Feel the Work

Let muscle fatigue be your guide

Feeling the work means to let your muscles tell you when they've had enough instead of simply counting reps and then stopping when you've reached a specific number.

What do we mean when we say "Feel the work"?

When you perform a set of pushups, for example, there are two methods of determining the end of your set. First, you could follow the most common method, counting. That is, you end the set when you reach a specific number of repetitions that you or someone else prescribed. The second method of ending a set is body-based. In this method, numbers take a back seat to letting your muscles tell you when they have had enough. This is called working to fatigue or what we call: “feeling the work”.

Feeling the work versus counting to mark the end of a set

Pairing together counting with “feeling the work” works really well. Here’s an example of how counting combines with feeling the work. Mary’s fitness trainer wrote up a program for Mary to follow. In the program, her trainer has scheduled Mary to perform 3 sets of 12 pushups. Weeks after the initial program was prescribed, Mary continues to stop at 12 although she feels like she can do more repetitions. What could Mary do as an option to ensure she is progressing steadily?

Our advice to people in Mary’s situation: instead of strictly using numbers to end your set, try letting your muscles tell you when they’ve had enough while tallying the number of reps that you were able to perform. It’s simple to try. Use your favourite exercise. Keep in mind how many repetitions you normally would do. Now, instead of stopping at that number for this set, do as many repetitions as you can until you feel it in your muscles. How many reps did you end up doing? Is it more than you would normally do? Great!

The takeaway is, you should still count your reps. But now you can your count reps to record how many reps it takes until you felt some fatigue set in. Numbers were once a place where you’d stop working even though you could do more. With feeling the work, numbers take a back seat and become simply a record of the number of reps it took for you to reach muscle fatigue. As far as fatigue goes, it’s very subjective. You may want to stop as soon as you feel some fatigue or, with experience, you may want to travel farther into the fatigue zone, performing perfect reps as you go, extracting more work from your muscles with each number you count. Of course, while all this is going on, never compromise your solid active posture (discussed in another post in this series). Likewise, do not jerk, yank or otherwise add a ballistic component to any movement as you fatigue in order to squeeze out a few more reps. When you train your body to end an exercise by using the “feel the work” method in combination with counting your reps, you will constantly progress in your workouts over time.

Here's how feeling the work combines with counting

Here’s an example of “feeling the work” in action. Meet Aleesha. She’s about to do pulls-to-chin using an anchored stretchy band , something you could do at the Windermere Community Fitness Park. As a rule, Aleesha uses the “feel the work” method to end each set. As she works through the set of pulls-to-chin, her goal is to continue performing perfect reps until she feels some muscle fatigue. But Aleesha also counts her reps to keep track of how many it takes for her to reach that familiar sense of muscle fatigue. Today Aleesha was able to do 15 repetitions until she felt some fatigue. Two weeks ago she was averaging about 12 repetitions per set. By working to fatigue instead of a set number of reps, and counting and recording the number of reps it takes to feel some fatigue, week by week Aleesha can see the progress she’s making in her strength capacity. Counting reps while working to fatigue, helps guarantee Aleesha’s progress.

How does feeling the work link to progressive strength building?

When you workout, you subject your muscles and joints to varying degrees of biomechanical stress. The harder you work out today, the greater the collective stresses applied to your muscles and joints. You’ll maybe recall the shaky arms and weak legs you sometimes feel when you head home after a tough workout. Deep down inside those spent muscles, muscles fibres are disrupted, there is evidence of micro-trauma, and muscles all over your body are looking forward to a good rest. In fact, a workout should always be paired with recovery for your gains to be actualized. 

For best results after any workout based on feeling the work, you need to take a couple of days (plus or minus) of active recovery (i.e. light activity without weight training) to allow your muscles and joints to recover. Aided by rest and proper nutrition, your muscles and joints rebuild, repair, and prepare for the next assault by beefing-up those damaged muscle fibres so they become larger and more resilient fibres, capable of handling more work before fatiguing.

It is worth noting here that significant improvements in strength will occur in females who workout regularly without the kind of muscle enlargement we see in males. There’s no need to “stop at 10 with a light weight” –sometimes called toning exercises– to avoid bulging muscles. Go for strength. It’s empowering. Your friends will be impressed (and hopefully they’ll be motivated to get strong, too).

The infographic above shows the relationship between weight or load, the number of reps achieved upon fatigue, and the resulting gains in muscle capacity

The main ideas from this article are…

  • Instead of just counting reps
    Let your muscles tell you when they have had enough. Use muscle fatigue as a means of determining the end of a set as an alternative to counting reps. When you begin to feel fatigue while performing a set, you know you’ve met your muscle’s challenge threshold.
  • Continue to count repetitions
    When you let your muscles tell you when to stop an exercise, It’s important to also count your reps so you know when to increase the weight. For example, if it takes you twenty-five reps before your muscles feel some fatigue, you may want to increase the weight if your goal is to become stronger. Likewise, if your goal is to increase muscle endurance, use a resistance level where you begin to fatigue at 20 reps or more.
  • Muscle fatigue paired with counting reps
    When your muscles begin to fatigue between 8 and 12 repetitions, you are challenging your muscle’s strength capacity. If it takes more than 20 repetitions to feel some muscle fatigue, you are challenging you muscle’s endurance capacity. Both strength training and endurance training practises will benefit from using muscle fatigue (while counting reps) as a guide to when to stop an exercise.

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