Failure and It's Many Faces

Failure as an athlete or trainee is such a multi-faceted beast. At many times it’s our worst enemy, and at other times our best friend. In this article I will try and give just a few examples and some of my thoughts on how it can be a one of the most perplexing issues a trainee / strength athlete has to face. How it can either wreak havoc, or breed progress, depending on the situation or the individual.


Failure refers to the state or condition of not meeting a desirable, or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.

Training to failure is training to fail.

One thing I preach to my clients that is opposite of popular teaching from most so-called personal trainers and professional coaches is, We NEVER, EVER go to the gym with the attitude of I’m going to exercise and kick my own ass today. I am going to kill myself to the point I limp and drag myself out of the gym. NO! By doing this you have already failed. You are seeking, and walking into the session EXPECTING failure.

Rather, we step into the gym confident. We walk in thinking the opposite of failure. We attack the gym and train with the goal in mind that we are going to kick the gym’s ass. We aim to kick the ass of the task at hand on that day, and do everything in our power to not let it kick ours.

Furthermore, this applies to our progression. A client doesn’t move up in load, reps, sets etc. when the old prescribed load or rep scheme no longer kicks their ass. NO! You earn the right to a new load, to progress. You get the joy of kicking a new tasks ass when you make that old task your bitch. Sure at times we get our butts kicked. You work damn hard, but that happens by default from your putting forth enough effort, drive, and passion to joyfully kick the gym’s ass. If you walk out fresh as a daisy,, but have beat your old performance GREAT!!!! Mission accomplished. You made a once tough task easy and have progressed.

You train to succeed.

Every rep, of every set, you make them as perfect and effortless as possible. Each and every day you move up through your warm ups by making the previous load easy. You ingrain 100% success in your lifts. If a certain load is hard on any given day, then you should stay there until you either prove you can beat that, and make it easy, or you just stay there that for that session. There is no point in pushing yourself past the constructive straining point into probable failure as something, body and/or mind, are just not in it that day.

What this does is mentally breed 100% success. You make lifts and that’s all you do. In time that’s all you know. You approach a PR, and the load does NOT! matter. In your head you are going to lift it, because that’s all you know how to do. You don’t know failing. All that has been put in your vocabulary, and set in your mind like stone is, hundreds and thousands of successful reps.

For example, I had a two plus year run on the dead lift. A two plus year run that saw my meet dead lift go from just over 600 to a very solid 700, and ready to pull more. In that two years I missed one rep, yes, one single rep on one single attempt, on a full pull.

I missed it on a day I felt like crap. It was not a meet, and I let my stupidity get a hold of me and tried a lift I was mentally doubting before I tried it. That set me back a few months even just bouncing back from that miss of 680 for my first time.

What did I do? I went back and made every single lift since.

I take a lot of heavy lifts, many small PR’s spaced weeks or months apart, and then at critical planned times (meets) I make Big shots at large PR’s (or when I hit small ones and they were just too damn easy - strike when the iron is HOT).

What this has done is, every time I come to a bar, EVERY SINGLE PR attempt, whether it’s my second, which is generally a 5 lb PR, or a third that is usually a 20lb or more PR, I KNOW, I have no inkling of a doubt that I am going to make the lift. Not making it doesn’t even enter my head as it’s not in my vocabulary. I am a firm believer that the mind is the most powerful tool we have as a person, and yes as a lifter. We strengthen your mind by repetition, and hard work (straining, learning how to Fight and Win), ingraining the habit we want to achieve.

How Failure breeds Success.

I’ve said it time and time again, and it seemly directly contradicts my preaching to athletes to NEVER fail at their sport, that we learn three fold more from any failure that we learn from any success.

This can be seen in training, life, love and of course business. As Coke’s Chairman and CEO E. Neville Isdell told investors at an annual meeting. "You will see some failures, As we take more risks, this is something we must accept as part of the regeneration process.”

So one might ask then, why do we not try and fail more often in order to make even greater progress? The difference is clear in my eyes. We learn, grow, and progress from failure. From it we learn our limitations, our weak points, what we need to work on, and how to FIGHT when things get tough. If you never, like Isdell said, “take more risks”, or push yourself beyond your means to a new height and at times fail, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough. The difference in failure, and success, is we don’t EVER make failure a goal.

Failure happens, much like sh*t, but we don’t strive or search for it, as we do success and perfection. We don’t make it a habit, like we do success. We react to it when it does happen. We know, and learn to love, the fact that failure and imperfection is out there, and that means we can still grow, progress and get better. If we didn’t have the chance of failing we would not have the drive to push hard, to reach for ever new heights.

Chance of failure is what makes us strive to go ever harder, do more than others have ever done and yes, it happens. When we fail, we evaluate why it happened, and then fix those things so it doesn’t happen again. We should not FEAR it, but we should never seek it.

Again, failure happens, but don’t search for it. However, you won’t know your breaking point, if you never reach for and test it, and learn to become not only physically, but more importantly, mentally strong. This is more so for the beginner who actually fails at perceived failure, when things get a bit hard. It is not real failure, they are physically, neurologically, and mentally weak / inefficient, which causes premature failure, prior to ever getting near their actual physical capacity.

As you progress and get stronger in body and mind, failure should be avoided at all cost. AT ALL COSTS! Once you do have the mental capacity to FIGHT to the point of literally breaking, at this point the actual cost of failure outweighs the benefit, and should be left for testing in an extreme, or meet situation only.

As you see failure is a doubled edged sword. Failure happens, and even at times I could make a strong argument it is needed and can be beneficial to the right trainee in the right situation. The trick is to learn and recognize these points and to whom they fit, if and when each individual can use a big dose of each. No matter what, however, I urge you to always keep a positive and successful outlook in which you are striving to kick ass - to impart pain, not evoke pain, on oneself.