Volitional Fatigue

Happy Friday folks! Welcome to another installment of Friday’s with the Ferret.

                This week, I would like to share with you the concept of volitional fatigue and my thoughts on it.

First things first … What is volitional fatigue? Volitional fatigue is achieved during a set of repetitions (in exercise) when the muscle can no longer perform the action to perfect form. You will feel lapses in the smoothness or find yourself having to “cheat” to finish repetitions beyond the point of volitional fatigue.

How many times have you done a workout routine and performed a set number of reps? Be it 12, 10, 8, 5, or 20, have you ever asked yourself why you are performing the exercise that many times? Is it arbitrary, or is there a purpose?
                As a fitness professional, when designing a program I provide repetition ranges for my clients typically falling between 8 and 12. With this range, I also tell my clients two things.

One: I tell my clients to ignore the numbers I just gave them.
                Two: I tell them to instead lift to volitional fatigue and use the rep range as a guide.

The next question I get is often times mid set; “How many more do I do?”

So this is where we run into our snag. We obsess over numbers and things that are quantifiable that we forget the very essence of what it is we are doing.

When a rep range is provided, or a hard number is given we do want to take that into consideration but not in the traditional way of thinking “Okay, I hit 12, so I’m done right?”


Here’s how we take our rep range and quantifiable numbers with our knowledge of what in fact volitional fatigue is to make it something productive.

                Let’s take a bodyweight exercise as our first example, something simple; Pushups.

So I’m in pushup position and I am cranking out pushups, it’s my first set, I have previously done 20 pushups within a week so I am going to work under the assumption that I should be able to do at least 20 and therefor will make that my marked range.
                As I hit pushup number 20, I notice that my form has not faltered yet. Therefore, I am NOT done yet. I hit 22 next, still smooth, but as I begin to pushup into number 23, about halfway up, my form pauses for a moment, and I have to swing my hips a bit and juggle my shoulders or “cheat” to finish the pushup, my form is no longer smooth and I have hit Volitional Fatigue.

Am I done now?

Yes! Once I have hit volitional fatigue, I only want to continue past that point for 1 or 2 more repetitions. Any more than that and the cheating required to continue will be too far beyond form to be considered safe and you would run the risk of injuring yourself.

So, let’s roll into our next example where we are using weight that is not our own bodyweight but free weight instead. This is where rep ranges become important, but we cannot forget about volitional fatigue.

I set myself up with a barbell and prepare to do Barbell Rows, with weight in hand and my rep range of 8 – 12 in mind, I get to work. As I get up to rep 12, I notice that my form still has not swayed, I get to repetition 14 and finally my form fades, I manage to get up to 16.
                I still managed volitional fatigue so I got that part right, but I missed my range. What does that tell me?

Simply put: I selected a weight that was just a bit too low for me to reach volitional fatigue in my rep range.

                Aha … so now it is starting to tie together in a meaningful way. We set a rep range not to dictate how many reps we perform, but what weight we use to reach volitional fatigue in the decided rep range.

If my rep range is 8 – 12 (for my first set) I want to reach volitional fatigue no earlier than my 8th rep, and no later than my 12th rep.

4 – 8, I want to reach volitional fatigue no earlier than 4 and no later than 8.

So, if we cannot reach the minimum number, the weight is too heavy. If we can do several reps past our highest number, the weight we have selected is too light.

Next question, why is lifting to volitional fatigue more important than just hitting a number and improving beyond that? Numbers are quantifiable after all.
                It’s true that working out to volitional fatigue as opposed to a hard capped number is more difficult to quantify, and you very well may find that sometimes you’ll hit that point sooner than expected. It is also true, that working out to a specific number and then trying to do one to two more the next time is beneficial and will also produce results.
                Here’s my logic though on why training to volitional fatigue is superior; every time you work out, you will be guaranteed to produce the effort required to induce change in your muscles. Yes, just using numbers is easier. But on any given day there are a myriad of variables that can affect the effectiveness of a workout strictly based on numbers (muscles optimally fueled need more thrashing, muscles over worked will cannibalize themselves, sometimes while counting you may miss a rep, etc) so why take any chances? Most of us are pressed for time already and one of the biggest excuses is “not having enough time” so why set yourself up for a situation that can fail but is easier in lieu of a situation that is more of a challenge but guaranteed?

                Ridiculousness is all I can say to anyone who would choose to allow their hard work even the slightest chance of failing them.

                Challenges aren’t difficult just to piss us off. They are difficult so they may teach us something valuable and earned.

So, remember your ranges, but ignore the numbers. Focus on the feeling, otherwise, you may end up keeping yourself on a perpetual plateau.

To assist you in making sure all your sets are meaningful and you don’t end up selecting improper weights many times, get yourself a small notebook and use it to track your exercise progress …

Next week, we’ll talk about the most efficient / effective ways to journal your workouts to maximize your own efficiency! Stay classy all, and lift to feeling not to number.


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