What Lifting Weights Taught Me About Failure

I used to get very upset when I failed at almost anything.

Darren Stehle Squatting

That’s me squatting

It’s taken me many years to realize that failure is necessary in life. We need to fail to succeed. Rarely do we “get it right” the first time. We only truly fail when we give up.

Recently I was spotting a client towards the end of a lift. He barely pushed out a ninth rep on a set of heavy flat bench dumbbell presses. He was aiming for 10 and was a bit disappointed with his result.

While I explained to him the concept of failure as a good thing, that failing on one of the last reps is the desired outcome of weight training, a big freaking light bulb went off in my head.

The Last Rep to Success

One of the most important goals in weightlifting is to achieve failure on one of the last reps, usually in the last set.

When you’re lifting weights you’ll normally do one or more warm-up sets for a particular exercise followed by a number of “working” sets and reps.

The Best Number of Sets and Reps for Your Workout

Say you warm up with one set and then have three work sets. Perhaps the last set in the program suggests 8 to 10 repetitions. You do the work, you’re lifting the weight, you struggle and can barely get the ninth rep, and then you fail.

You failed one rep short of 10! That’s fantastic! You failed within the prescribed rep range.

In other words, the outcome or goal was 8-10 reps. Hitting 9 reps is fantastic. Knowing this you aim for 10 reps at the same weight the next time you do this program day.

When you’re really pushing yourself to grow your muscles, failure on the last couple of possible repetitions is the goal. That means you succeeded in challenging your muscles to the limit for that particular exercise.

Reflecting on this I realize that program design has a built-in win-factor, one that is incremental. When you achieve the maximum number of prescribed reps, you increase the weight. When you can lift that weight for the prescribed number you win again; you achieve your goal!

The same can be said for success in life and business.

Failure Means That You Tried

Failure means that you made an attempt.

When you rep out and can’t lift anymore, that means you’ve gone as far as you can. It doesn’t mean that you can’t improve the next time you attempt the lift, or for any other activity in life.

You warm up and then you do the work. You measure, record, and assess.

Volume vs Intensity

After my reflection on how failing at the last rep is actually a success and the desired outcome in strength training, I realized there is another strength training principle that can be applied to succeeding in life.

This principle is known as the inverse relationship between volume and intensity.

Let me give you an example. When I design a strength training program for myself or a client I need to be mindful of many variables.

The most important one is the relationship between the total program volume and the intensity required to perform the workout.

If I follow a program that’s designed for very heavy weights it might consist of very few exercises, a larger number of sets per exercise, very few repetitions for each set (e.g. 4 to 5 sets of between 1 to 5 reps), and lastly long rest periods between sets (say 2-5 minutes).

Conversely, if I create more of a toning or circuit program I might program a larger number of exercises, 1 to 2 sets per exercise, much higher reps (e.g. between 12 and 20), and very short rest periods, if at all.

The reason for this is based on how our body responds to different types of strength training.

Heavy lifting is more neural training, whereas the lighter weights and higher repetitions are more metabolic.

Neural training implies that the demands on the nervous system are much greater. This is also true when you find yourself if flow state, lost in your work, completely in your zone on genius and the creativity of your mind.

For example, Olympic lifts require you to use such a large amount of skill and many more muscle groups to perform a single, complex and heavy lift. Have you ever seen an Olympic lifter pass out from the intensity of exertion? That’s what can happen if you push your nervous system (neural training) to the limit.

Metabolic training refers to using more of the different energy systems in the body, which is why you often sweat profusely during this type of workout.

OK, that was a long explanation just to get to my point!

To succeed at your life and business goals (the weight you want to achieve) and to complete the associated projects (the exercise selection) and tasks (the sets and reps) along the path to success, you need to put in the effort while simultaneously managing your intensity.

If I go for days on end doing a huge number of small tasks I will eventually burn out. The brain simply gets overwhelmed by the number of things you throw at it and at some point you need to stop to rest and recover. That’s the volume part of the success equation.

Volume could also be understood as the number of attempts you make until you actually achieve your goal.

Intensity, as it applies to achieving goals, relates to how hard you work, how much you focus on a single task or project at one time.

For me that might mean writing for 2-4 hours uninterrupted. After I’m done writing I usually don’t have that much creative energy left. I can go onto smaller, easier tasks that don’t need as much creative and/or intellectual brain power.

I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own work. If you plan out your day with too many activities that require a sustained, high level of intensity you will fail. Or you will only get the first one or two activities completed at best.

Similarly, if you run around all day doing small tasks, errands, checking email, Facebook, making phone calls, and doing a multitude of other small things, come the end of the day you might feel lost, confused, tired, and wonder what you actually accomplished.

Have a Plan for Everything You Want to Achieve

When you have a plan you can manage the relationship between volume and intensity. You can make the choice if you need to go high intensity for one day while making sure that you recover the next.

I’ve come to realize that designing a workout plan is a great template that I can carry over to designing my life and work goals.

For example, I could design a training program between two and six weeks in length. I expect that throughout the course of the program I will make progress. I will track my progress by recording my reps and weights. I will make notes along the way if something hurts or if I achieve a personal best. I will adjust if necessary.

When I’ve completed that program (or stage as it’s called in program design) I will review what I accomplished, look at imbalances or what was missing, and program that into the next stage.

I will again consider my outcome goals. Am I still heading in the same direction? Is the goal still one I wish to achieve? Are there any new goals and associated projects?

Smack upside my head! I’ve had this template in front of me for years. I’ve planned out workouts for myself and clients, but I failed until very recently to realize how the power of program design can apply to planning for success in my life.

The Goal Achievement Template

Set a goal as something that can be measured:

  • I will lift 275 lbs. in the deadlift for 1 rep.
  • I will double my revenue this quarter.

Establish projects to support each goal:

  • Design a program to progressively increase my weight by utilizing a wave load technique to increase my max load in the deadlift.
  • Create an online nutrition and fitness coaching program.

List out tasks to complete each project:

  • Schedule my workout days and times in my calendar.
  • Create a pricing structure for the various coaching packages.

I need to give credit to Todd Herman and his program, The 90 Day Year, for providing the clarity on how to write out my goals, projects, and supporting tasks and actions.

You can apply this simple structure to planning whatever you want to achieve in life.

Remember that failure is a tenant of success. Each action purposefully taken is a successive step towards completing a project that facilitates an outcome.

You can control your actions and projects; you can either do them or not do them.

You cannot control an outcome. You can shoot for a personal best, you can hope for a “best case scenario” financial target or metric, but ultimately all you can control are the actions you complete along the path to success.

As a wise Yoda once said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

And when you fail, pick yourself up, take care of your wounds and be happy. Be happy because you’re one step closers to achieving what really matters so long as you take the next step, so long as you press out that very last rep…

Be well