Why failing is crucial to fitness: Supercompensation and overload

Stress and obstacles in life are put there as tools for us to grow physically and spiritually
— Terrence Mckenna

One of the more disturbing trends of our age is the incessant fears and generally passive approaches that are disseminated throughout popular culture, including physical fitness.  We are told to visit our physicians "before starting a fitness program" to assess risk factors, we are given faulty advice from unqualified people and we are encouraged to partake in low-risk and sustainable exercise regimens which include lots of machines, isolation exercises (bicep curls, triceps, leg extensions, shoulder raises, etc.) and often times the most beneficial exercises - heavy squats, deadlifts and presses - are discouraged.

What started as a well-intentioned idea of sustainable exercise, something that wouldn't discourage the individual, and obviously not cause serious injury, has morphed into a philosophy of coddling the body.  We are presented with infinitesimal examples of people dying of heart attacks while running, or people's hearts exploding, or having a stroke while trying to deadlift a ton of weight.  Like everything else it seems in this society, the popular notion has become one of low-risk.  However, with low-risk always comes the inevitably reflected return: not much.

Let's get the facts straight here.  Studies have shown muscle mass can be added well into the 9th decade of life.  People have climbed Mount Everest without oxygen and with very little food and lived long lives afterward.  People with insurmountable spinal injuries have "miraculously recovered".  We literally have people pushing the boundaries of every conceivable physical and mental accomplishment; we are shattering the old dogma, destroying limitations, setting records and constantly coming up with new ways to improve the functions of the human body.

The point of this rant is this: The average human being has infinite possibilities for growth, but it will not respond in big ways to puny, useless stimuli.  You're body isn't going to burn fat until you WILL IT to burn fat, until you completely control your body.  It isn't going to add muscle until you induce a SURVIVAL INSTINCT that forces your body to respond.  Do you really think that just lifting 15# dumbbells "until it burns" is going to be enough to send your body into ultra-beast mode?


So what I'm saying here is that to make big changes, I mean really BIG changes to your physique, without taking a decade and a half to do it, then you have to grasp the concept of super-compensation and the overload principle of muscle growth.

 Super compensation is the manifestation of your gym sessions as results.  When enough stress is placed on the body, it will respond by over-compensating with recovery to yield a positive change.  Either the muscle will physically increase in size by retaining more fluids and nutrients, or it will become "denser" because of physical structural proteins in the muscle cells, or it will respond in some other way.

But, this doesn't happen from some mamby-pamby isolation workout (at least not without the proper "supplementation" wink-wink).  Your body will scoff at such things over time.  It isn't enough of a survival mechanism to induce a change!

But let's say you do a set of moderate-heavy squats to failure; I mean the type of set where you rack the bar and have to sit down for a minute because you're so exhausted...you're body doesn't know what just hit it!  The systems in your body are literally SCRAMBLING for ways to make sure that this injustice isn't duplicated in the future!  The hormonal systems start to kick into high gear.  

If you really think about it, the workouts we use are not much more than an artificial stimulus designed to make our body switch into hormone overdrive and change itself.  

The idea of "progressive overload" is how we systematically keep the change going overtime.  All this really means is that to consistently make changes you have to continually challenge the body more and more.  If you keep lifting the same weights the same weigh over and over you're body will already will have compensated and the progress will come to a halt and you will just be "maintaining".  

So if supercompensation is the destination, progressive overload is the road map to get us there!

What does this have to do with failure?

If you are working out and truly have a goal to change your body in a certain direction, then you must fail often.  Here's what I mean.

Many times we find ourselves stuck in a rut.  We don't have the energy to workout hard, we have stress, and we fall into the pitiful cycle of just "working out".  

But there's one way to keep your mind engaged and guarantee some sort of result and that is by trying new things, new types of stimulation, or trying to break our old records.  Run a faster mile.  Deadlift ten more pounds.  Do 40 pushups instead of 35.  I personally believe this is the key in the long run to success.  

Forget the scale, forget the calories (but not the nutrition plan itself) and focus on improving performance.  Run faster and / or longer, lift heavier, be more explosive, have better posture, breathe better, be more flexible.  

But above all else, get stronger.  Strength is always the key to improving your physique over time.  

To get stronger, you must fail.  You will try to do a handstand, and you will fail.  Then you will get the handstand, and try a handstand pushup, and you will fail.  Then you will try again and get it.  Then you will try for five handstand pushups, and you will fail.  

This is the ongoing process of execute - fail - evaluate - repeat that leads to long term progress.  And when you get better, note your progress and keep going.  Never stop going.  New results will spur confidence which will keep you coming back for more and more.

Final Thoughts

There is no "best way" to trigger this supercompensation / survival response but the consensus among strength coaches is clear:  Workouts revolve around the big lifts that take the most out of you like squats, deadlifts, and presses.  These are the "big hitters" that use more muscle per movement and cause the most stress which means more response which means more results.  

There are a few ways to manipulate workouts so that we change the survival response, confuse the body and institute more change:

- changing the speed of the movement by either being slow and controlled or explosive and controlled

- increasing the weight (this is the standard metric) 

- adding different types of resistance together, like using chains with your squats, or using bands with your bench press

- changing the angle that the muscle is used to

- changing the stability of the movement (using one arm at a time, standing on one foot, using unstable surfaces)

- lowering the rest time between sets and getting more work done in the same amount of time


I hope this helps motivate some people to push their limits and get some of that delicious morsel called super compensation!  How do you keep your body changing over time?  Leave it in the comments!

Ben Hetzel

Strength and Conditioning Specialst