Prepare to fail

Geraldine Campbell, MSc


November 1, 2018

We've all heard the saying “fail to prepare; prepare to fail.”

While this is undoubtedly good advice, what if I shortened it to simply "prepare to fail"?  Sound pessimistic?  Sound like bad advice?  Like I am telling you to set yourself up for failure, right?  Mentally preparing ourselves for failure is something we commonly do, especially when something is hard.  It often leads to us not putting in 100% effort, so, when failure does occur, we haven't invested so much of ourselves and we don’t feel quite as bad.

This is not what I'm suggesting when I tell you to "prepare to fail." Instead, think of the oft-given advice cited by people who are highly successful in their field: you need to take risks and not be afraid of making mistakes. Such people’s back stories will often contain failure, even spectacular or multiple failures. More often than not, they didn't get things right the first time and they had to persevere until things worked out.

Now this is getting closer to what I mean when I say, "prepare to fail," but it still isn't quite exactly what I mean.  The idea I want to present, with specific reference to dieting and exercising, is a combination of intelligently planning to cut the risk of failure, while being mentally resilient when failures do occur.

We all fail at times – don’t beat yourself up about it

The first time you do something, it will not necessarily be a great success.  Don't be afraid to fail and don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t achieved everything you set out to accomplish.  Rather than just giving up and accepting failure, we can have plans in place to help us prevent or overcome it.  While you might be new to dieting or exercise, the potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks are easy to find with a bit of research or just common sense.

For example, if we know we are going to be working out of town for a week and do not have easy access to our usual foods, we can prepare for what will be available and still hit our calorie and macro targets as best we can.  Alternatively, you may have to accept that you’re not going to make as much progress as desired during your week out of town, but you can promise yourself that you will get back on track as soon as your back home.  Unless you have a very strict date for when you must be a certain weight, taking an extra week or two really isn't the end of the world.

Planning for changes to our diet

Suppose you have an upcoming special occasion, like a birthday or wedding. This may prevent you from exercising and there’s also the temptation of lots of delicious but unhealthy food and drink.  If we have enough notice, we can rearrange our week to fit in an exercise session e.g. by swapping a rest day or by spreading the exercise over other sessions throughout the week.  If we know we want to indulge in foods and drinks, we can make sure we save up the calories for it.  We could skip breakfast that day or eat extremely lightly beforehand, helping us stay within in our daily calories.  

We could also just simply allow ourselves to indulge a little more that day. For example, instead of staying within our calorie deficit, we could eat a maintenance number of calories (i.e. the same caloric intake as the energy we expend) that day.  If we're in a calorie deficit 6 days out of 7, one day at maintenance is not going to have a massive impact.  However, we still need to know what our maintenance calories are and prepare to practice some level of restraint.  You could also pack your own food if you really wanted to rigidly adhere to your diet. While this is commendable, it is understandably very difficult and perhaps a little extreme, so I wouldn't expect most people to do this.

Preparing for training plateaus

Maybe you've been making great progress on a certain lift in the gym.  You've been consistently squatting more and more weight each week, but now you're struggling and can't complete all your reps and sets at a given weight. This has happened for two sessions in a row now.  If you haven't prepared for this to happen, you could just keep trying.  Maybe you'll eventually complete the prescribed reps and sets, but this may take a long time or maybe even never happen.  

A more efficient approach would be to drop the weight by 10% and slowly build back up to the higher weight again (note, this is just one way of overcoming a plateau on a lift, there are many other methods).  Having a plan for when you hit a plateau will prevent you from becoming too disheartened and help you overcome the stall in your performance.  It would be great if all our progress could be in one direction, but, in reality, it is often a case of 2 steps forward and one step back.

Preparing for changes in exercise routine

It is likely at some point that a piece of gym equipment will be unavailable, you’re in a different gym to your regular one, or you have a slight injury that prevents you from performing certain exercises.  You could just decide to skip the exercise and shorten your session. More productively, you could replace the exercise with something similar.  Can't get access to a pull-up bar? Is the lat pull-down machine free? Or could you do barbell rows or inverted rows on the smith machine, or even some sort of banded pull?  If you can’t get to the squat rack, you can do some Bulgarian split squats, single leg pistol squats or goblet squats instead.

If you're injured, then, granted, replacing an exercise with a similar one isn't really possible. Nevertheless, you may be able to give other areas of your body an extra workout.  For example, if you have a lower body injury, you can still do upper body exercises and maybe even some abs.  Conversely, if you've injured your upper body, you can still do some lower body exercises.  You'll still need to select exercises sensibly (e.g. – hanging from a pull-up bar with an injured ankle isn't a good idea) and you may have to lower the intensity to make sure you're not aggravating the injury, but most small injuries shouldn't stop you from exercising completely.

Knowledge is power

All the above examples involve some planning or preparation, as well as a basic understanding of nutrition and exercise.  Having a greater knowledge of these areas will not only make us more aware of the common obstacles, but also make us more likely to overcome them and have more confidence in doing so.  At FitnessGenes this is what we encourage and support people to do.  Whether its through our helpdesk or our Facebook group, you will have access to a wealth of experience and assistance to help you with any fitness, diet or scientific question you may have.

Geraldine Campbell, MSc

After originally joining the company as an intern, Geraldine has progressed through the science team to now oversee all new research and releases. In addition to her MSc in Clinical Exercise Physiology, Geraldine is a certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM), and is therefore pivotal in the delivery of recommendations. A keen footballer and gym-goer, Geraldine likes to balance her active lifestyle with her love of food.

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