- You need to train very hard to progress optimally, but if you train so hard that it affects the quality of your other workouts or causes so much stress that performance decreases, it's a bad move.
- If you train a muscle only once a week, you'll be able to impose a lot more punishment without too many ill-effects than if you train each muscle several times in a week.
- Testing your mettle with challenge-based workouts can be a great way to see how physically capable you are and preparing for those challenges can boost your training motivation significantly.
- If you don't go borderline crazy from time to time you lose sight of what training hard means. An occasional lesson in pain in the gym will allow you to keep things in perspective.
- Puking may make you seem hardcore, but vomiting during a workout simply means that you mistimed your food intake and training, which really doesn't make you that hardcore at all.
Feeling the burn. Driving yourself into the ground. Feeling crippling soreness. Puking. Not being able to walk after leg day. Not being able to drive after arm day.
All of the above are badges of honor for many lifters, but none of them guarantee that your workout was positive and will lead to improvements. Regardless, many of us prefer to focus on these elements rather than on objective progression.
Why? Because doing madman workouts makes you look hardcore, like a warrior. Your workout often turns into a test of how much suffering you can endure. But do you really need to drive yourself into the ground every single workout to make progress?
I Feel Like I Accomplished Something
I used to train TV sportscaster Joe Buck. We did a lot of sled pulling, flipping tires, and farmer's walks along with strength work. We didn't take much rest during the workouts (in part to reduce talking to a minimum) and as a result every session was supremely demanding.
Then he said it: "What I like about training with you is that I feel like I accomplished something."
At first I took it as a compliment, but after thinking about it I reevaluated my coaching approach. I wanted to be known as the guy who got results, not the guy who could inflict pain. Causing severe discomfort in the gym is easy; it doesn't require much smarts to do it. Getting results over the long run is another story. That requires skill and knowledge.
Still, that experience taught me that the average gym rat will use the level of discomfort to evaluate how good the workout was.
A lot of my clients were previously trained by sadistic coaches, so when they started training with me I actually had to work hard to convince them that being able to walk after a session didn't meant that it wasn't a good workout. It wasn't until they started to get superior gains that they accepted what I was saying.
Is Killing Yourself in the Gym Necessary?
If you want to progress fast you need to train hard, much harder than the way most people do train. Unfortunately, once you get past a certain threshold, pushing even harder won't lead to more gains and could even impair your long-term progress.
I'll give you a few examples from my own training. I recently did a "CrossFit/Strength" workout consisting of 10 rounds of:
4 Atlas stone lifts from ground to shoulder (175 pounds)
4 Front squats (225 pounds)
4 Bench presses (225 pounds)
This was done every minute on the minute, which meant that at the start of every minute I started a movement and I had one minute to do it before I had to go to the next movement. If completing 4 reps took me 30 seconds, it meant I had 30 seconds of rest before starting the next exercise.
While the weights in this workout weren't monumental, I can tell you that front squatting 225 x 4 twenty seconds after lifting stones is hard. I felt great after the session. Completely wiped, in pain everywhere, and more tired than I remembered feeling in a long time. I was exhilarated. I felt like I "accomplished something." I was so proud and pumped that I planned to do similar workouts three times per week.
That resolve didn't last long. The next morning I had the most debilitating soreness I have ever felt - quads, biceps, shoulders, back, everything was fried. And I felt sluggish, tired, and unmotivated. In fact, that soreness and overall crappy feeling lasted five days. I tried to train once in those five days but stopped after ten minutes because nothing good would have come from it.
Now I'm not somebody who avoids training because of soreness, but this was excessive. The question I had to ask myself was, "Was this workout so productive that it was worth missing four other workouts?" Any fool could see that the answer was a resounding "No!"
You need to train very hard to progress optimally, but if you train so hard that it affects the quality of your other workouts or causes so much stress that performance decreases, it's a bad move.
Those Who Kill Themselves and Progress
I will say this though - it's hard to argue with results. There are in fact many guys and gals getting very good results by always defying death in their workouts. I have several thoughts:
How deep you go into the "danger zone" depends on your training frequency.
If you train a muscle only once a week, you'll be able to impose a lot more punishment without too many ill-effects than if you train each muscle several times in a week. So what if you can hardly walk for five days after leg day if you only do legs once a week?
However, for someone like me who believes in the importance of frequency above other variables, it makes it much harder to find the proper training dose. You need to do enough to stimulate progress, but not so much as to negatively impact the next session.
How much punishment you can handle and recover from in a session is also dependant on the amount of weight you're lifting in proportion to your 1RM.
For example, if your average load in your workout is 60-70% of your max, you'll be able to go a lot deeper into the pain zone without ill-effect than if you use 80-90%, let alone 90-100%.
I believe that the body can recover pretty well from super intense muscular and metabolic work, especially if Plazma™ and Mag-10® are used peri-workout. The problem arises when you combine "killing yourself" with "using big weights," so I'm not surprised when I see bodybuilders able to kill themselves using techniques such as drop sets, rest/pause, partials, etc., because they're using weights that are fairly low in relation to their capacities.
One should not dismiss the role of "altered physiology" when it comes to recovery.
Drugs such as steroids, growth hormone, and others help many recover much faster from training. As such, killing yourself in a session when you're chemically enhanced will not have a long lasting negative impact on your capacity to train. I'm not saying that everybody getting good gains from training like a madman is on drugs; I'm just saying that it's one of the factors that can allow someone to train harder for longer and still recover.
We all have our own specific physiology and respond to training differently.
Some people respond better to volume and others to heavy weights. Likewise, some people are unbreakable and others can only sustain a very limited amount of stress.
I trained an Olympic athlete who was super explosive, the most explosive person I've ever seen in fact. He was very strong (a 425-pound bench press at 171 pounds, for example) but he could only handle, at the most, 6-8 total work sets during a session. Not sets per exercise, mind you, but total sets for the whole workout. On the other hand, I've also known guys who can do set after set for 2-3 hours, day in and day out.
We become good at dismissing training-related fatigue.
At first we might feel tired and our motivation goes down a bit, but as dedicated lifters we force ourselves to go train anyway. After a while we're so used to our state of fatigue that we see it as our normal state. And even though we might be functioning at 70% of our capacities, we don't even notice it.
Someone who has nothing to do but train, like a professional athlete, will obviously recover faster than someone with a full time job, especially if it's either a physically or mentally draining job.
A Russian weightlifter who's paid by the government and has unlimited access to massage/physical therapists and recovery methods such as ice baths and saunas will be able to train six hours a day, but the same workload might cripple you.
Can Going Crazy in the Gym be Beneficial?
Even though I believe in focusing on progression and being able to train each lift/muscle more often - thus avoiding making a muscle completely FUBAR with training - I still believe that death-defying workouts can offer some benefits.
Going to muscle failure and beyond (with drop sets, rest/pause, added partials after failure, etc.) is actually justifiable when it comes to stimulating growth.
If I were an advocate of training to complete muscle failure, I could easily make a solid case for it. I could start and end by quoting Dr. Vladimir Zatsiorsky: "A muscle fiber that is recruited but not fatigued is not trained." While you might not need to go to muscle failure and beyond to train the fiber, going to failure offers some insurance that you're fatiguing a lot of fibers.
The counter-argument to this is that driving motor-units to fatigue isn't the only way to make a muscle grow. Cell signaling (mTOR activation among others) and hormonal responses are examples of things that can lead to muscle growth. Likewise, muscle fatigue isn't necessary for strength gains as improving neurological factors will lead to gains in strength without having to fatigue every muscle fiber.
Testing your mettle with challenge workouts is a great way to see how physically capable you are.
Also, preparing to be ready for those challenges can boost your training motivation significantly. I include challenge-based workouts in my own training once or twice a month.
These can take several forms: the stone/front squat/bench press session mentioned above; doing 100 sets of bench press; 100 reps of power clean with 205; 50 sets of squats... these are all things that I've done in the past. While they all crippled me for a few days, thus hurting my training, they also gave me a lot of motivation and taught me how to push myself.
Going crazy in the gym can readjust your perception of hard training.
You don't need to kill yourself in the gym to progress at an optimal rate, but you need to train very hard. If you don't go borderline crazy from time to time you lose sight of what training hard means. You actually begin to lose your edge, train just a little less hard from month to month. You don't even realize you're slacking off!
On a scale of 1 to 10, your average training difficulty should be an 8, but if you never go to 10 you'll lose your perception of what an 8 really is. Because of that, a lot of people are really doing a 5 or 6 when they think they're at 8. An occasional lesson in pain in the gym will allow you to keep things in perspective.
Doing level "10" workouts can be useful, but you must understand how they affect the body and plan your training accordingly. Realize that you will not be in an optimal shape for a few days after doing a stress session, so either plan rest days or program in some easier training in the days after your challenge.
More on Training to Failure... and Beyond
There's "Crossfit/GPP Crazy" and "Bodybuilding Crazy." The former refers to killing yourself with metabolically demanding work, going to the point of vomiting. The latter refers to inflicting as much pain as possible during each set you do, going to complete failure and beyond.
As I mentioned, there is indeed a possible benefit of going to failure. You will ensure that you fatigued the maximal amount of muscle fibers, thus making that set as effective as it can be to stimulate adaptation. Remember, failure itself isn't necessary to optimally fatigue the muscle fibers, but it's a decent insurance policy.
I do want to point out that muscle failure is not always due to full muscle fiber fatigue. In fact, muscle failure can be due to energy depletion (depletion of the phosphagen system for example), incapacity of the nervous system to continue recruiting the required motor units, loss in the response of the muscles to the neural drive (acidity in the muscles can cause this), and muscle fiber fatigue.
So going to failure isn't necessarily an indication that you fully fatigued the maximum amount of muscle fibers, and going to failure might, in fact, not be significantly different than stopping one rep short. However, going to failure and beyond can also increase the cell signaling responsible for increasing protein synthesis and can also lead to the release of local growth factors. As such, it makes sense that training to failure can effectively stimulate muscle growth.
The drawback is that the cost-to-benefit ratio might be prohibitive. There's no doubt you can stimulate growth by going beyond failure. I'll use my economics analogy: You have a limited amount of money to spend on your training. Understand that a set where you go to and beyond failure is more costly than a regular set where you stop one rep short. So if you decide to go the "super intense" way, you'll have to make cuts somewhere else or you'll run out of training money - stagnation and even overtraining.
Understand that as a natural lifter you have less training money to spend. Anabolic drugs basically give you a much larger sum of training money to invest.
If, however, you're a bodybuilder training each muscle infrequently, then it's probably fine to use a decent number of sets to failure and beyond, but if you train each muscle group three times a week (or even twice a week) you're probably asking for trouble.
Puking: A Badge of Honor?
Now more than ever, throwing up during a hard workout is seen as a sign of being hardcore, of training balls-to-the-wall, but is it really?
The main cause of vomiting during intense training is diverting blood flow away from the stomach and toward the muscles. The body will always send more blood toward the places that need it most. During intense exercise the muscles require extra oxygen and the need for waste removal from the working muscles is increased.
As a result, the body will send more blood to the muscles, thus delivering more oxygen while also removing excess waste product from your muscles. This obviously means that less blood is sent to the stomach.
This is where the problem arises. If you're still digesting a solid meal when blood flow begins to divert towards the muscles, that's where nausea and vomiting can occur. So the fact that you are vomiting during your workout simply means that:
- Your training forces a very large shift of the blood flow to the muscles.
- You mistimed your food intake and training, which doesn't really make you all that hardcore.
So what type of training is most likely to cause vomiting? Logically, anything that requires a lot of blood to be sent to the muscles. Any type of training that requires a very high-energy production fits the bill, but of particular interest is the physical work that leads to a great accumulation of waste products/metabolites.
Hard Prowler work, 400-800 meter all-out sprints, CrossFit WODs, and bodybuilding training that causes a huge accumulation of lactic acid and the like are types of workouts that might cause vomiting to occur due to the need to get rid of waste products/metabolite accumulation. So yes, the more intense you are in those type of activities, the more likely you are to taste your lunch a second time!
So in a sense it is true that training to the point of vomiting could mean that you're capable of enduring a lot of pain and suffering in the gym. Reaching the point where you produce so many waste products that you start to be nauseated requires a very high pain tolerance, so I'll give you that.
If you're capable of reaching the point of throwing up, you're likely someone who is very mentally and physically tough. But is it a worthy goal? After all, exercising in humid 110-degree weather until you get heat stroke is also a sign that you can tolerate pain and discomfort, but it's not a practice conducive to rapid progression!
Throwing up is not an anabolic stimulus. The act of vomiting will not produce any muscle growth or strength gains, but can it actually be harmful to your progress? Throwing up once in a while during training isn't likely to kill your gains. However, several things happen after puking that might make it harder to get the most out of your session:
- You lose electrolytes, which will also make it harder to perform and recover.
- You're wasting nutrients that could be used for growth and recovery.
- It can ruin your appetite for a few hours after the session.
- It can kill your workout. Not everybody can continue to train hard right after vomiting.
- You run the risk of becoming dehydrated. And dehydration leads to a significant decrease in performance.
As you can see it's not a huge risk of muscle wasting, but it still remains counterproductive to optimal training, growth, and recovery.
Take Home Points
- Training a muscle until you're crippled at the end of the session can limit your capacity to train that muscle again in the near future. It might work for those hitting each muscle once a week, but if you train each muscle/movement pattern frequently it might be counterproductive.
- We all have a limited capacity to recover and grow from physical work. If you invest in beyond-failure sets, understand that you should decrease overall volume or you'll stagnate.
- Some individuals, due to their physiology (genetics or chemical assistance) can recover and thrive on death-defying workouts, but most can't when they're done too frequently.
- Infrequent challenge workouts performed once every couple of weeks can be a very effective strategy both from a physiological and psychological perspective.
- The name of the game is progression. If you're not progressing in strength, performance and/or body composition from week to week, your training or nutrition might not be optimal.
If going crazy in the gym doesn't lead to week-by-week progression, then it's likely holding you back.
Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders.
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