Neural Factors of Fatigue and How to Manage Them
by Nathan J. Polencheck
Most of us donít go to the gym to fail, right? Of course not. Weíre there to succeed and reach our goals. At least, I hope thatís whyóyou guys there to pick up chicks, get out of the power rack. Anyway, for the success-minded athlete, the concept of failure sure is bandied about a lot by those ďin the know.Ē Muscular failure, if you havenít guessed by now, is the issue at hand.
For some schools of thought, achieving failure (or not, in some cases) is the defining point in determining whether or not a program will be successful. It seems that a great many arguments in the strength training world revolve around that single point. One doesnít have to stray far to see this. Fortunately this article is not one of those arguments. Rather, Iíve chosen to inform instead of bicker.
HIT Upside the Head
The concept of achieving absolute muscular failure, or the so-called ďmomentary muscular ability,Ē can trace its origins back to the 1970s and the HIT school of bodybuilding. The HIT philosophy took its shape around the theories of Arthur Jones and Dr. Ellington Darden, and was personified by the late Mike Mentzer, a bodybuilder on par with Arnold in his prime.
A system claiming to value logic, knowledge, and empiricism, HIT can seem bullet-proof to many. Mike Mentzerís elite-level bodybuilding physique, built by HITís methodology, only cemented this claim. Indeed, to its credit, it does encompass a general framework and set of principles that can be excellent for building muscle and developing general strength qualities when incorporated properly.
Unfortunately, a bad thing happened to HIT. Be it through logic, the salesmanship and business practices of Jones, or some measure of all, HIT was based upon a fundamental flaw: the idea that achieving muscular failure was not only desirable, but an absolute necessity for achieving muscular hypertrophy.
HITís measure of intensity, unlike the remainder of the exercise science world, is based on subjective effort. In other words, 100% intensity is pushing yourself to the point where you cannot achieve a full rep without assistance, a state referred to as concentric failure. The problem is that this measure of intensity (properly called intensiveness, a measure of subjective effort) has about as much to do with muscle growth as a good microbrew.
As later research into physiology would show, concentric failure is a predominantly neurological phenomenon. It doesnít directly cause hypertrophic increases, though it can correlate with them. In simple terms, failure isnít a requirement for getting bigger.
This leads to a whole host of problems with the rest of HITís prescriptions. Since training so intensively on a regular basis is taxing too many of the bodyís systems, the workouts must necessarily be infrequent. Not only must the frequency decrease as the lifter becomes stronger and more advanced, but the volume used in each session must also decrease. This runs 180 degrees counter to what the bulk of research tells us about athletes, who must actually increase the total training stimulus as they become more advanced.
These assertions were supposedly based upon raw logic, and in the absence of any information to the contrary, itís perfectly understandable how Jones and company came to those conclusions (though itís a widely known rumor that Jones created the one-set-to-failure protocol for which HIT is most famous as a means of getting people out of his Nautilus gyms as quickly as possible). However, thereís been a lot of research over the past few decades that has given us new insight into the bodyís processes, much of which overrides the logical extrapolations used by Jones and company. The HIT camp generally seems unwilling to change with the times however, for whatever reasons.
The point of this article is not to pick on HIT, though. HIT was discussed merely to provide a very convenient and easily recognized example to introduce the true subject. Specifically, I want to discuss just what failure is, its pros and cons, and how to use it effectively as a part of your bodybuilding and/or strength training program.
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