Failing with Failure

11 10 2013


A few weeks ago a buddy of mine asked me the following question:

“What is the importance (or unimportance) of going to failure on every set? Everything I have seen has mentioned how taxing going to failure can be on the CNS, and yet I see everyone in the gym going to failure on every set. Is going to failure bad assuming you can maintain the same form on the last rep you had on the first rep (admittedly that’s a big assumption)?”

Ah yes, going to failure. We’ve all seen those guys at the gym, curling up the bar as their friend struggles on the bench press: “One more buddy!” Truth be told, I’ve been that guy. When I started getting into strength training, it was all about pushing my body to the limits- I went to failure all the time. I literally probably went to failure at least once per workout, whether that entailed having a spotter help me with my last few reps, or simply doing isolation sets like biceps curls until I could no longer lift my arms. As a novice (and young) lifter, in hindsight I feel as though going to failure didn’t hurt me nearly as much as it would now, as an older more experienced lifter. However, I also used to get injured a lot more in my younger years when I was pushing my body to failure on a consistent basis, so take from that what you will; this is simply my anecdotal evidence, but correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

The issue, as I see it, is that inexperienced lifters- even some lifters who have been going to the gym on a fairly steady basis for several years- don’t have a very good feel for their actual 1-rep maxes, and haven’t been lifting long enough to find that balance between high, productive intensity, and going to absolute fatigue. The bottom line is this:

Going to failure is unproductive.

Pretty much everything I’ve read or learned over the years backs up this statement. There simply isn’t any evidence out there that training to failure is an effective way to train strength or grow muscle. Yes, there certainly are bodybuilders out there who have and still do swear by this method, but there are definitely other factors at play; I have no doubts that anyone employing the “going to failure routine” could train more effectively. When you lift weights, you are training your CNS (central nervous system) and you are attempting to initiate a growth stimulus in your muscles. You need not go to failure to achieve this stimulus- that final struggle is not the catalyst; progressively increasing intensity in an intelligent manner is. Of course, this does not mean that you shouldn’t train with a high intensity; as I’ve mentioned before, intensity is a major key to progress. To give you an example, the vast majority of my training sets fall in the 70-90% range. If I perform too much work in the 95-100% range, bad things will happen. I save my 1-rep max attempts for competitions and/or for testing my lifts 1-2 times per year. The key is learning to push yourself without taking it too far and employing progressive intensity for sustained success. Going to failure is the key to getting injured, retarding progress and looking like an ass at the gym. In other words, going to failure is failure itself. Not only that, but without a spotter, failure can be dangerous- please don’t be this guy…

On that note, novice lifters especially should absolutely train with a spotter as much as possible. I would never encourage going to failure, and every lifter should try to minimize this as much as possible, but a spotter can minimize the damage as you learn your limits. As I alluded to earlier, I don’t think going to failure is as detrimental to novice lifters, but the more experienced you are, the more critical it becomes to never miss a rep. If I miss a rep in my training, I’ve either programmed poorly, have under-recovered, or just straight up screwed up. In any case, I would almost surely take a few days off to let my body rest, and then start my program anew. If I fail and don’t press the reset button, I know I won’t be able to plow through and progress to my maximum potential; it’s that serious.

Just another reason to avoid going to failure...

Just another reason to avoid going to failure…

In conclusion, if you are looking to build muscle, get stronger, or achieve any sort of physical progress you should concentrate on the 3 Ps:

  1. Perfect your form
  2. Perform all reps with control
  3. Progress your weights slowly

It’s as simple as that. Going to failure might make you feel like you’ve pushed your body to its maximum potential, but things aren’t always as they seem- you’ll almost surely be on the path to injury, and you’ll look like a dick in the process.

For more information on weight training,, you know how to find me!



“You Must Do A Lot of Cardio!”

17 09 2013


This morning I had some blood taken and my nurse was running me through the typical stuff: height, weight, waist v. chest measurements (30 v. 40, for the record), etc. etc. Finally came the time to take my blood pressure and pulse. The results? 110/70 and a resting heart rate of 50.  His reaction? “You must do a lot of cardio!” I almost laughed out loud.

For the record, I currently engage in no regular cardiovascular activity. I went for a run back in July when I was on vacation in Italy… and that’s the last time I did anything resembling cardiovascular activity. I lift heavy things at the gym 3-4 times per week, play a round of golf every 2 weeks, and eat real food. Don’t get me wrong- cardio is a very healthy activity and has many positive benefits, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, weight training trumps cardio in arguably every area. Many people think that it is necessary to engage in cardiovascular activity to better your heart health, but studies have shown that resistance training can elicit equal-if-not-better results. Of course, as the cited article also states, weight training has the added benefit of strengthening bones- something especially critical for women who become susceptible to osteoporosis as they age.


In the end, engaging in both weight training and cardiovascular activity is almost surely the most beneficial thing to do, but you haven’t yet given weights a shot, I encourage you to get after it; you won’t be disappointed!

That’s all for tonight- as always, don’t hesitate to drop me a line for more information!


Compound Movements vs. Isolation Exercises

9 07 2013

A big thanks to Jordan Foley for bringing to my attention the latest in a long line of informative articles by Mark Rippetoe. Today’s discovery: Rippetoe Goes Off.

As I consistently try to convey to my readers: It doesn’t matter if your goal is fat loss or strength gain, the most efficient way to train is to use compound, multi-joint barbell movements.  There are a million hypotheses as to why isolation exercises dominate commercial gyms; these exercises are easier to teach, learn and perform, bodybuilders like Arnold made these exercises popular back in the day, etc.; but there is simply no comparison between the results produced by these types of training. Don’t get me wrong- there is a time and place for isolation movements, depending on your goals- but compound movements should be the primary focus of almost any workout routine. Give the article a read, it’s full of goodies.

Additionally, I recently read The New Rules of Lifting for Life by Schuler/Cosgrove and highly recommend this book to everyone; there’s even a version specifically for women, and although I haven’t read it, I’m sure it’s absolutely on point. A great deal of the content in the book reflects a lot of what I provide here at Fit in a FAT World, so it’s no surprise that I think everyone should give it a read, but it also provides a thorough workout template that can be individually tailored and that can undoubtedly be used successfully over a long period of time.

That’s all for today! Happy reading

– DW

The Science Behind Shortcuts

7 06 2013


The internet is an interesting place. People can post whatever they want and let the masses determine the integrity of the information. One of the hottest trends going right now is the magic of short workouts that claim to offer the same benefits as full gym sessions; and why wouldn’t these be popular? By nature, humans are lazy. We’ve been programmed to take the path of least resistance at every possible turn. Escalator instead of the stairs? Driving instead of walking? A 7-minute workout instead an hour!? Sign me up!!

I wrote up a quick piece on complexes a few days ago; an exercise technique that is not for the faint of heart. If you’re out of shape, you won’t even be able to get through your first set of complexes, let alone 4 sets with minimal rest. And I prescribe these as a finisher to normal workouts; something to be done on top of a full workout. So not only do you have to be in good shape to entertain the idea of doing these incredibly intense circuits, but in order to truly capitalize on them, you need to do other exercises beforehand. Could you do nothing but complexes and get into great physical condition? Sure you could, but Average Joe off the street can’t just jump into the gym and start ripping off complexes; you first need to learn the basic weight training movements, then graduate to more advanced movements, understand proper warm-up and cool-down techniques/prehab and rehab exercises, and of course gradually increase your work capacity over time until you’re finally ready to tackle and benefit from such an intense workout plan. Oh, and even if you become a master of complexes, your body will quickly adapt to your cute 10-minute gym sessions and your results will wane. Did I mention that you’ll also have to eat right if you want lean results? Right…

So anyway, this rant was brought to you by phenomenons like the much-ballyhooed Scientific 7-Minute Workout. Oh boy. Where to start? First of all, the fact that this was published by the American College of Sports Medicine is pretty sad. The concept of the workout? Do 12 consecutive bodyweight exercises in 7 minutes and that’s all the exercise you need:


My issues with this?

  1. This is great information to get people moving, but words like “scientific” and “high-intensity” have no place alongside this workout.
  2. You’d have the same issues here that you would with complexes, in that you’d first need to learn the movements before having any hope of putting them together in some form of concurrent, no-rest circuit. Furthermore…
  3. If you are not overweight and are in decent shape, this workout will be challenging for a few weeks, but your body will quickly adapt, and you’ll need to increase the resistance… but you can’t, because this is a bodyweight workout. If I’m prescribing much more challenging weight training complexes as a finisher to a real workout, how much benefit is this bodyweight routine actually going to provide? And how long do you expect the benefit to last if you can’t increase the resistance/intensity??
  4. If you are overweight or obese (ie, unhealthy; and the population that we want to encourage to move more, especially with simple bodyweight movements), this workout will be excruciating. Not only will your work capacity be a limiting factor, but it is almost certain that you will not be able to perform some of the movements; especially considering the two hardest movements (push-up & rotation and side planks) are the last two exercises of the circuit (of all the ridiculous things about this routine, I think this one actually takes the cake…)

Long story short, this is a fine little workout for fit individuals who are traveling and want to get a little sweat on in their hotel room, or for generally healthy people who eat right and are fairly active but don’t like going to the gym. Aside from that, there really isn’t a practical application for this routine, and it really has no place for people who are significantly overweight and unhealthy because it will be far too challenging and could be downright dangerous. The National Post actually just put out a piece challenging this 7-minute workout as well, and they cover a lot of what I just said: sure, this is fine for the fit, but could be dangerous for others. Also, can I just point out that if you’re super fit, you’re probably interested in doing more than this little bodyweight routine every day…


Moral of the story? If something sounds too good to be true, it surely is. The point of Fit in a FAT World is to promote health and fitness but with an emphasis on the most efficient ways to get into the best shape in the least amount of time. Super short workouts aren’t going to get you anywhere over the long haul, but there are “shortcuts” (ie, efficient ways to do things) and I’ve already compiled a lot of information on this site, and will continue to do so. However, some things won’t change:

If you are looking to get strong, you need weights. Period, stop, end of story.

If you are looking to add muscle mass, you need weights. Period, stop, end of story.

If you want to have a lean, toned physique- you guessed it- you need weights. Period, stop, end of story.


If you are looking to improve your health, lose weight, or burn some fat, you simply need to move more and eat higher quality food. That’s it. It’s not rocket science. And the more you move, the more challenging you make those movements (read: intensity!), the better you eat, and the more consistently you do all these things together, the faster you’ll see results.

Fitness and health is a continuum. You can move forward by doing the right things, or backwards by being sedentary and eating crap. The closer you get to the fit end of the spectrum, the harder it is to see results, which is why I put such an emphasis on intensity, weights, and eating unprocessed food. My main goal is to show people how important it is to stay active and get some sort of basic exercise, but in a perfect world I’d have everyone training for some sort of specific goal, because that would mean that we’d all be a lot closer to being in good health!

For more information on sustainable training “shortcuts”, check out my section of fitness articles from the drop-down menu above, or as always, drop me a line!

Happy Friday!


The Dangers of Excessive Cardio

29 05 2013

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I’m sure many of you are already thinking it, so let’s get it out of the way: Here Dain goes again, ripping on cardio. Indeed, I’m not a cardio guy, but my bias has nothing to do with this post; even if I’m not a fan, a reasonable amount of cardio has nothing but positive health benefits. Let’s recap a few things:

  1. Almost any kind and any duration of exercise is better than no exercise at all
  2. Weight training is simply more efficient than cardio for burning fat, has very similar (if not equal) cardiovascular health benefits, additional functional strength gains, and more desirable body composition results
  3. Regardless of the activity, excessive habits can lead to problems

In general, I’m never going to advise anyone against good habits like exercising and drinking a lot of water, but even though these are examples of healthy activities, if done in excess they can lead to serious health issues.  A friend brought this Wall Street Journal article to my attention the other day, The Exercise Equivalent of a Cheeseburger?, and it inspired me to write this post. The Coles Notes:

  • Although cardio is healthy (improved blood pressure, cholesterol, longevity, etc.), endurance athletes (or anyone running more than 30 miles/48 kilometers a week) are at an increased risk of atrial fibrillation and developing coronary-artery plaque.
  • Anecdotal concerns about endurance athletics have been building for years and cardiac conditions that required surgery have forced into retirement two winners of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship.
  • Research shows an association between endurance athletics and enlarged aortic roots.Cardiotoxicity-Cycle-Chart
  • Heart disease comes from inflammation and excessive exercise causes inflammation. Why wouldn’t there be a link?
  • Doctors are afraid to say that any kind of exercise may have a negative effect, for fear of giving people an excuse to stay sedentary.
  • Long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathological structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries.
  • Parallels can be drawn to the dangers of over-hydration, which was once seen as impossible- the more water the better. Long after evidence emerged that over-hydrating could prove fatal to marathoners, experts continued encouraging runners to drink as much as possible, and the dangers were not fully believed until deaths had occurred.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m super guilty for living life in extremes- for example, I’ve got a strongman competition coming up in a few days, which is pretty much the definition of excessive. I completely understand the desire to push the human body as far as possible, but common sense should still reign supreme; Along with my penchant for lifting heavy things, I’m diligent with prehab and rehab exercises, I eat extremely well, I sleep plenty, and I supplement my lifting with lots of brisk walking and recreational sports. I schedule annual physical check-ups with my family physician to make sure my health is where it should be (my blood work couldn’t look better, in spite of my “extremely dangerous” dietary habits of eating half a dozen eggs daily and embracing saturated fats) and I’ve been living this lifestyle now for almost a decade, so I feel pretty strongly that my exercise habits, although sometimes excessive, aren’t harmful.

Research like this only serves to enhance my personal opinion that competitions like marathons are of the most detrimental activities to human health. We all have our own individual reasons to push our bodies, but I’ll never understand the desire to run excessive distances when the end result will surely be skeletal overuse injuries and damage to my cardiovascular system; not to mention the muscle-wasting that will reduce my strength and wilt my physique.

If you haven’t already seen it, there is also a pretty good TEDxTalk on this subject. Cardiologist Dr. James O’Keefe’s conclusion? Balance and moderation; shocking, I know. If you have 18 spare minutes, give it a watch:

If you are a marathoner, or someone who engages in any sort of excessive activity, I implore you to consult your physician to ensure that you don’t have any underlying cardiovascular health issues. The jury is still out on exactly how much cardio is detrimental to human health (we are still likely years away from truly understanding the line between beneficial and detrimental amounts of cardio)  but it is without argument that a pre-existing health condition can easily be life-threatening if undiagnosed prior to excessive exercise.

In the end we’re all going to do what makes us happy in this life, so I just want to make sure that we’re all aware of the pros and cons of excessive exercise, and that these activities are done in the most responsible way possible.


Cardio and Calorie Restriction: The Facts

13 05 2013

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about why I “hate” cardio and why I say that people need to lift weights in order to avoid being fat. Let me clarify some things:

  • Personally, yes, I do hate steady-state cardio. I get bored running long distances, and find bike seats uncomfortable. It’s just not my thing.
  • Scientifically, however, steady-state cardio is inefficient for fat-loss. Can it be an effective strategy for losing weight? Absolutely it can- I never said otherwise. But don’t confuse fat loss with weight loss.
  • There are many ways to avoid being fat. Physical activity (of any kind) and a healthy diet will prevent you from being fat. Unfortunately, most people fail to incorporate both (and oftentimes neither) into their lifestyle. As weights are the most efficient way burn fat, I recommend weights over cardio.
  • My bottom line is always health. In order to be healthy, you should be physically active and eat a full, well-balanced diet. Lifting weights enables you to eat more and therefore gives you the best opportunity to consume the most nutrients.


But I have this skinny friend who does nothing but cardio!

First of all, there are exceptions to every rule. We all know people who stay thin without paying much attention to their diet and/or activity level. These people are outliers. For the other 99% of us who are either overweight or who are striving for a lean body type, we have to weigh our dietary and exercise options.

As I mentioned above, cardio can be an effective tool for weight loss. However, cardio cannot be deployed alone in an effort to lose weight. In order to capitalize on this type of exercise, one must also employ a calorie-restricted diet. If you’re not going to be challenging your muscles or metabolism, you’re going to have to be very careful with your caloric intake. Remember, cardio has very little afterburn effect (EPOC), and therefore does not help you burn calories after the exercise is finished (your resting metabolic rate returns to normal very quickly after steady-state cardio). Therefore, in order to lose weight or maintain a lower body weight, you have to make sure you don’t eat too many calories. The body will soon adapt to a certain level of cardio as well, so eventually you will have to eat fewer calories or increase your activity level. If you skip a day of cardio, you’ll also have to decrease your calories accordingly. It’s a very tough balancing act and often leads to large weight fluctuations (ie, it’s easy to regain any lost weight).

Additionally, this strategy will not build muscle (as a matter of fact, it will likely cause a decrease in muscle mass over time) and eventually your body will start to hold on to fat cells in response to cardio; this is where you hear the term “skinny fat”- people who don’t appear overweight, but who have a much higher body fat percentage than normal because of their decreased muscle mass. To boot, these people are more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and decreased immune function due to their decreased caloric intake.

With all of this in mind, exercise of any kind is always good thing, but cardio-driven/calorically-restricted diets are difficult to follow and hard to sustain.

Weight training, on the other hand, builds muscle, burns fat and allows you to eat more food. Who doesn’t want to be able to eat more food? Not only can you eat more food, but you can get away with “cheating” from time to time without immediately ballooning back up to a previous weight.


In conclusion, pros and cons of cardio/calorie restriction vs. weight training/eating real food:

Cardio/calorie restriction

Pros: You can do cardio anywhere without equipment. You can lose weight. Cardiovascular health will improve.

Cons: You have to limit calories in order to lose weight. You lose weight, but maintain fat, not muscle. You look “soft”. You are prone to large weight fluctuations. You cannot eat what you want, nor as much of what you want. Health many suffer due to lack of nutrients from a restricted diet. Long-term results are difficult to achieve.

Weight training/eating real food

Pros: You lose fat weight but maintain and gain muscle. You look “toned”. You can eat more. You don’t have to count calories. You can spend less time exercising. You get results quicker. Your results are sustainable. Your overall health will improve.

Cons: You have to have access to weights. You will spend more money because you are eating like a normal person.

In the end, I want to encourage everyone to engage in physical activity and eat a healthy diet. However, for more sustainable, efficient, and health-improving results, I will always first encourage people to lift weights, eat a balanced diet and do more general activity on a daily basis (walk more, take the stairs, etc.)

For more information on how to incorporate weight lifting into your life, you know how to find me!


A Quick EPOC and Fat Loss Reminder

25 03 2013

Lift heavy things, and it won’t be so imaginary.

Hope everyone had a nice weekend!

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about how exercising with relatively heavy weights forces your body to continue burning calories at an elevated rate for up to 38 hours post-workout? Remember last week when I told you that weight training ultimately helps you burn more calories than cardio alone? Well, Muscle & Fitness just wrote a little piece to back me up. And remember, Muscle & Fitness is one of the good magazines out there (NOT to be confused with Men’s Health).

It’s honestly very refreshing to see good information come out to the general public, so any time I see something like this, I’m going to pass it your way!

Happy Monday!