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Push to failure, push to grow

What does it take to develop yourself physically? To achieve the ‘body’ goals you set out to achieve? I think the trick is how you use failure.

For me, failure used to mean that I wasn’t good enough. I was reminded of this recently in one of my exercise coaching classes, when a client remarked that it was the first time he’d heard the term “push to failure”. It’s a particularly relevant term for an exercise like chin-ups. Chin-ups are hard-core! I’ve seen grown men cry (perhaps it was just sweat from their eyeballs) while trying to get their jaws past the bar.

How does this work, then?

The key to improvement in this exercise lies not in using momentum to get to the reps out. It is in engaging specific stabilising muscles first and then slowly raising the body until the chin peeps over the bar; holding for a second or two; then slowly returning to the start position again. This pattern is repeated until you absolutely can’t anymore – and then you do a half chin-up (just for that extra little effort). Oh, and if some hot member of the opposite gender strolls up and does ten without breaking a sweat, good for them, but don’t step into the oncoming traffic just yet!

Four or five sets of pull-until-you’re-toast are what you should be pushing for. Every time you’re back under that bar, you push to get one more out and allow that to become your routine. In six months you’ll be stunned by what you can achieve.

There are two key aspects to this point. The first is that we’re not talking about pushing to injury. Pushing to failure simply means that when you can feel yourself struggling to either hold good form or contract those muscles one last time. Then you push against this and aim for one last rep. Failure is simply telling you where your current limits are. If your body’s screaming “enough” and you push past that, an injury is very likely. Which takes you right back to square one!

Don’t succumb, push!

The second aspect is that it’s a “push” to failure. It’s not a succumbing to, nor an embracing of, failure. Lying on your couch, remote in hand, shouting “I’m owning my failure” as your partner heads off to gym doesn’t really cut it.

Perhaps the issue is that we come out of a report-card mentality that says 100% is the benchmark. It’s certainly an easy measure, but does it really indicate our own capacity, or set a useful benchmark for growth? Maybe we should use failure as a means to know what our boundaries are. To set the bar for what success for us – personally – means, instead of becoming enslaved to an exercise routine copy-and-pasted from some glossy magazine. That inevitably fails, since we seem unable to listen to our own bodies.

Every body operates on the same principles, but everybody is unique. The capacity that applies to one doesn’t apply to the other. I’m convinced that failure is more important in life than achieving someone else’s perfect score. Give it enough time, make sure you get the technique right and I assure you, push-to-failure is the pathway to your personal and continual best.

Tanya Wyatt, Happy Valley pond

Tanya Wyatt

Tanya has written regularly for various health and fitness magazines such as Men’s Health, Marie-Claire, Cosmopolitan and Shape (she also served on the advisory board for Shape), as well as for local South Africa newspaper publications. In 2004, Tanya wrote two internationally released health and fitness-related books, both  published by New Holland. She recently wrote her third book, currently submitted to publishers for consideration.


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2021 Tanya Wyatt / The Happy Body