Weight training for the beginner exerciser and technical failure

“Lifting to technical failure” is a term often used in the weight lifting community to mean performing a specific resistance activity enough times that the primary muscle cannot perform that exercise with good form any more.  Why should everyone know and utilize this technique?  Because it is a basic reason why we develop and grow muscle fibers in the body.  This makes us stronger, more powerful, and allows our bodies to burn more calories even when at rest.


First I’d like to clear up a few myths that are rampant about lifting weights.  Women, don’t worry about “bulking up” lifting heavy weight, because of how your bodies are built, it’s extremely difficult for women to generate that “bulky” look from lifting weights, more likely results will be more streamlined or sleek looking muscles, and more strength, agility, and power without much change in muscle size, it will NOT happen “by accident”.  Second, you don’t need to lift weight for hours, perform dozens of exercises per workout, or workout 4 or 5 times a week in order to develop new muscle mass; in fact for most people who are just looking to gain a little strength and muscle mass while dropping some body fat, 2 to 3 days a week of heavy weight lifting, targeting the right muscle groups, and performing with enough weight, for 8 to 10 different exercises totaling about an hour should be plenty to get you where you need to be and keep you there.  And lastly, heavy weight lifting is not a specialized activity only to be performed by a select few “meat heads” looking to become body builders, in fact everyone (adults) should be doing some type of anaerobic resistance exercise every week, that goes for people who are 18 years old to people who are 80 years old.  In fact, studies show, that people in their 50’s and above benefit enormously from heavy resistance training in the form of increased bone density (a big problem for older adults) and increased strength and stamina.


Both strength training and cardiovascular exercise should be part of your weekly regiment.  Doing a 2/3 or 3/3 or 2/4 weight training/cardiovascular split every week will help you not only increase strength and stamina, but it will tell your body “Hey!  I’m using my muscles, don’t use them for energy, burn fat instead”.  Why not do just cardio?  Cardio is great, but it generally only works half your muscle fibers, there are two (really 3, but for this purpose 2 is fine) types of skeletal muscle fiber in the body, one that is more endurance based, one that is more power based.  The muscles that are worked primarily in cardio are the endurance based muscles, and it’s great to make them work hard, but without working the other half, you’re doing your body a disservice.


Many people question both how to start lifting weights, and how many repetitions one should perform and how many sets is correct.  There’s no definitive right answer for this.  Depending on your goals and timeline, your repetitions per set, and sets per routine will change.  Some people are looking for increased power and strength, but don’t care a lot about muscle size, for this you want small repetition totals with slightly less sets (for example 4 to 6 repetitions and 3 to 4 sets with higher weight) where as someone looking for size increases more than strength increases would use a little higher repetition totals, lower set totals and a bit lower weight (for instances 8 to 12 repetitions, 4 to 5 sets, 80 to 85 percent of maximal weight).  Of course, you almost never build size at the exclusion of power and vice versa, therefore you will usually gain some of both while doing your sets.  The important factor is you need enough weight to go to technical failure right at the last repetition of a set.

Technical failure simply means with GOOD form, you can no longer perform another repetition of the routine.  That doesn’t mean you have to try that extra repetition, odds are you’ll know you can’t do another repetition by half way through the one before.  Some people preach high repetition sets (20 and above), this does have its place in weight training, but it’s not as a muscle building activity, it’s as a muscular endurance activity.  High repetition sets will focus more on the development of the muscle cells to hold more of the enzymes and fuel needed to keep performing for longer periods, and to develop more mitochondria in the cells to deliver the all important energy needed to fuel those cells.  This is something that should be taken into account, especially for hybrid athletes such as soccer or basketball or hockey players who do both explosive moves and thus need more power quickly, but also need to perform for extended periods without fatigue.


For beginners, I would recommend a visit with a trainer, a single appointment with a good trainer (make sure you vet your trainer beforehand thoroughly, and that they know the goal of the appoint is simply to show form and give you a good starting weight), while a trainer is great for continuation of your program, one is not required to weight train.  As long as you hit all the major muscle groups, have correct form, and are using enough weight to induce failure, you can continue alone.



  •  If you can do all repetitions in your set and feel like you can do more, you don’t have enough weight.


  • While it’s fine to do both cardio and anaerobic activity (weight training) in the same day, do weight   training before cardio, and give yourself a few hours between the two if you do.


  • Whenever you are doing weight training with a barbell, always have an experienced spotter (except in the   case of Olympic lifts where spotting is dangerous, in this case learn how to correctly “miss” the bar”)


  •  While knowing your 1 repetition maximum (1RM) is nice, it’s not required.  A little trial and error to find   the right weight is fine.



About banks1850

I'm a regular guy, very happily married, I have no kids, 1 dog (ok he's sort of a kid), love sports (playing and watching), and enjoy helping others. I'm an ACE certified personal trainer since early 2010 and I focus on impact athletics performance training and also beginner development for both nutrition and exercise. I'm a bit of a nerd, as such I love to read about health and wellness and much of my nutrition and biological knowledge comes from college and advanced text.

Posted on July 11, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thanks for your explanation, as usual very informative:) I am doing a 5×5 program currently and love it. I want to be strong and have nice muscles. I am just curious, why the wait for 2 hrs after lifting to do cardio? I always do my cardio after, but it is within a half an hour. Is that doing damage?

    • generally because you want to give yourself time to recover the glycogen at the muscle site. With most weight training, unless you’re training for a really long time, you won’t deplete liver glycogen far enough to cause a real serious issue with extended cardio, but you do need to give your body time to “re-stock” the small glycogen stores at the muscle site. Plus the types of hormones that anaerobic acivity introduce immediately into the system somewhat countermand the needs of an endurance exercise, and thus to receive full benefit from cardio, you want to give yourself enough time for those homrone levels to return to something more approaching normal. While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of 5X5, I’m not against it either, mostly it depends on the person performing the activity over the actual program (within reason that is).

  2. Thanks for your explanation, as usual very informative:) I am doing a 5×5 program currently and love it. I want to be strong and have nice muscles. I am just curious, why the wait for 2 hrs after lifting to do cardio? I always do my cardio after, but it is within a half an hour. Is that doing damage?

    I am usually running late so it is approx 30 min in and out of the gym. The most has been 45 min but did not do cardio on that day. I do kind of miss the other “program” or whatever it is called. I did chest/tri’s,legs,back/bi’s…..or something like that, then I would switch it up every 6 weeks or so chest/back,bi’s tri’s,legs……never did abs until the last year. And do not quote the specificty of exercise order, I am guessing although it is written down somewhere in a notebook.do you have a “program” to reccomend? I am trying to just keep things fresh and not let my body get too used to the “same old thing”

  3. Awesome topic and great explanations. Thanks!

  4. Dorothy Dingman

    Thanks for this information! I have been thinking about adding the weight training for a while now, and was reluctant to start for many reasons. Lack of knowledge was one of them, and research usually lead to more questions than answers!

  5. Do you have any suggestions for at home strength training routines?I have some 5 & 10 lbs dumbbells and a resistance training band. I found your post on MFP great …..I’m a fan!

    • 5 and 10 lb dumbbells are good for certain specific things, but for others they may be to light, especially if you’re talking about strength training routines. I would find them acceptable for things such as lunges, triceps extensions, and front and side raises. I don’t think they would provide enough weight for things like squats, curls, presses, flys, overhead presses…etc. I believe that you probably would need more weight than that. On the other side of the coin, resistance bands, because of the nature of a band, are adjustable with weight, you can do all kinds of things with resistance bands including curls, seated flys, squats, standing presses, overhead presses, lateral pull downs just to name a few (google resistance band exercises and you’ll find tons of hits). Pretty much any routine you can do with a dumbbell or barbell you can do with resistance bands, the trick is to find something stable to use as the brace for the band. For any standing routine, just create a loop in the band and stand on it for more resistance. Also, don’t discount body weight routines, push ups, weighted crunches, planks, squat thrust push presses are a great combination routine if you’re short on time, squat jacks (a modified jumping jack from a 1/2 squat position) are an excellent lower body routine, 1 legged dead lifts (with weight), mountain climbers, russian twists for the core, dive bombers, wall sits are a good isometric activity that you can use as an active recovery period. As well as any number of plyometric routines (google plyometric exercises for more info). There’s no need to use a gym for resistance exercises, you can do most of it from home. If you splurge on a medicine ball (the heaviest you can find is better) and can hang a pull up bar, you can do even more (total of about 50 to 60 bucks and you have all you need). There are multiple things you can do with either one of those simple tools.
      And don’t forget the age old sprint for lower body resistance. 3 sets of ten, 30 yard wind sprints are a great workout for anyone, beginner through advanced, but I’ll say this once, a sprint is not a 75% run, nor is it a 90% run, it’s all out, breakneck, as fast as your tired legs will carry you run, by number 5 you should be gasping, by 10 your thighs should be burning, by the last set you should be cursing the day you decided to exercise, if you aren’t then either you didn’t go 100% or it’s time to move on to something else.

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