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Is It Really Safe to Go to Muscular Failure?

Many new Total Results clients initially have some trepidation about the intensity of our workouts. For those of you who might be reading this blog for the first time, I should define what is meant by intensity, at least in the framework of exercise. Intensity equals muscular inroad (fatigue) divided by time. Some new clients have never weight trained before, while others may not have done so in many years, and even when they did it was something very different from the Total Results philosophy. Still others may have only been exposed to weight training as part of a sport they played in high school or college, in which case there was likely very little scientific teaching involved. In any event, this initial concern that new clients sometimes have could be a product of poor advice they have gotten from the commercial fitness industry, or it may be due to the fact that they have never worked with the high level of effort and concentration that is the hallmark of our exercise protocol.

Fear is a powerful motivator, but it also causes us to think irrationally. The fear of something, whether it's a fear of heights, snakes, or airplanes, is often worse in one's mind than it is in reality. In our current context, a new client might be fearful of injury, failure, discomfort, or afraid of the unknown. All of these concerns are perfectly normal, especially fear of the unknown, since our exercise protocol is a completely new concept for most people that walk through our front door for the first time. Please allow me to alleviate your concerns right now: the Total Results exercise protocol is the safest methodology that has ever been invented. As we often like to say, this workout is safer than stepping off of a curb.

The most important component of our philosophy, certainly on the cellular level, is that we take each exercise to and beyond the point of momentary muscular failure. This means that each movement will last until you are not capable of completing another repetition in proper form (somewhere between one and three minutes of elapsed time), and then you will push against the movement arm for an additional five to ten seconds before exiting the machine and moving on to the next exercise. The word failure has a negative connotation in most other aspects of life, but here it is quite a positive event. This "failure" is actually the stimulus that we seek to trigger the body's growth mechanism that stimulates physical improvements. These improvements will happen as a result of this stimulus, provided you meet the body's requirements for sleep, nutrition, hydration, and stress management. You must also allow enough time between workouts and not overload your body by performing too much additional physical activity (this can vary depending on the individual).

You might say to yourself, "That's all well and good, but is it actually safe to train that intensely?" The answer is yes, and I will explain why. The primary cause of any injury is excessive force. From physics, we know that force is equal to mass times acceleration (F=MA), and it is possible to cause an injury even when lifting a seemingly light object in a violent or ballistic manner. We don't really know what the tensile limit is for a muscle, tendon, or ligament, but what we do know is that the risk of injury rises significantly as one moves faster. The first two repetitions of each exercise carry the highest risk of injury, largely because our muscles are fresh and at that point they are capable of producing the necessary force to put us in jeopardy. Care must be taken to avoid undue acceleration, bouncing, jerking, or adjusting while under load. Ironically, it is near the end of the exercise, when muscular failure looms near, that the exercise is safest. This is because the musculature has been weakened to the point where it cannot produce that same type of injurious force that it could at the beginning of the exercise. While these repetitions are certainly the most challenging and uncomfortable, you are far less likely to get injured at this point. Arthur Jones, the exercise pioneer who developed Nautilus and MedX exercise machines, had a phrase that described this phenomena - "The harder it seems, the easier it is." The reality is that one is far more likely to get injured entering or exiting the machines in a haphazard manner (often unilaterally loading the pelvis and spine, never a good idea) than they are by going to muscular failure.

With novice clients, we do not push them to muscular failure right away. I explain this to people during initial consultations, and that helps to ease their concerns. Our main objective, certainly from a teaching standpoint, is to use the first few sessions to develop proper form, speed of movement, turnaround technique, pace, and proper breathing as the building blocks for success. It is also critical to customize exercise machine settings to optimize joint comfort and proper positioning. The same is true for clients that return after an injury or significant layoff from exercise. It's important to ease them back into it, not only to develop confidence but also to reacquire skill. In such cases, the weights would be slightly (or significantly) reduced, based on the duration of the layoff. Client safety is priority number one, and we make sure to emphasize that not just during an initial consultation, but on an ongoing basis as we build relationships with our exercise trainees.

Yes, Total Results exercise sessions are brief, infrequent, and intense. Working at a high level of effort will result in some burning exertional discomfort in your muscles. While this is not necessarily pleasant to experience, it is temporary and not indicative of an injury. We find that most clients' tolerance for discomfort improves significantly over time as they get physically and mentally stronger.

The bottom line is that achieving muscular failure is the most direct route to stimulating positive muscular, metabolic, and cardiovascular change, and it is perfectly safe to do so. Having an instructor supervise your workout enhances safety and will prompt you to work at a higher level of effort and focus than you likely would experience on your own. Schedule an initial consultation today!

Posted January 12, 2023 by Matthew Romans