“I want you to go to failure,” says my personal fitness trainer as my heart rate swoops upward, and I grunt my way through the fifth rep of single leg walkouts. For the uninitiated: a single leg walkout consists of squatting, leaning over to walkout to a plank with my hands, do a pushup or hold the plank, then walk myself back to squatting and then standing up while pushing through my heel, ALL ON ONE LEG (see video below). I can modify this exercise so that 60% of my weight is on the side I’m working on, and 40% is on the other leg. I am absolutely not able to do this without my other leg sharing the load, at least not yet (I watched someone he was training do this all on one leg, so I know it’s possible). As he introduces each knew exercise into the day’s routine, he says he wants me to grunt, to fail, to push when my muscles are burning, until I cannot move that way anymore in that moment. This way of exercise is exhausting, and maybe a little intimidating.
I think it’s fair to say that humans generally want maximum benefits without maximum effort. When faced with pain we tend to give in to comfort because we don’t like what we’re feeling. Unless we learn to divine good pain from bad pain, we tend to lump all into the “bad” category. In the moments of muscle failure, my brain practically screams at me to “STOP!” because it’s interpreting the fatigue and burning as bad. So why would my trainer push me to failure? Why does going to failure matter? How does this concept affect my notions on life?
If you spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably seen memes like the following:
It’s obvious these people know something important about life and achievement. They’ve either observed, or experienced running the gauntlet of effort in life. These memes speak to the notion that victory demands heroic effort and maximum effort. The transition from nothing to something is where failure becomes the hallmark of accomplishment.
What makes going to failure so valuable to effort?
To start with, failure shows I am trying. I’ve gotten off the couch and I’ve tried. Failure breaks me down and shows me what I’m made of. It shows me what is realistic and what is fantasy. It helps me to build on a solid foundation based in truth. Failure strips me of my ego. And, in the case of my body, going to failure grows muscles. Training to failure with these types of exercises produces a higher growth rate for muscles needed for balance, and body control (click here for an article on training to failure). Digging in and forcing myself to finish a set, despite the screaming in my brain, produces the results I want.
In summary, going to failure is good for humans. It makes us better people, it helps us achieve more than we knew we could do, and grows us into champions in life. As the maxim goes, “Fall down x times, get up x+ 1.”
Don’t give up and allow yourself to fail, it’s good for you.