Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN’s fitness columnist. If you missed her series on “lateral work” for rider strength, check out the Beginner Novice, Prelim, and Advanced editions.
This title is not about any New Year’s Resolution you may have set for yourself. Though I have always disliked the concept of “New Year, New You,” I do advocate setting SMART goals to attain success. But working towards any goal, you may (and should) stumble.
This title is about not giving up. Fortunately (and unfortunately), we learn significantly more from our failures than we ever will from our successes. And, as my professional expertise is in a protocol of strength training that embraces failure, namely muscular failure, I want every equestrian to embrace and learn from it too.
Muscle failure, or more commonly referred to as “failure,” is the point at which you can no longer complete a strength training exercise. The muscles are worked to a point of true, deep fatigue. The challenge is to achieve this point of failure without sacrificing physical or executory form. Once muscular failure is achieved, another rep or anymore such stimulation of the same muscle, would be tantamount to trying to relight a fire that has already been lit. What your body craves and needs instead is the proper rest and nutrition to reap the benefits of the exercise. I like to think that once that fire is lit, rest and nutrition are the wood and the air that keep the fire going.
My protocol of strength training practices a philosophy of “one set to failure.” Ideally, the first repetition should feel challenging, but doable. The second repetition should feel significantly heavier, and then heavier again with each passing second. Should you start to shake towards the fourth repetition, rejoice that you are getting closer. Eventually, you can no longer complete the exercise. Instead of pointing the weight down at this point, it’s critical that you continue to push into the weight for an additional 10 seconds. That last 10-second effort should be with everything you have left! Then, set it down. And the added benefit of one set to failure is… YOU ONLY NEED TO DO ONE OF THEM!
Perfect execution is not easily attained. I advise everyone to seek progress rather than perfection, and remember that this a learned skill set. As you hone this skill set, your tolerances for discomfort should fortify as well. If you set the weight down in one exercise and realize you actually had a little more left to give, push yourself harder on the next exercise. Make no mistake, in addition to being physically demanding, strength training to muscular failure requires mental determination as well.
Beware of the pitfalls when maintaining ideal form. Common ways people sacrifice form are speeding up or jabbing at the weight, and moving and wiggling to engage different muscle groups. Moving and wiggling are much easier to correct. However, and especially if training on your own, extra attention must be paid to cadence, as the urge to speed up is strong. Also, any heaving or jabbing at the weight serves the same purpose – you are essentially utilizing acceleration and momentum to move the weight, and not the targeted musculature. These temptations are wrought with risk, as acceleration and momentum increase the potential for injurious force.
Another example would be finding opportunities to rest in the exercise, such as locking out at the joint. Locking out at the joint also increases the risk of injury, and actually gives the muscle at work a chance to briefly rest. But why delay the inevitable, if true muscular failure is our goal? We won’t be ceasing the exercise until failure is reached, so why delay at the expense of our safety? Again, after achieving true failure, the muscle is stimulated sufficiently and will begin to rebuild stronger, thicker muscle fibers.
The burning sensation you will begin to feel is just the beginning of fatigue. Burning does not mean that you should cease the exercise. Burning is not failure. You must push through the burn. Be clear, a slowly building fiery sensation is very different from acute pain. If you feel any sharp or shooting pain, stop the exercise immediately and consult a doctor before continuing.
Example Exercise: Tricep Extension
This is a great off the horse exercise to improve the half-halt and core strength as well as tone and definition in the arms.
Sit on an exercise ball
Walk your feet forward and allow the ball to roll up between your shoulder blades.
(Holding here is a great exercise on its own, engaging the core and glutes, or what I like to call “the keys to an independent seat”.) Keep your belly button engaged towards your spine and your glutes squeezed.
Straighten your arms up towards the ceiling. Ideally, you have a friend to hand you the weights once you are in position. A work around would be to place the hand weights on your torso, until the body is in position.
Note: When your elbows are straight, you are in the locked-out position. You can hold this position all day, because the elbow joint is bearing all the weight and not the tricep muscle.
Slowly, taking a full ten seconds, lower the weights down toward your ears. Keep your elbows pointed straight up towards the ceiling. After slowly changing direction, take another full ten seconds to raise the weights back up, to a point just shy of the lock-out position.
In the photo above, Haley has reached failure. She is pushing with everything she has, but the weight is not going anywhere. This is the ultimate goal.
If in doubt as to whether or not you have reached failure, lower the weight again, and try to push up slowly one more time (same pace as the first rep). If it moves, you’re not quite there. Once stopped, push for a full ten seconds into that weight. Even though it’s not moving, your triceps are still engaged.
Tip: To keep your elbows pointed up towards the ceiling, have a friend hold your elbows in place.
Time Yourself : Use a stop watch and time yourself. If you can do the exercise for anywhere between 90 seconds and two minutes, keep the weight the same and pushing for more time in the exercise. If you are able to perform the exercises for longer than two minutes before reaching muscular failure, then increase the weight by two pounds.
The Correct Weight: For women, a good place to start is anywhere between 2lbs and 12lbs for the tricep extension exercise. For men, 6-15lbs is plenty.
Both Haley and I use 6lb free weights and could probably manage 8lbs with fresh arms. However, we also both train with professional strength training instructors. If you are exercising without the benefit of a trainer or companion, always opt for a lighter weight. You will require more exercise time to reach failure, but this is preferable to struggling to get in position or maintain form with a heavier weight. The same is true even with a companion. Increasing the weight is pointless if you cannot maintain proper form and cadence.
Remember only one set to failure, so give yourself a week of rest and recovery and then try it again 5-7 days later.
“In sports, you must learn to fail successfully.” – Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence