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The Failure Principle

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

There is nothing quite like it when it comes to instilling confidence

Photo Muscle & Fitness

When I was 13, my best friend, Andy Provenzano, and I started working out together. We were both athletic. I had played on multiple sports teams from football to baseball since the age of 5 in leagues around the San Fernando Valley. Andy had too.

From an early age, I lived to be outdoors on my bike, playing touch football on the concrete street in front of our house -- the same with baseball, basketball. We rarely stayed inside.

But I had really been intrigued by lifting weights for years.

My father had a rudimentary weight bench set, weights, bar and, importantly, a hand stapled manual of exercises, complete with old school illustrations for everything from bicep curls, bench press, upright rows and squats – all in the garage.

I used to watch as my father worked out in the small space. He eventually let me follow along. I remember we listened to Dodger games with Vin Scully’s mellifluous voice in the background on weeknights.

My father insisted, however, that I first use self-weight bearing exercises – meaning pushups, sit ups, unweighted squats. Once I mastered those, he would let me graduate to the weights.

My father worried that lifting too early would either stunt my growth or injure my still growing bones. After consulting a doctor, he seemed to think it was ok.

Interestingly, his advice followed exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger prescribed in his first book, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, a treatise I read from cover to cover more than a few times. From memory, he recommended using only body weight exercises for six months before moving onto barbells and dumbbells. I listened, reluctantly.

When Andy and I first started our own program, we focused on attacking a pull up bar, wedged into the door frame in his Canoga Park home. We competed nearly every day to see who could do the most. He could. But I was intensely competitive, it was close.

Then, we moved onto weights. Andy and I alternated between working out at his house and mine. I can still see in my minds eye the set up in his garage. We were pursuing our bodybuilding dreams in the late ‘70s, so we principally used the weight bench and pull up bar—along with a weight set including a couple of barbells and assorted dumbbells with rings attached to cap off the weights.

The weights were plastic, filled with sand. I can hear the clicking slap sound produced by the plastic cover hitting another plastic cover as we slid them on and off the barbells and dumbbells.

I remember how excited we got when Andy got an EZ Curl bar and Arm Blaster apparatus as a gift – the bar would tilt your hands inside. The Arm Blaster hung around your neck with a curved aluminum sheet dangling at elbow height intended to keep you from swaying or cheating while performing a curl. These newfangled workout toys were a big deal.

We could perform the barbell curl the way our heroes did in Joe Weiders’ Muscle & Fitness magazine.

We were young, we were growing like weeds and so the impact of the exercise happened relatively swiftly. We gained a modest amount of muscle at first. And, then we learned about the failure principle from my older sister’s boyfriend, a muscle bound, but gentle soul a few years older and out of high school.

Rocky II

We were also inspired to double our efforts after seeing Rocky II and those montage scenes of him chasing chickens, performing one handed push-ups (and pull ups), beating scrap metal with a Thor like hammer in a scrap heap, squat-running around the park with a piece of lumber on his shoulders.

For some wild reason, we were also inspired by Rocky’s avid consumption of raw eggs. You could find us chugging them like college kids with a beer bong at a frat party. Andy’s mom thought we had lost it, along with her supply of eggs.

In bodybuilding the failure principle is simple. At some point in your sets, once you reach the maximum number of reps, you push past failure by doing forced reps. You need a partner to really make it work, although I’ve tried to repeat it alone many times – the point is that you reach your maximum, push beyond the pain through sheer will power. You only do 2-5 extra reps. And you don’t do it all the time, usually on the last set of the exercise. It helps if you like to suffer.

Interestingly, for me, perhaps a glutton for punishment, once I discovered the failure technique, I wanted to push it all the time. Why? Because while I would be sore for a few days after a hard session, I could see the results. I can still remember the time I pushed it too hard on bicep curls.

Andy and I had worked out in the morning and I came back in the afternoon for another session. I pushed the EZ Curl bar to its limit. My arms were sore, traumatized, deep bone sore for a week. I had overdone it – and I would never recommend that level of punishment to anyone. Moreover, I had no idea you could take medicine to reduce the swelling and pain. I just suffered.

But it worked. My arms grew significantly after that session. It was ground zero for my own muscle growth. If you are familiar with how this works, you understand that when you work your muscles hard, you create micro tears in the muscle fibers. Your fibers then form scar tissue during the repair process which produces larger muscles. That is a simplistic explanation.

The harder you push it, the more tearing, more scars, larger muscles. It’s called muscle hypertrophy. Naturally, your hormones, like testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH) and insulin growth factor (IGF1) play a vital role in the process.

We knew none of the science. What we learned through the experience was how to follow a process and a discipline that created a new outcome – in this case, the increased muscle size. It felt like we had discovered a secret few knew. The reality, however, is that most great performers learn this process in other endeavors just in another context.

The side benefit to the process included a feeling you cannot recreate without doing the work. I’m going to repeat the obvious, but its important because, speaking only of my own experience, when I follow these patterns in anything from exercise to mastering a new skill, I naturally feel a pride and confidence nothing but the experience instills in you.

For me, that is one secret of learning how to push past your limits within the context of a defined process. You gain a level of confidence from having reached and learned about a new boundary.

When we discover new limits, beyond the ones in our minds or our physical life, the real benefit comes in the form of increased confidence in your ability. And this feeling or emotion is real confidence, not false bravado and lack of humility.

The feeling is a natural product of the process. It happens with mental exercise as well. I imagine the point of the post is to consider for a moment how you can apply the technique to any growth endeavor as part of a defined, repeatable process whether its in your personal endeavors or at work.

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