Are you training to failure? Maybe you shouldn’t be.

Dean Somerset put out a musing today on his blog about training to failure, and it has me thinking about its applications in circus. The thing about strength training is that everything works to a degree. It might not be the most efficient use of your time but it usually does something.

“The balancing act of training is imparting enough stress to see positive adaptations, but not so much as to cause serious tissue damage or worsening performance.” – Dean

So what do I mean by failure exactly? Dean made this handy little graph.

“Technique failure” is when your form starts to break down. “Mechanical failure” is when you physically cannot do another rep.

In circus, we’re often trying to acquire new skills, which require new load demands on the body. Often as we try new things we fail. A lot. Sometimes it is because we’re not quite strong enough yet.

Aerialists, in particular, push themselves to mechanical failure on the regular.

Does pushing circus artists to mechanical failure matter?

Simply put, yes! Why?

1. A circus athlete’s skill level should guide their training program. 

Beginners will generally get the most benefits from stopping when they hit technique failure. Pushing to mechanical failure has limited benefit and risks injury.

Advanced circus athletes can benefit from higher stresses and are less likely to risk injury once their form starts to break down.

Think of all of the years of shoulder prehab work a professional aerialist has done. If she is doing 1-arm beats on straps and goes a little off course, those muscles kick in to protect her shoulder. A beginner has no guardrails.

2. A skill’s technical requirements should guide how far to push to mechanical failure.

All skills are not equal. If a movement has a low technical requirement, it is less risky to push to mechanical failure. Even a beginner can push to mechanical failure in toes to bar, for example, so long as they recover well from the exercise.

3. An athlete’s goals should guide their training.

No matter a circus artist’s level, waking up with severe Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) can be problematic. And training to mechanical failure is DOMS-land. Do you have a show the next day? Do you have to be active for your job? Do you just not want to feel like ass after training? Then think twice before training to mechanical failure.

Keep in mind that as training stress goes up, so do potential gains and risks. Going harder is not always the answer. Play with different approaches and see what works for your body. You can build the ability to tolerate stress over time and still see gains all over the place without trashing your body.


If you need someone to take a look at your training program to see if it is meeting your needs or to design a program just for you, hop on over to my website. I’d love to work with you 1-on-1!

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