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December 14, 2020

Are You the One Sabotaging Your Gains?

A common misconception in strength training is that every set must be taken to muscular failure to yield a positive adaption.

When it comes to high-rep hypertrophy and endurance training, the body will ultimately discontinue work due to your intolerance to bear the high level of hydrogen accumulation or the accumulation of lactic acid.

This is a natural process, as the body is protecting itself from excessive muscle damage.

When it comes to low-rep, maximal-strength work (1-3 reps), the body discontinues work due to the inability to recruit muscle fibers for the job adequately.

In certain situations, carrying sets of exercises to repetition failure are advantageous, such as 1 rep max testing or short microcycles that aim to increase one’s maximal strength.

In most cases, however, training to failure is both unnecessary and detrimental to performance.2

Rarely, if ever, do I have my athletes or clients go to failure when training a heavy compound multi-joint movement.

Should You Train to Failure?

Unfortunately, the notion that training to failure is necessary for performance gains has surfaced over the last several decades.

Advocates of this style often cite that it is necessary to drive adaption and push the limits, paying homage to the old no pain no gain adage.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the most effective methods are often less complicated than one is led to believe.

The issue with training to absolute failure in maximal strength is that it causes neural fatigue and disruptions in resting hormonal concentrations.1

I see most 1 rep max tests from novices, intermediates, and even some advanced athletes. Their performance deviates far from anything I’d consider technical.

The range of motion often shortens dramatically, and they often end up looking like more of a survival attempt than a lift.

Athletes who push themselves to the point of failure, session after session, set themselves up for the inability to properly recover and repeat high performance over the next few days.

In a phase where one seeks to gain strength, they will become fatigued and weaker if they consistently push to failure weekly. Additionally, this can lead to injury and retraction from strength training altogether.

The label that lifting heavy makes them stiff, tired, and hurt when, in reality, they never followed a properly structured plan.

When seeking hypertrophy or muscular endurance, reaching absolute failure is less detrimental from an injury, hormonal, and neuromuscular standpoint; however, it is still unnecessary.

It can lead to overuse, excessive muscular damage, and other similar peripheral issues.

Train Smarter

If you resist the urge to bury yourself and always push for that last rep, you will find the results rather pleasant.

  • The most effective method of training is the incorporation of the idea of RIR, Reps In Reserve.
  • This means that when you are working at a percentage of your 1 rep max, say 85%; you should theoretically complete four reps with a fifth attempt failing.
  • Rather than pushing for four reps at 85% of your 1 rep max, the idea should aim for two or three technically sound reps.
  • This is a continuum that can be implemented with nearly any rep range.

In 2011, the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science for Sport and Exercise presented a study3 that displayed two subjects doing squats at ~80% of their 1 rep max.

  • Subject 1 quit squatting with the weight when his movement velocity decreased by 20% (leaving more RIR), and Subject 2 quit squatting when his movement velocity decreased by 40% (leaving less RIR).3
  • These two subjects followed the program for several weeks, and the results were astonishing.3 Despite Subject 2 completing more overall work and pushing himself closer to failure; he sustained a significantly lower gain in strength than did Subject 1, who quit each set earlier to failure.3

This means that strength training should always be performed with technical proficiency and that in most cases, pushing to failure is unnecessary or even detrimental.

Obviously, certain situations will be different in novice versus experienced trainees; however, the general takeaway is the same.

How to Structure Training:

Once you can accept that going too heavy too often is a recipe for disaster, you are likely left wondering what to do instead.

Training with extremely light weights and low intensities is certainly not the answer either, as you will make no progress and eventually regress.

Training hard while training smart is what I preach to my athletes and clients.

Maintaining a disciplined schedule with perfect technical execution and a strong emphasis on recovery will yield the best results.

Training Programs

One of my favorite ways to layout training is through a method developed by Dr. Mike Stone of East Tennessee State University.

To keep his volume and intensity checked with his programs, he implements a system of loading prescriptions on a very light, light, moderately light, moderate, moderately heavy, heavy, and very heavy termed basis.

These terms are certainly not arbitrary, and instead, have a direct correlation to a range of load percentages as follows:

Load Prescription Load Percentage
Very Light 65-70% 1RM
Light 70-75% 1RM
Moderately Light 75-80% 1RM
Moderate 80-85% 1Rm
Moderately Heavy 85-90% 1RM
Heavy 90-95% 1RM
Very Heavy 95-100% 1RM

Dr. Stone then uses these numbers to lay out his program weekly, with each day being labeled appropriately to correspond with what the overall intensity for each lift will be that day.

Click the chart below:

Are You the One Sabotaging Your Gains? - Fitness, 1 rep max, maximal muscular power, rest and recovery, endurance training, injuries, hypertrophy, absolute strength, range of motion, periodization, incline press, training programs, microcycle, Reps in Reserve

As you can see in this picture, each week is displayed directly under each exercise, as well as the number of sets and reps that correspond with it.

  • For example, taking the incline bench press, you can see that three sets of ten reps are prescribed at a moderately lightweight on week one.
  • In this case, the person would perform the lift with a load equivalent to 75-80% of their 10-rep max, resting two minutes between sets.

This method does cater to the RIR paradigm previously discussed and allows the individual to work with a 5% range for that given exercise on that given day, depending on how they are feeling.

Furthermore, the intensity shows a steady increase over the course of three weeks, peaking at a moderately heavy intensity and unloading on the fourth week at a light intensity.

This is only one way to organize your training, but it is certainly a fundamental pattern to programming using a periodization strategy.

Remember to train intelligently and understand that sometimes the adage less is more can still reign true.

Training is not meant to break you; it is a tool to increase your capacity to perform.

There is a time and place to empty the tank and display your absolute end degrees of strength; however, nobody ever wins a weight room training championship.

They let it all out on the court or field.

Think about what your current training looks like and how you can implement a better strategy. Be honest with yourself and question whether you may be going too hard and falling prey to the pain and gain trap.

Train hard, but train smart.


1. Ahtiainen, J. P., & Häkkinen, K., “Strength Athletes Are Capable to Produce Greater Muscle Activation and Neural Fatigue During High-Intensity Resistance Exercise Than Nonathletes.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2009, 23(4), 1129-1134.

2. Martorelli, S., Cadore, E. L., Izquierdo, M., Celes, R., Martorelli, A., Cleto, V., Alvarenga, J., & Bottaro, M., “Strength Training with Repetitions to Failure does not Provide Additional Strength and Muscle Hypertrophy Gains in Young Women.” European Journal of Translational Myology, 2017. 27(2).

3. Sanchez-Medina, L., & González-Badillo, J. J., “Velocity Loss as an Indicator of Neuromuscular Fatigue during Resistance Training.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2011. 43(9), 1725-1734.


November 30, 2020

How to Start Calisthenics Training

With the amount of information we’re exposed to, it”s easy to overcomplicate our training. When it comes to calisthenics, it appears to look unsafe because we see the end product from the best athletes, but calisthenics is for all levels.

There are various forms of calisthenics/bodyweight training that you can do, based on your goals.

It’s important to keep things simple. You need to ask yourself this question “Does my training match my goals?” I see many times that people aren’t training specifically for the goals they want.

They say they want apples, yet they are planting orange trees.

This article is meant to simplify calisthenics training, guide you from beginner to advanced, and show you how all levels can use the body as a paintbrush to create a masterpiece.

General Strength- Beginner to Intermediate

I know the temptation to advance as quickly as possible is significant, but it will only lead to injuries, massive weakness, burnout, and frustration.

If you haven’t done this style of training before, then start with the basics. Work on the big six:

  1. Pullups
  2. Dips
  3. Rows
  4. Pushups
  5. Handstands
  6. L-sit

These are the pillars of calisthenics training because they cover the muscle groups used in many advanced skills. Do this for 3-6 months.

It may seem long, but it is the quickest way to advance.

If you skip this vital stage in your development, you’ll still have to come back to it because the chinks in your armor will show, and progress will be slow.

During this phase, the aim is to learn your first pullup.

For example, get comfortable with doing 12 + reps. As you progress, begin implementing different variations of these moves in the free beginner calisthenics program, Bodyweight Strong.

Use this time to improve your mobility and flexibility so that it won’t restrict you later.

Keep in mind less is more. More time in the gym and more days of training will not make for better results.

As a beginner, train 2-4 days a week. One hour per session is enough time to put in good, quality work while allowing adequate time for your body to recover.

Specific Strength- Intermediate to Advanced

This is when you start to focus on specific goals like static skills, freestyling, and rings.

Choose 2-3 goals to focus on:

It really depends on what you want and where you want to take your training.

Design your program in 4-8 week blocks, with your overall training 3-6 days per week.

Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
High Intensity Low Intensity High Intensity Low Intensity High Intensity Rest Rest
Pulling Strength Handstand Balance Grip Pulling Strength Handstand Balance Core Pulling Strength    

For example, if your goal is the muscle-up and handstand pushups, each exercise you choose for your program should improve some aspect towards reaching those specific goals.

I see too many people trying to cover every movement pattern and work on every weakness.

Less is more. You can always change your focus in the next program.

Build Strength

The word strength is used too loosely in fitness, so let’s define it. When I mention strength, I refer to absolute strength as 1 rep max and maximal strength (85% to 90% of 1 RM).

The stronger you are, the more calisthenics skills you can do.

Understand that your body has three energy systems that it uses independently or simultaneously to contract your muscles.

  1. Creatine phosphate lasts 1-12 seconds and is used for high intensity and demanding tasks such as heavyweight or difficult bodyweight exercises that you can only do for low reps.
  2. The glycolysis and oxidative system are used for muscle building, conditioning, and endurance.
  3. The anaerobic system lasts for 10 seconds – 2 minutes. The aerobic system is low intensity and lasts for a long time. This is your endurance training or for daily tasks.

How to Start Calisthenics Training - Fitness, 1 rep max, Training, endurance training, bodyweight exercise, calisthenics, mobility, flexibility, rings, handstand, energy systems, static balance, pullups, handstand push up, rows, l-sit, hand strength, bodyweight workout

Strength training is taxing on the nervous system, requiring a minimum of 24 hours to recover between strength sessions.

  • Train 2-4 days per week.
  • Training your absolute strength to failure should be used sparingly to test your current level or gain that motivational boost.
  • You cannot train like this all the time because your nervous system will not recover between sessions, and it will ruin your progress.
  • Instead, train your maximal strength leaving 1 rep in reserve. If you know/ think that you can do 3 reps of an exercise max (e.g., muscle-ups), do 2 reps for all your sets.
  • This builds strength while not overtaxing the nervous system.
  • Train high sets in the 4-8 and 1-5 rep range.
  • For isometrics (during contraction, the muscles don’t noticeably change the length, and the affected joints don’t move), 1-12s.
  • Eccentrics (contraction caused by the muscle’s lengthening) 1-5 reps, each rep 7 seconds long.

Remember, if you feel the pump or burn in your muscles, you’re no longer training strength.

Build Muscle

Run from anyone who says, “You can’t build muscle with calisthenics.”

Your muscles don’t know the difference between bodyweight exercises, weights, or a table.

It can’t identify whether you’re picking up a 6 kg, 20 kg dumbbell, or bodyweight. Your body feels the resistance, intensity, and how taxing a movement is.

How does the training look? A rep range of 6-12 reps (working at 65-85% of 1 rep max) is the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth.

Instead of increasing the weight, you increase the difficulty of the bodyweight exercises.

Choose exercises that are challenging to you in this rep range.

When pullups become easy, do a harder variation such as close-grip pullups. Utilize the same muscle-building techniques you would with weights such as mechanical tension, eccentric damage, metabolic stress, push-pull splits, or drop sets.

The current culture wants to create a rivalry between calisthenics and weights when the reality is you can use both.

Gymnastics is a bodyweight sport, and they utilize weights in their training.

Many sports, football, basketball, athletics, use weights to improve performance, calisthenics is the same.

  • Doing weighted calisthenics, such as weighted pull-ups and weighted dips, is a great way to build strength and muscle.
  • Bodyweight exercises and weights are great for training compound movements (multiple muscle groups and joints).
  • There’s a wide variety of isolation exercises (multiple muscle groups and one joint). With isolation exercise, you can target certain muscles, which is great for improving aesthetics.

The lower-body is naturally powerful, so bodyweight training can only go so far. That’s why weighted squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts are excellent for building muscle.

Match Training to Goals

I always say there’s no perfect way to train. It depends on your abilities and goals.

Make sure your training matches your goals, and train specifically with them in mind.

Train like a powerlifter if you want to do those advanced calisthenics skills.

Train like a bodybuilder if you want to be in the best shape of your life.

Train like an athlete if you want to be crazy fit or do freestyling.


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