Technical Failure: Rx for Sets and Reps

If you’ve ever stepped inside a gym, then chances are you’ve heard of “Sets & Reps” and you probably know what it means. If not, you’ll learn fast and we will introduce you to one of the easiest formulas to follow for working out.

I learned about Sets & Reps in seventh grade from my copy of Muscle and Fitness magazine. I was introduced to the most basic bodybuilding “schemes,“ which were sets and reps of 3×10, 3×12 and 3×15.

Then in high school, the most popular rep scheme was the “one-rep max,” which is basically just a chance to prove how much weight you could push or pull in a given exercise- especially with the bench press. Without a thorough warm-up, the “one-rep max” is a risky way to exercise that could cause an injury.

In my career as a personal trainer and strength coach, I’ve noticed that the palette of rep schemes just keeps growing. I’ve included 1-2 sets of 20 reps for some of my runners and cardio enthusiasts. And I’ve used some 5×5 or 4×6 sets with my football players and myself to develop more strength and power.

Then I started doing CrossFit, and the options for rep schemes grew even more, along with their names. The rep schemes in the WODs, or workout-of-the-day, vary from 3 rounds of 21-15-9 reps to the one-rep max. A WOD may even include an AMRAP, which is as-many-rounds-as-possible of specific reps for a selection of exercises. And it could be even more than that, depending on how creative the CrossFit coaches and participants are feeling that day.

When I put all these different rep schemes together, I realized the prescription for sets and reps was pretty broad. So I started looking for the most effective scheme to follow. And I found it, thanks to Coach Boyle.

Technical Failure

The problem with following a rep scheme is that more often than not, you begin to compensate in alignment or cheat in your form as you struggle to finish the set. When you reach a fatigue state during a workout, chances are that you will rely on dysfunctional movement to complete the rep.

Some people see that as a testament to their toughness and determination, but in the long run it’s a mistake. Using poor form over a long period of time will eventually create problems in physiology and biomechanics, and at some point those problems will need to be undone. So, to avoid ice baths and ordering another deep tissue massage because of incorrect form, execute each rep with correct form or stop.

Technical Failure- performing a set with correct form on each repetition until you’re unable to maintain proper form. When you reach this point in a workout, the set is over.

If you build your workout based on the technique of Technical Failure, you can still follow any of the previously mentioned rep schemes to workout. The difference is that the set is over, regardless of the number of prescribed reps, once you reach the point of technical failure.

Combining technical failure with all sets and reps schemes will allow you to design a program with specific themed intentions. You can create a training plan to build power, strength or endurance, while also limiting the development of dysfunctional movement or further compensating for fatigue with bad form.

Here are traditional rep scheme prescriptions:
1-6 Power
6-10 Strength
10-12 Hypertrophy (Size)
12+ Endurance

The Right Rx
Finding the best rep-scheme prescription for you will depend on several different factors as it’s never a one-size-fits-all situation. There are numerous differences in body types, fitness goals, previous experience, coordination ability, lifestyle factors, movement preferences and even more that will influence how many reps you should do. In other words, there’s no one prescription for exercise. Let’s look at a couple examples:

Diane is a 35-year-old woman, who has never ran for exercise before. One day she decides she wants to start running as her mode of fitness because she can’t stand the scene in her local gym. For the last 10 years she was a regular on the weight machines and attended group fitness sculpting classes about two times a week. Consequentially, her mobility, stability and coordination most likely have diminished a bit over time – not to mention general strength and endurance.

Effective Routine Prescription for Diane
Diane would benefit greatly by adhering to the technical failure principal. Starting off with low reps, 5-10, will help develop the strength and coordination she needs to support her running mechanics. After she has improved her mechanics and stability, then she could shift her focus to higher reps and sets schemes in order to improve her endurance and solidify as many correct movement patterns as movement habits.

Here’s another example. Jack is a 26-year-old office worker and weekend warrior who wants to run his first marathon with a bunch of friends. Jack was a high school athlete, who stayed very active in college. He played a lot of intramural sports, namely basketball, and is very competitive. Chances are pretty good that Jack developed some different types of compensation patterns in his movement since high school. He’s take his share of knicks and bruises along the way, but has always toughed it out to keep on playing. In addition, his lifestyle of sitting for long durations at work or in school has limited his mobility.

Effective Routine Prescription for Jack
Since Jack is determined to train for and run a marathon, it’s wise to use a high-reps prescription in his PreHab routine to help counter the repetitive nature of running. Also, the higher-rep-scheme workouts more frequently throughout the week will provide Jack’s neuromuscular system an opportunity to adapt and master more efficient movement patterns, especially in regards to his gait, that can transfer over to his training.

One of Jack’s immediate goals is to eliminate any gross compensation in his running technique before he starts training for the marathon. Therefore, working with a higher-rep scheme, 10-15, will help him to instill correct movement patterns as habits quicker. This approach will also help reduce compensation in his running technique once he starts training for the marathon.

In Jack’s case, the combination of a sitting lifestyle coupled with aggressive competitive bouts on the basketball court and in the gym, has taken its toll. His body has lost the chance of repeating efficient movement patterns as task-oriented intentions and compensation strategies are heavily employed. The more Jack competes and works (while sitting), the more he reinforces specific limitations on his movement patterns. Therefore, increasing the frequency and duration of his PreHab exercises will help to counter these compensations.

Repetition is the Mother of Skill
The National Strength and Conditioning Association as well as other organization set the prescription for complete neuromuscular adaptation of a movement pattern or skill at a range of 3,000-5,000 repetitions. Meaning, you need to complete 3,000-5,000 reps of an exercise (movement pattern) with perfect form in order for your body to perform that movement automatically and with no conscious manipulation.

NBA players like Dirk Nowitzki have practiced their jump shot tens of thousands of time before ever getting to the pros. But with thousands of repetitions, it’s possible to reach the point of skill automation, which frees your mind to focus on the shot clock and cues from opposing players when playing.

Music to your ears-
There’s a saying, “you get to Carnegie Hall by practice, practice, practice.” Meaning if you wanted to be a musician performing in that world-famous venue, you would need to practice until you played your instrument flawlessly. However, it’s not just practice that makes a difference. It perfect practice that makes a difference.

Technical Failure is perfect practice.

Not only is it important that Jack to perform many repetitions of his PreHab exercises that will help to develop his running technique, he needs to perform them perfectly. If he uses poor form in his exercises, his body will start to “remember” and use the poor form, which is why using Technical Failure as a guide will be very helpful.

Make the last shot
I would always leave the basketball court making one final shot. It was a way to end on a positive note as well as a training habit to make sure that I focused on building the skill of my jump shot. Unfortunately, I did not play the same amount of basketball as Dirk. I came nowhere near his level of skill, but I did take this habit with me to football where it help me to develop my accuracy as a quarterback.

Grading on a Curve
Yes, perfection and flawless execution in movement is ideal, but what if you’re fighting through a lot of compensation like Jack? The goal here is to set the intention of performing each rep flawlessly and grade yourself on an increasing scale of success.

For example, when Jack starts his training, his first goal is to learn the requirements of the movement. Then as he integrates the PreHab exercises into his training, he can measure his progress by assessing how well he performs each repetition in a simple yes/no or pass/fail format. Did he complete the movement with correct form? Yes or no.

Set a Baseline
Jack will complete his first PreHab routine and measure his success against the sets/reps prescription to get a baseline for future training. More specifically, Jack can assess his performance by counting the number of reps he completes correctly. He can use a raw number or even a percentage and keep track.

Let’s say Jack completes three perfect reps in his first set. He can then come back on his next set and aim to beat that number. Each set he can keep himself accountable to improving, which will help him progress through the physical limitation and learned compensation strategies that he is dealing with.

Further. Down the road, Jack can set percentage points to guide his workouts until he is just working with Technical Failure.

Training Week 7- complete at least 70% of reps with perfect form.
Training Week 8- complete at least 75% of reps with perfect form.
Training Week 9- complete at least 80% of reps with perfect form.
Leading up to 100% and shifting to Technical Failure

There is a reason behind allowing incorrect reps or “faults” into your training program and that is to build momentum in creating positive movement habits while allowing for the time needed for your biomechanics to shift.

In other words, it’s like practicing basketball and missing some shots. You set the intention to make the shot, but your coordination and timing are off, which makes you miss. However, you still need to practice to get better. So, keep going down to the court and practice with the intention of making every shot.

How often do you think Dirk Nowitzki or Michael Jordan showed up to practice?
Very often. If not daily.

Once we have created the neuromuscular ability to perform a movement flawlessly, which occurs after 3,000-5,000 reps, then you can begin to manage your sets and reps with the principal of Technical Failure.

Jack’s Marathon
Deep into his training program, Jack can apply technical failure to all of his PreHab work. This shift probably would occur after 3-4 months, depending on his frequency of training. Yet, it would be a shift that would bring monumental results and solidify efficiency in his biomechanics as his body adapted to training with only correct movement patterns.

Judge a CrossFitter
This is very simple to do if you make a habit of keeping a yes/no grade on each set, which is similar to what CrossFit athletes do in their workouts. CrossFitter will have a judge or workout partner judge their form on each rep and only count the perfect reps. It’s a simple yes/no or pass/fail on every rep, which is a great habit to start!

10,000 Hours to be World Class
How much time to you think Michael Phelps spent training in the pool? A lot for sure. He didn’t just roll out of bed, jump in the water and win 22 Olympic medals without putting in a lot of time training.

In his book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell proclaims that a person can achieve mastery in a given sport or activity after 10,000 hours worth of practice. Whether or not this is accurate, people who have demonstrated remarkable and world class skill, like Phelps, have certainly put forth a lot of time and devotion in their practice.

More importantly, great feats all occur because a person decided to show up and practice one day, and another day, and another day…

Show up today and practice. You never know where that road may lead for you.

Comments are closed.