Failed Reps: Why You Fail
Coach Koldewey explores the reasons why we fail reps in the gym, and strategies for how we can perform at our best in the face of adversity.
Why You Fail
By: Nick Koldewey, BLOC Exclusive Coach, PBC
Nick is a Professional Barbell Coach and Nutrition Coach located in Northern Virginia (NOVA) and trains clients out of his garage gym: Blue Ridge Barbell. He is passionate about strength training and truly believes that ANYONE at ANY AGE can become stronger. Nick is a straight shooter and preaches simple, hard, and effective barbell training in order to aid individuals in their pursuit of lifelong strength. Get coaching with Nick.
It can be very frustrating when you are making steady progress in the gym, and then one day, wham—you fail a lift. For weeks (or months), you have been diligently following your coach’s program. You don’t miss training, ever, because you are an excellent client (yes, that is all it takes to be a good client—just show up). Yet for some reason, one or more of your lifts do not go as planned on a particular day. Perhaps you chalk it up to some external reason: “Maybe I didn’t eat enough today,” you say, or “I had a terrible day at work.” Fair possibilities.
Your coach sees the failed attempt and gives you feedback on how to improve next time (as well as some heartfelt motivation) and reevaluates your programming. With good pointers from your coach and an adjusted program, you feel good and move on.
Until you fail again.
Maybe it was a few weeks later and you failed on the same lift. Maybe even the same weight. Frustrating, indeed. Unfortunately, this is part of the lifting journey—though not something we use as a selling point. Can you imagine that welcome letter?
“Hi! Welcome to Barbell Logic! Here, you will eventually fail at everything we tell you to do. Now let’s get started!”
This is not untrue, however. You will fail every lift at some point. It is not a matter of if but when you will fail. If you are reading this and have yet to fail a lift: Well, welcome to BLOC! You have likely just started here. If you have been here for a while and have not failed a lift yet (which I doubt very much), you probably need to push yourself harder in the gym.
Of course, I am not encouraging you to fail; I am simply saying that you will if you are training hard. So, accept it as a fact of life. You have to pay taxes. You will die one day. And you will fail all of your lifts at some point.
As a brief disclaimer, it should go without saying that you must always ensure you have the correct safety measures in place (spotters and safety pins set at the correct height) so that when you do fail, you don’t injure yourself or worse. Don’t combine two facts of life (dying under the barbell after a failed lift) by not doing the responsible thing.
Now that you know you are going to fail, and you have your safety precautions in place, let’s discuss the reasons why you fail. In my estimation, there are three:
Reason #1 – Technical Failure
A technical failure can be defined simply as executing the lift incorrectly. On the press, for example, you might not have kept your elbows up, and so you pushed the bar forward off your midfoot balance point. This is probably the most common press mistake in history and what coaches often call a mis-groove. Technical failures are the easiest to fix, in theory. You are doing X, and X causes you to fail. So stop doing X, and do Y instead. Boom. Easy, right? Well, maybe.
If you don’t have a coach, fixing a technical issue can be difficult for a variety of reasons. You most likely do not have your proprioception (your ability to sense your self-movement and body’s position) refined enough to feel what you are doing wrong—or right, for that matter. Even if you are a natural athlete with a good sense of your body in space, you may lack the knowledge of how to diagnose and address your technical issue. In either case, it would be best to record yourself performing the lift so you can at least get a view of yourself from a third person’s perspective. Errors might jump out at you. You might see things that you cannot necessarily feel while performing the lift. There are many YouTube videos and articles that can help you diagnose your movement issue and give you tips on how to fix it (check out Barbell Logic’s YouTube Channel, for example).
The other option, of course, is to get a well-trained eye (a coach) to look at you. This is the fastest and most efficient way to solve your movement issue. In many cases, a good coach can add 10-20 lb. to a lift just by tweaking your movement pattern, making you more efficient. But this is not always a guarantee. A person can only be coached so much before their form breaks down under a heavy load—no matter how many cues a coach yells out. Everyone has their thing that breaks down once the heavy bar is placed on their back. A personal example of this is my knees always seem to valgus on heavy squats (when the knees cave in toward each other). I am a competent coach. I have been coached by other coaches. I am aware this is an issue, and yet this still happens to me—no matter how many times I hear “knees out” or “hips back” over and over again.
A popular quote comes to mind here, from the legendary Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” In lifting terms: Everyone has the perfect cue until they put that heavy bar on their back.
Reason #2 – Physical Failure
A physical failure can be defined as not having the physical strength to produce enough force to move the barbell. A physical failure is pretty easy to prevent. If your all-time one-rep max deadlift is 405 lb. and you decide to attempt a 500 lb. deadlift—well, you are going to fail. Pretty simple. Most of the time, these types of failures occur at the end of linear progressions or training blocks. You have built up a ton of fatigue over a substantial amount of time. Toward the peak (or end) of your programming, you start to hit that wall of fatigue. The peak of your training is where you hit PRs, but it is also where you are most likely to fail your attempts at those PRs.
A good coach will be able to recognize a client’s ability (or lack of ability) to hit the prescribed weight for the next workout. They do this by considering several variables, like current programming, sex, age, other life stress, etc., and making their best-educated decision on weight prescription. The goal of a coach is not to send you off to physical-failure-land but to keep you on the gainz-train by making adjustments as necessary. That being said, it is not an exact science, and you will still reach physical failure at some point.
To fix a physical failure, you need to look at your programming. A good strength program should be structured to allow you to make continual steady progress over time. The period of time is not necessarily important, as that depends on where you are at in your training experience. If you are a novice, for example, your physical potential is high, so you should be able to add weight to the bar every week. As an intermediate with a moderate physical potential (as you are more trained and more adapted to the stimulus of that training), you should be able to add weight to the bar every week, or every few weeks. An advanced lifter, with the least amount of potential left untapped, will require a more revolving program (or block-style programming) to hit new PRs every few months or even just a handful of times in a year.
If you don’t have a coach, programming for yourself can be difficult for similar reasons as diagnosing your own lifting failures: you lack the knowledge to structure a good program. For instance, in my opinion, there is no such thing as a training plateau. When I hear people say that their training plateaued, what they are really saying is the program they are following has stopped working. Either the program wasn’t sustainable, the lifter didn’t follow it appropriately, or it sucked to begin with.
Programming is often overcomplicated. Coaches and lifters alike have their preferred methods of programming, and most of their justifications for choosing one program over another appear to be rational. The honest truth is that it is simply because they like it better than other things they have read or tried. There is nothing wrong with this. Most programs work. Naturally, the follow-up question to this is: “What makes a good program?” Assuming you are picking a strength training program that utilizes barbells, here are some questions you should ask to figure out if a program will work for you.
Does the program fit your current physical ability?
In other words, are you a novice, intermediate, or advanced lifter? If you are a novice, for example, a block or conjugate style training program would not make sense. Would it work? Sure it would. But others would be more effective given your training level—the same way an advanced lifter running a linear progression-type program in preparation for USA Powerlifting Worlds wouldn’t make much sense either.
Does the program reasonably increase the training stress over time?
This one might be a little hard to figure out. Training stress? What does that even mean? The best way, I think, to measure training stress is via tonnage.
Tonnage = working sets x reps x weight. For example, squatting three sets of five reps at 405 lb. would equal 6075. This is a measure of the amount of work you performed during this training session. It is a good metric to gauge how much stress you can handle and helps you monitor your physical work capacity as it goes up over time.
Measuring tonnage is not perfect, however—as you can lift lighter weights for more sets and reps and get a higher tonnage number. Does that mean you did more work? On paper, yes. Physiologically, not necessarily. Hitting a squat for one rep at 500 lb. is obviously a different training stressor than 10 reps at 100 lb., even though 100 lb. would equal double the tonnage (500 vs. 1000). That is why, in addition to tonnage, you should only be lifting weights between 65% and 95% (or RPE 6-9) of what you would be able to lift for a one-rep max if you are training for strength (sorry, CrossFit).
Using tonnage is just a simple way to track your training stress over time. You can track personal records (PRs), too—although, in my opinion, this can get out of hand quickly. Tracking your one-repetition maximum (1RM) makes sense, or your 3RM or 5RM. But your beltless-band-assisted-front-squat-to-side-lunge-wearing-a-coonskin-hat 10RM might not be worth tracking, as that metric is not contributing to your overall goal: strength. My advice is to track 1RM, 3RM, and 5RM for the main lifts (squat, press, deadlift, bench press) and track your working set tonnage (warm-ups don’t count). That is plenty of metrics for tracking progress. (If you are a BLOC client, our app does all of this for you automatically!)
Does the program fit your schedule?
This is a big one, and what I think really defines a good program. This is the first thing I iron out when I get a new client. What is your schedule? How many times per week can you train? What do you do for a living? Do you work from home on a computer all day, or do you work in construction? If we had unlimited time to train and didn’t need to work, we could have the perfect warm-up routine, the perfect workout, and even train several times a day. We’d be like one of those stupid t-shirts: Eat. Sleep. Train.
The reality, however, is most of us are not professional weightlifters or bodybuilders. We have jobs, children, and just life stuff. The role of a good program is to fit within your schedule, not fit your schedule into the program. If a program calls for training four days a week, but you can only train two days a week—this is not a great program for you.
Of course, the other fix for physical failures is to outsource all this thinking to a coach. A coach’s job is not only to teach you the correct movement patterns but also to manage your training stress. Ideally, with a solid program from a good coach, you should rarely have a purely physical lifting failure. A good coach can recognize when you are getting close to failing and can adjust your program accordingly before that happens. This keeps your progress moving up and to the right.
Reason #3 – Mental Failure
“I am the cause of all my upsets. I am my worst enemy.” -Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club)
Unfortunately, this is the number one reason people fail a lift.
You can have plenty of technical ability and a great program, but as soon as you get in your head, you will fail. We have all been there. Sometimes it happens in the warm-up sets. Sometimes it happens days before when you sneak a peek at the next session before bedtime. Sweet dreams.
Your workout might start like this: The sets feel good as you warm up your squat and add weight. You try not to think about the work sets to come, but once you load the bar for a PR attempt, the doubts creep in. That little voice speaks up in your mind, fear takes over, your heart starts to race, and a nervous pacing seems to take over your legs, moving you about the room aimlessly.
You go for it anyway. The second you put that bar on your back, it feels like a truck. Your brain screams why! You take that first step back out of the rack and are just glad you didn’t fall over. As you take your stance, you are questioning how this is going to work out. Although you are trying not to pay attention to it, your mind is telling you: “You won’t do it. You can’t do it. Do you feel how heavy this is? Come on; you’ve had a long day. You don’t need to do this. You couldn’t even if you tried.”
I think we know what happens when you start the descent. You just keep descending with a slight, weak attempt at somewhat of a hip drive so you can tell yourself that you tried.
The reality is you quit before you even took the bar out of the rack.
First, realize that this is completely normal. That little voice of self-doubt affects us all. It’s what keeps us in check and prevents us from doing something stupid. But realize this: you have to conquer yourself before you can conquer the lift.
Breaking through that wall you put up for yourself is imperative to making progress in your training. It is not natural to put a heavy weight on your back or to pick it up off the floor. It’s not part of our intuitive nature. But the same mental fortitude that made you show up to the gym that day regardless of your doubts is what you will use to conquer that lift. You are in the gym because you want to be a stronger, better version of yourself. Well, if you really want that—fully committing to attempting this weight is a must.
There are two ways to break through your mental walls: First, talk to yourself. There are plenty of studies out there that show self-talk (literally, talking to yourself in your head or out loud) has performance benefits.
The article Self-Talk in Sport and Performance states that “the underlying idea behind this hypothesis is that positive self-talk is linked to cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and affective mechanisms such that athletes who use positive self-talk are likely to decrease anxiety, improve concentration and focus, and perform better… Self-talk has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the learning of sport skills, the performance of sport accuracy tasks, the performance of tasks that involve strength and power, and on endurance sports” (Raalte & Vincent, 2017).
There are many more studies out there and countless testimonials from elite athletes on the benefits of self-talk. Yet I find people rarely do this. Even the serious clients I have had in the past don’t utilize self-talk. They are disciplined in other areas of their training, but talking to themselves seems odd.
Odd or not, you should talk to yourself—and I advise you do it out loud. This is what I do. I admit that I train alone in my garage, but even in gyms, I’ll talk to myself. Do I yell it as loud as I can and make a scene? Of course not. But if I am going to hit a heavy weight, especially a PR, you can bet I’ll be talking to myself. It’s not hard. You can say things like:
“Come on, _____ (Insert your name here) !!!”
“Let’s go, _____!!!”
“You’re a monster. You’re a MONSTER!!! (This one I use quite a bit.)
War cries work just as well, too. Again, I would not advise doing this in LA Fitness, but at home in your garage or with your lifting partners at your local iron slam-shack—war-cry away.
“Booooooooooo Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!” (This is mine. Feel free to steal it.)
Get over feeling silly with self-talk. It might seem silly, but the scientifically proven performance benefits outweigh your pride. You have to be your own biggest fan. If you have ever had the privilege of hitting a PR in a lifting meet or at a lifting seminar/camp, then you have had many fans cheering you on. That is the great thing about lifting among like-minded people is they truly want you to hit that weight. Having them yell motivational things at you as you get ready for a big lift fires you up—but don’t let it replace your self-generated fire. Self-talk is the way to conquer that little voice in your head. Even if you have to fake it, then fake it. If you say in your head or out loud, “I can do this!” but don’t believe it? It does not matter. Keep saying it. As we used to say in the military: “False motivation is better than no motivation.”
One last thing on self-talk: Use what I call the “self-talk sandwich.” Use self-talk to crush the lift, but also use it to congratulate yourself once you complete it. I let out a huge “YES!” as I am locking the weight out. Sometimes, if it really sucked, I give myself a “Good job, TANK!” or an “attaboy, TANK!” Again, you need to be your biggest fan.
Encourage yourself at the start, and congratulate yourself when you finish.
The second method is visualization. Again, many studies show the benefits of this practice. In the book Fear is Fuel, Patrick J. Sweeney discusses how he used visualization techniques that he learned in the Olympic training center not only to supercharge his sports performance (specifically in the sport of rowing) but also to fight a cancer diagnosis—and beat it. A quick Google search of visualization studies and techniques reveals many websites, blogs, and physiological journals. It is sufficient enough to say for this article that visualization works. It not only works to picture in your mind how you will achieve something, like a PR squat, for example, but how to react to things when they go wrong during the PR squat attempt.
Visualize everything. What will you say to yourself before you walk up to the bar (self-talk)? How are you going to grab the bar? The left hand then the right hand? Or right hand then left? When you duck under the bar, how does it feel when you place it on your back? When you un-rack it, what does it feel like? Light? Of course it does. What foot do you step back with first? What does that huge breath feel like right before you start to descend? When you hit depth, how big of a hip drive are you going to do? Biggest of your life, right?
Visualize the things that could go wrong, too. This is more about how you are going to react when something goes wrong. You are planning your response to how you will navigate adversity. What are you going to tell yourself if the weight feels heavier than you expected? What happens if you have a slight misstep or take longer than normal setting up your stance as the weight gets heavier? What is your plan to keep moving forward so you can hit your goal?
You will have failures and setbacks. It is part of the lifting journey. Do not seek failure, but do not fear it either. No one said this would be easy, but how you navigate your setbacks is really what separates the okay lifter from the outstanding lifter. For me, it’s not about the weight you lift. It’s about how you face the inevitable adversity. You have to find a way around the setbacks, no matter what the setback is (technical, physical, or mental), to keep pushing forward.
If you are lucky, lifting heavy weights will be the hardest thing you ever do in your life. An anonymous quote states, “Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.” If strength training is the biggest obstacle to overcome in your life, that’s something to be thankful for.
Use it, don’t waste it. Use it to become a better person—a stronger person—both physically and mentally, through conquering adversity in your training.