Programming to a Mechanical Failure Ceiling

(An opinion piece)

Idealistically a max effort lift or rep in the weights-room should be executed technically ‘well’ or better explained it should match the technique bandwidth and standard that aligns with the movement pattern intended. Training needs to be purposeful and high quality. 

But when our athletes ‘max out’ coaches can sometimes become lenient on the deviations from the movement pattern intended, coached and developed, arguably deciding or prioritising how much weight can an athlete move verses how much force can the athlete coordinate and express in the intended movement pattern. Exactly how much deviation is productive and have we decided on the edge of these technical standards before we test strength. Amongst the noise of technological advancement and utilisation in training I think it is important we do not forget to have a clear philosophy underpinning the programming and performance before testing or monitoring. 

Is technique black and white or universally agreed on? Neither! But there is at least thought camps or on a smaller level techniques coached specifically to an individual. Now, before it’s commented on, yes individual anatomy varies person to person and is a relevant factor. But there is a bandwidth of what quote on quote ‘normal’ or ‘desirable’ technique tends to look like in the common currency that is the human body. On a simplistic level, is ROM full or sufficient for that individuals anatomy, is it symmetrical where it can be, is the control of the load smooth matching the descending cortical intent and finally is there proprioceptive understanding in sync with this motor output. Intent being the pattern programmed with specific traits understood. 

What is Mechanical Failure? Training to an intensity or load that exceeds the desired technique (my own words). But what is the cost and risk v reward of this

Deviation from ideal technique does not guarantee injury or directly cause it. Does one bad rep cause injury – hopefully not, especially given that sport and the chaotic nature of competition will expose athletes to loads that can exceed the training environment. But can repetitive stress overload a tissue that’s being required to compensate or tolerate a role as a prime mover instead of its synergist or secondary movement role… I certainly think that’s plausible. 

I’ll expose my methodology openly for debate. In the context of programming athletes to select a weight that doesn’t leave them reps in reserve on the last rep, I have typically coached athletes to set the ceiling of their training loads where additional load in that moment would prevent them completing the rep in accordance to the standard, cues and intent coached. 

My reasoning for setting a mechanical or technique failure ceiling is I want the repetitive practise of training to reinforce the coordination and motor control of expressing force to be prescriptive, with less redundant variables. Parking my thoughts on periodisation to keep this article brief, mechanical failure provides valuable identification of a motion segment or tissue that may be the weakest link in a chain. Where and how an athletes technique breaks down can inform the exercise selection to overcome this plateau and focus the next best step. After all testing is not only to appraise the effectiveness of training interventions, but inform the process we continue with. 

Andy McDonald BSc MCSP CSCS

Andy McDonald BSc MCSP CSCS

Strength & Conditioning Coach,
Inform Performance Podcast Host