking the idea that we can direct physical changes to our bodies and that lifting heavy weights followed by food and sleep will create structure, building muscle mass and improve our ability to lift heavy weights in the future, ultimately making us stronger, more capable human beings. Few other physical pursuits take a theoretical framework and apply it with the same cost of effort and as does strength training. This act of self-experimentation tends to bond communities of lifters together because we have those shared hardships and shared failures.

Or, at least, perceived failures. If we extend out the idea of self-experimentation with us both as scientists and test subjects, then the question of failure is an interesting one. If you are a novice lifter, adding a little bit of the weight to the bar every training session. You will come to the point in which you know that your plan is non-sustainable. Eventually, you will add weight to the bar and simply be unable to complete all the sets and reps you were supposed to lift that day. As the subject of your experiment, this may be a letdown. No one likes to set expectations for themselves and fail to meet them, but as the scientist, the failed set, rep, or workout is a data-point.

When it comes to training, The exact process by which lifting heavy weights makes you stronger is a simple concept—your body adapts to the specific demands you put on it—but over the course of your entire lifting career involves subtle adjustments that balance what you can do in the gym and what you need to do in order to signal your body that it needs to adapt and get stronger. Strength is built upon variables like the exercises we choose to do, the number of repetitions and sets included in a workout, and the absolute and objective weight on the barbell.

Failing in a workout for a novice lifter isn’t a problem, it is a signal. It tells you that there is something in your experiment that requires attention. Where people tend to get stuck is in trying to back up and repeat the same experiment over and over again. This can become akin to running into a wall, then backing up to do it again; when that doesn’t work, you back up farther for a better running start. The problem isn’t that there is a wall in your path; it’s that you failed to see the ladder that allows you to climb over the wall.

Failing a lift or struggling as you get stronger is the paradox of progress; the more you do, the stronger you get, the more difficult training becomes. Training can and should be fun, but it will rarely be easy. There is tension between knowing that training is difficult and the reality that you cannot continue on the same program indefinitely. We start every new lifter on some version of a linear progression program because novices respond to direct training better than any other lifter and this novice program is the most direct expression of the theory of strength training there is: four exercises, three days a week, taking about an hour each day.

 

Workout AWorkout B
Squat: 3 x 5Squat: 3 x 5
Press: 3 x 5Bench Press: 3 x 5
Deadlift: 1 x 5Deadlift: 1 x 5

“3 x 5” and “1 x 5” stands for “three sets of five repetitions” and “one set of five repetitions.” We call these the work sets for each lift. They tell you what the focus is for that day’s workout. Following a warm-up, you perform the prescribed number of sets and reps for the day at the same weight, with a few minutes of rest between each set. Then move on to the next lift. The weight is determined by what you did in your last workout. Our goal is to add a little bit of weight—usually 2.5 to 5 lb.—each workout. If your prescribed workout for the day is to squat 135 lb. for 3×5, you would do three sets of five repetitions at 135 lb. Next time you squat, your goal would be to squat 140 lb. for 3×5. The amount of weight you add to the bar each time can vary from person to person but adding 5 pounds each workout is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Novice gains on a linear progression are the low-hanging fruit of training. There is no simpler, more effective program that works for just about everyone as they first start to lift weights. This program can last from a few weeks to several months, depending on the lifter, but eventually, something has to change. You know you have reached that point when either you fail to complete your planned workouts or you struggle mightily enough that continuing to add weight to the bar no longer makes sense. How you go about making changes depends on how or why you failed to make continued progress.

Troubleshooting Failure

Failing a rep happens for one of three reasons, most of the time. Either you have been lifting with poor form, your recovery from a previous session or sessions was poor, or the organization of your training needs to change to allow you both to recover and to continue to make progress. In order of priority, you need to address form problems first, recovery issues next, and the organization of your training third. The organization of your training (your program) sets the theoretical bounds of your progress. It is a building plan for your strength. Your form and how you treat your recovery are the materials you use to build. You can have the best-planned house in the world, but if you are building with straw, you are wasting your time. When you fail a rep, the first thing to do is to make sure the substance of your training is solid: your form is correct and you are doing all the things outside of the gym that will help you succeed.

Form

A beautifully executed squat to a depth below parallel is a mathematically different event than a half squat. Using your legs when you press, rounding your back when you deadlift, driving your butt up off the bench when you bench press, and other major form errors take away from the efficacy of the lifts and court setbacks in training. Though getting injured from training is rare, consistently poor training is neither useful nor safe. If in every workout you are doing the lifts differently, there is no way to tell whether you are getting stronger as you add weight to the bar. You may have simply improved your form, for example, or done the opposite and started shorting reps or “cheating” with your form as the weight got heavier. Form muddies the data of the self-experiment, and you can’t make meaningful progress without at least a baseline of excellent lifting form.

It is a myth that all lifters can or should lift with absolutely textbook perfect form, every single rep, in every single workout. You should have excellent form before you progress beyond the basest novice stage, but even highly experienced lifters struggle to demonstrate perfect form all the time. Excellent form means you execute your lifts consistently with a full range of motion, with the ability to set and hold your back in extension, and in a manner that allows you to adjust for improvements rep-to-rep, set-to-set, and workout-to-workout.

Haphazard lifting is the biggest obstacle to progress beyond the very early novice gains that you will face, and it must be dealt with. If you fail because of poor lifting form, then your first step should be to set up a process for fixing it. Whether you are a novice or not, the best investment to your long-term success that you can make is to have a system to check and work on your form every time you train.

Every time you train: video your work sets and review your lifts. Watch your lifts immediately, while the lift is still fresh in your mind. Evaluate your lifts, implement cues to improve them, and practice and evaluate your own movement. There is a feedback loop of learning to lift, the more you engage it, the better: learn, see, practice, and repeat

Learn

The models for each movement contain visual markers. An experienced eye can pick out the relationships between the bar and your various body parts, such as the angles your limbs make at certain joints. The goal is to start seeing yourself as a stick figure of connected articulating points and to learn what movement and angles constitute “correct” form.

See

While everyone looks a little bit different when they perform the lifts, you look like you. If you have a long torso and short femurs, you will squat with a more vertical torso than someone of the opposite build. But you will do so consistently, and you can learn what you should look like. An experienced coach can help you confirm or correct your visual perception of your lift, but over time, you will get better at picking out your form errors and learning what cues or fixes work.

Practice

Every rep is a practice rep. Every time you train, you are practicing the skill of lifting. Resist the urge to “just lift,” especially during your warm-up and on lighter days. You should never just go through the motions. Every rep has a goal. Those goals will become more narrowly defined as you become more experienced, learning the fixes for common errors and the best practices for focusing before each rep. The weight on the bar will try to distract you from the lift. Practice eventually wears the path to natural movement.

Baseline Form for Progress:
  • You can feel when the lift is correct. As a novice, you may not be able to consistently execute a lift correctly as the weight gets heavier and heavier, but there should be some “aha!” moments where you feel the correct movement.
  • You have a basic understanding of what your correct form looks like. Videoing every work set is a valuable tool to bring together your “aha!” moments with the visual description of your form. Doing this allows you to see pieces of the movement and experiment with corrections.
  • You start to learn your habits and how to correct your mistakes.
  • You consistently execute lighter weight and warm-up sets with perfect form.
  • Mistakes are not tied to the weight on the bar. If you find that once you get to a certain weight on the bar you cannot squat to depth, you have a form error that you must correct before manipulating your programming to make progress.

Recovery and Outside the Gym Stress

When you put your lifting shoes away, store your plates, and replace the barbell, you haven’t stopped training for the day. You have only switched from the “stress” part of training to the recovery part. The part where you start building strength.

The assumption from classical mechanics that matter can neither be created nor destroyed holds true for training. Your goal is to build muscle mass. In the long run, that is the only change that will reliably improve your strength. That mass has to come from somewhere, and we cannot grow through deficits. Only excess energy, nutrients, and bodily processes allow you to build muscle mass.

When you lift weights, you aren’t ingesting or creating energy in your body, you are using energy and causing a particular type of stress. That stress signals to your brain and body that it needs to engage the process that will make you stronger. Those processes require fuel and the co-opting of some of your systems to work. We can give them those things by eating enough calories, eating enough protein, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough sleep at night. One of the first things a lifter who wants to make progress beyond the novice phase must learn is that what you do in the gym will not automatically lead to strength gains.

We can have ad hoc instances of recovery problems such as several nights of poor sleep, illness, poor eating (not enough), and mental or physical stress from somewhere outside of the gym. When you fail a workout as a novice, and you suspect recovery or stress issues, then the first thing to try is to simply repeat that workout next time you train. Big changes in performances for a novice are usually either form issues or issues from the recovery end of the cycle.

The remedy is to fix your recovery problems and repeat the problematic workout or week. Repetition with better recovery helps control for external factors that may have caused you to fail a rep or workout. You will either continue to make progress or not. If not, and if you are confident that you are recovering as well as you can from training. Then it is time to manage the organization of your training.

Managing Stress, Fatigue, and Progress

For the novice lifter, progress is measured as more weight on the bar within the structure of the training program. Moving three sets of five repetitions at heavier and heavier weights requires more and more effort from the lifter. As the weight on the bar goes ever upward, the lifter has to produce more force to move it. This isn’t the only way to measure force production, but it is the one most directly tied both to our goal and to the method we are using to achieve that goal. New, heavier loads are the measure of progress; the goal is weight on the bar, more than you had to lift last time.

The changes that follow your first plateau as a novice are those that allow you to add weight to the bar. There are many different things you can do to troubleshoot here. We like to prioritize small, simple changes over more complicated solutions and focus on increasing the weight on the bar. These changes follow the Minimum Effective Dose principles for programming, which you can learn much more about here:

Weight on the Bar

The first change to make is to reduce the amount of weight you are adding to the bar each training session. If you had been adding ten pounds, switch to five pounds. If you had been adding five pounds, switch to two and a half pounds. For most men under sixty years old (yes, that’s somewhat arbitrary), adding less than five pounds per increment is counterproductive for the squat and deadlift; the same goes for less than two and a half pounds with the upper body lifts. Everyone else is on a case-by-case basis, but simple, linear progress is efficient and worth preserving as long as it is possible to do so with smaller jumps in weight.

The next weight change for the squat and deadlift is to introduce a light day in the middle of your training week. This allows you some more recovery time and a structure that will still prioritize the progress you had been making twice per week.

A sample novice program with a light day in the middle of the week.

Rearranging Volume to Add Weight to the Bar

After you have adjusted the increments and added a light day to your squat and deadlift, the next change is to maintain the overall volume of your training but to organize it in a way that allows you to continue to add the same weight-increments to the bar. There are a few different ways to do this:

  • You can change from 3 x 5 (three sets of five repetitions) to 1 x 5 (one set of five repetitions) with two back-off sets, a change preferred most often for your lower body lifts.
  • Or, you can flip 3 x 5 to 5 x 3. This tends to work well for the upper body lifts. It is the same total volume, but most people can lift more weight for five sets of three than they can for three sets of five.

In each of these changes, the total volume in each workout did not change.

Change Volume Last

After manipulating the sets and reps, you may need to change the volume lifted in each workout. At this point, you should start to look at your week as a whole training unit with the goal of preserving your overall weekly volume while making changes that allow you to still add weight to the bar regularly.

There are different ways to make changes and maintain progress, but the basic idea is a reduction in volume or the number of reps-per-set that will allow you to add weight to the bar on one of your heavier days in the week: switching to 2 x 3 or 1×5 or 1×3 with back-off sets or 2 x 5, etc. are all acceptable changes. But you want to make up that change in volume on your other heavy training day in the week. In the above example, the first change occurs on Friday, where the weight on the bar goes up and the volume goes down. The following Monday, we’ve added a set of five to the workout to make up for Friday’s change.

Keep in mind that personal records (PRs) are not just for the intensity but also for the volume day. If you move from 3 x 5 to 4 x 5 or 4 x 4, continue to treat more weight lifting for a given amount of volume as PRs. By tracking multiple rep ranges, you will better track your own progress and where your intensity and volume work should fall as you need to accumulate stress.

Know Where You are Going

The above changes point pretty typically toward an organization of training known as “Heavy, Light, Medium,” which is one typical way to organize post novice training, at least for a while. In particular, the changes above would lead you toward a program known as the Texas Method, which may look something like the following:

We’ve written about these programs more extensively, as well as other intermediate and advanced programming issues. For more, on intermediate programming, read the following articles:

Heavy Light Medium (HLM): A Common-Sense Framework

The Texas Method: Clear Goals, Measurable Changes, and Applicability

Four Day Split Programming: Using MED Principles to Tame the Beast

Just like a scientist, observe the data and make one small change that will help you continue adding weight to the bar. While training does tend to become more complex the stronger you get, you also learn more about yourself, and you become a better scientist. If you approach all of this as one big important experiment, you can never really fail a workout. You just learn.

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