Technical Failure: Defined
How do you know that you're training hard enough? Should you just blast it every time you're in the gym until you can't walk? Shock the muscles? MUSCLE CONFUSION?! Should you leave 3-4-6 reps in the tank to save some fuel for next time? Should you do burpees?
If there's one thing we know for sure, burpees are never the answer. Here is a scientific approach to guide your training intensity to boost performance, reduce the risk of injury by emphasizing great technique, and make steady gains without burning out.
There are a few strategies those in the high-performance training world have been using to gauge effort. RPE (rating of perceived exertion) and RIR (reps in reserve) are two that are very common to give the athlete or client a way to subjectively assess their efforts.
RPE is typically expressed on a 0-10 scale with 0 being you're asleep, no effort at all, and 10 is the hardest thing you have ever physically done. Sometimes, the Borg scale is used where effort is gauged on a 6-20 scale that correlates with heart rate. 6 - 60 BPM aka resting and 20 - 200 BPM maximal.
RIR is an estimate of how many reps you have left on any given exercise. I prefer using RIR in my own training, in my client's training, and for the sake of this article, I will use RIR as a reference. But, whichever one of these you use as an athlete or a coach just be consistent because the more you train using one of these gauges the better you will become at using it accurately.
RIR is the number of reps you can perform with perfect technique before failure. If a program says Seated Hamstring Curls, 3 sets with 100#, 2RIR/set then that means each set you do as many reps as you can with great technique until you think you could only possibly do 2 more. Then you do another set the same way. Then another set. Your sets may look like [13, 11, 9 reps] because as you go, you fatigue more and the 2RIR threshold comes sooner. The same goes for 1RIR and 0RIR which we will discuss in a moment.
If you need to squirm around and lift your hips off the bench to get another rep then we call that a "garbage" or "trash" rep and everyone in the gym judges you (kidding). It doesn't count, you're no longer stressing the hamstrings you're stressing your ability to squirm and thrash around.
So again, RIR is how many reps you could do with near-perfect technique at the end of a given set.
This is the 15th rep on a recent leg press set for me that was 3RIR (start of a new training cycle). Still hitting full depth, still controlling the weight, was very difficult, and I have room to improve over the next few weeks.
After a few weeks of using a particular exercise when you have been slowly progressing and reducing RIR, it is time for a technical max out. 0RIR means that you are doing as many reps as possible with near-perfect technique. You have 0 reps in reserve. For example, If you need to use your hips and momentum to swing up the weight on a dumbbell bicep curl, the bicep is not working nearly as hard as it should be and you are no longer performing good technique and those reps don't count.
RIR in Practice
Here is an example of how to use RIR for a training program. Say you are doing hack squats for this month to add some muscle to the quads. You are going to be training hard for the next month and want to steadily increase your efforts.
Week 1: 3 sets at 3RIR using the same weight. Your sets may look like 14, 11, 9
Week 2: 3 sets at 2RIR using the same weight as week 1. Your sets may look like 15, 13, 10
Week 3: 3 sets at 1RIR using the same weight as week 1. Your sets may look like 17, 15, 11
Week 4: 3 sets at 0RIR using the same weight as week 1. Your sets may look like 19, 16, 12. And this will be BRUTAL!
Now, there is a time and place for higher intensity techniques like forced reps or cheat reps but those techniques should be reserved for every once in a long while - if at all and are by no means necessary for the majority of people. I can't remember the last time I personally have made forced reps or cheat reps a part of my own or my client's programs but I know a lot of people like to lift with their ego instead of making steady progress with submaximal loads.
We train hard, recover, and make progress but do so in a way that is sustainable, encourages good technique, and gets results. By using technical failure as a stopping point for an exercise you can be sure that you are stressing the target tissue and ONLY the target tissue, consistently practicing good technique, you are progressively overloading the target tissue week to week, and you are doing so in a way that is safe so you can have a long and successful training career.
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