Joe Warner is the deputy editor of Men’s Fitness magazine. His mission is simple: to get in cover model shape in just 12 weeks.
Your driving test. The decisive penalty in a shoot-out. Finally making a move on the girl in the office you’ve fancied for ages. There are many situations in a man’s life where failure isn’t an option. Situations where even the thought of not succeeding is enough to make your blood run cold and beads of sweat form on your brow. But there is one place where failure isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in the gym is perhaps the only place where failure is the fastest route to success.
That’s because forcing your muscles to the point where they are unable to lift that weight even a millimetre higher is the best way to coax them into growth, especially if your latest efforts have hit a wall.
Clear the wall
“The start of any new weight-training programme will lead to some pretty rapid gains because you are exposing your muscles to a new stimulus, which shocks them into responding by growing bigger and stronger so that they are able to cope when they asked to perform this task again,” says Nick Mitchell, personal trainer, founder of Ultimate Performance Fitness and my muscle mentor in Operation Cover Model Body (OCMB). “But your body very quickly adapts to this new stress, and you need to keep your muscles guessing to keep them growing.”
Lifting to failure may be a great way to force your body to build more muscle and burn more fat, but it isn’t pleasant. The fear starts before even the first rep, because you know you’re less than a minute away from reaching a point at which, although you're willing that bar to keep moving, it’s going to come to a grinding halt.
It’s not so bad with dumbbells - the worst that can happen is that they crash to the ground with an embarrassing thud - or on ground-up moves, such as the deadlift. But the bench press is a different story. A good spotter is essential. A bad one will either leave you with the bar digging a knurled line across your chest or having to upright row it away from you before your muscles have the chance to get past the sticking point. Mitchell knows exactly how much to help when I need it most, so I can keep pushing until my chest and triceps are quaking safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to be carried out of his gym in pieces.
Failure in the squat is even more hair-raising. There’s probably nothing more embarrassing in the gym than having another man wrap his pythonesque arms around your torso to lift you back to the start, but I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s happened.
Don’t fear failure
So if you’re struggling to keep up your muscle-building efforts, or have a reached a plateau that you can’t get off, try lifting to failure. Taking 12 or more reps to hit failure is just as useless at hitting it after two, so pick an appropriate weight that your muscles can lift six to eight times before waving the white flag. And more importantly, pick an appropriate spotter and make sure they’re read this gym spotting guide.
Cover model supplements
As part of my cover model transformation challenge, Nick Mitchell is making me take an assortment of supplements. I’ll be explaining the reasons behind a different one each week.
Why? L-carnitine is a compound found mainly in red meat. It plays many roles in the body, specifically in helping to use fat stores as fuel. Carn-Enhanced is a convenient liquid form of L-carnitine and also contains vitamin B5 and B12 to increase your fat-burning potential and improve energy levels.
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Joe Warner is a highly experienced journalist and editor who began working in fitness media in 2008. He has featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness UK twice and has co-authored Amazon best-sellers including 12-Week Body Plan. He was the editor of Men’s Fitness UK magazine between 2016 and 2019, when that title shared a website with Coach.