Today I “failed” on deadlift. Emily said it was the first time. I had the bar set up with the most weight on it I had ever attempted and the goal was a triple. I pulled it once. In what Diego said was the ugliest deadlift he’d ever seen. He does not mince words. This is a characteristic that we all appreciate, because it keeps us safe. The bar, he said, was two inches from my body the whole time I pulled it. He was surprised I got it up at all. The pull was “effortful.” “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “If you had done that in a meet I would have been cheering and screaming like crazy. But not here. You don’t have many pulls like that in you before you get hurt. And I don’t want you injured.” He told me to walk away. Wait 10 minutes and then he’d let me try again. I “failed” and yet the feeling of failure in the gym is totally different than the way I’ve experienced failure in other settings. This is because at the same time that I knew mine was a super fugly pull, I also knew that it was a PR, more than 2.25x my bodyweight. A failure I was proud of, and a failure that at some point I expected anyway.
Two steps forward and one step back. This is the trajectory that characterizes most strength training. It’s a balancing act between forging ahead and backtracking in order to forge ahead at a later point. There are stretches of time where you find yourself in uncharted territory during every training session, phases where every week you find yourself pulling or pushing a new PR – often for weeks at a time. Its exhilarating to hit those PRs, to test what you’re made of and to discover your strength.
But inevitably one day you fail. One day you don’t hit your goal weight or the goal number of reps. You push yourself to the limit and find nothing. So you readjust. Maybe make corrections to the recovery process: eat more mindfully, sleep more regularly, manage stress better. Maybe you try the same goal weight a second time. You get it or you don’t. Maybe you keep forging ahead or maybe you reset – drop the weight back a bit, maybe add extra reps at that lighter weight, and begin building again from there.
Strength training is a process that keeps the focus on something off on the horizon. It’s a process that teaches us that failure is intertwined with success, and that if we haven’t risked enough to fail, we haven’t really gained or grown. It’s a process that reminds us on a weekly basis that failure is relative, not absolute. Failure is a sign that we have pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zones, into that space where the magic happens and where strength is built. And ultimately, when we keep our eyes on the far horizon, failure is an opportunity to reset; it is an opportunity for a new beginning.