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phys ed

“No pain, no gain.”

“Go hard or go home.”

“Train insane or remain the same.”

The number of stupid clichés in the fitness world is almost endless. While their intent is to inspire, I’ve yet to meet a single soul who felt uplifted or encouraged by these baseless platitudes. Instead, what happens is the exact opposite – naive lifters are left with a faulty set of instructions that will, ironically, stunt their progress altogether.

It’s true that in order for exercise to deliver tangible benefits, one must exert a certain amount of effort. After all, the body won’t adapt unless it’s forced to. Casually working within your comfort zone isn’t going to trigger any changes. But the notion that each and every set must be taken to the point of complete muscular failure is outdated and wrong. Or rather, our ideas about what “failure” looks like are wrong.

When is a set of push-ups done? Is it when you’re completely gassed, face down on the floor in a tepid pool of spit and sweat, arms like wet noodles? Or, is it a repetition or two before that? In my eyes, failure is the point at which technique breaks down. As soon as reps start slowing to a grind, that’s it. The set is over. Rest, refocus and repeat until you’re done.

Resistance training is a balancing act between quantity and quality. You need to accumulate the right amount of reps or else you’re wasting your time, but those reps also need to be performed properly or else you risk injury (on top of looking like a goof as well).

Here are three effective methods for chasing failure, methods that prioritize performance over sheer volume. These methods can be of particular use to those who train at home with minimal equipment, but they work just as well in the gym, too.

Ladders

Ladders are a great method for accumulating reps on challenging exercises while staying relatively fresh. They’re particularly useful for busting through plateaus. If you’ve been stuck on five pull-ups since before the pandemic, make this your plan of attack.

First, fire off as many clean reps of your chosen exercise as possible. Once your pace begins to slow to a grind, stop and make note of your rep count. This is the top end of your ladder. Rest 10 to 15 seconds, then repeat, aiming for one or two reps below that top end number. Keep repeating this cycle, subtracting one or two reps each time until you reach the bottom of the ladder. After performing that final rep, give yourself 30 to 60 seconds and then climb back to the top.

Drop sets

Start with a heavy load or a challenging variation of a body weight movement. Perform as many reps as possible, stopping when your form falls apart. Rest briefly, reduce the weight or regress the movement, and repeat. Continue with this pattern – hit technical failure, rest, reduce the load and repeat – until you can no longer maintain ideal form.

This method tends to work best with barbells and dumbbells; just rack the weight when you’re done and adjust the weight accordingly. You can also use it for body weight exercises, though. For example: Start with pike push-ups, move to a traditional push-up, then to a kneeling push-up. Or, hit as many chin-ups as you can before adding a resistance band to help you fire off a few more reps.

Isometric finishers

An isometric exercise is one in which the muscles are engaged without movement, like the plank. Finishing a set with an isometric hold – or adding a couple of sets of pure isometric work after the fact – will leave you feeling spent like nothing else. This is perhaps the most brutal of the three methods outlined here. It also happens to be my favourite.

Isometric finishers can be used with body weight or external weight. You simply hit a near-max rep count on your exercise of choice then pause at the most challenging point of the movement for 20 to 40 seconds. For push-ups, this means holding your nose an inch off the floor. For chin-ups, this means holding your chin an inch below the bar. The hard part is maintaining full tension and proper alignment throughout the body while holding these positions. When done properly, your muscles will be begging for mercy in no time at all.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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