When You Should NOT “Empty the Tank”


  • a story
  • a lesson learned
  • a 30-second exercise for you, based on the lesson

Of the several positive responses I received after my last post, one in particular raised an issue that I want to discuss further, because I think it’s REALLY important…

Ed wrote to me the following:

“Thanks – what a great tip. The goal is exhaustion. We will try this on every exercise we do, not only weights, but also treadmill and bike.”

Thanks for writing that, Ed — that was a perfect set-up for me to explain when you should NOT try to “empty the tank” on activities outside of controlled resistance training.

Two of the activities that fall into this category are exactly the treadmill and bicycle.

Let me start by sharing a personal story:

I was skiing in Colorado several years ago, and enjoying a beautiful, sunny day with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Near the end of the day, I started feeling tired, but I was enjoying the day so much that I decided to take one last run down the front face of the mountain to take it in one last time.

As I was skiing, I noticed that my legs were even more tired than I thought, and about half way down the mountain, one ski stuck and went in a different direction from the other ski.

I began to fall suddenly toward the ground, and I didn’t have my usual strength to muscle out of the situation.

My exhausted brain let me do something foolish … I jabbed my right ski pole into the ground, attempting to stop my fall.

As I continued to fall at the ski pole, my weight pushed my right thumb all the way back into my forearm.

That hurt.

It took several days for my thumb to heal enough for me to even hold a pen and write … which was a problem, since I’m right-handed.

It was also too painful for me to shift a manual transmission car with my right had for weeks … which I know because I owned a stick-shift car.

The moral: getting physically and mentally exhausted during some activities can be DANGEROUS.

Imagine what could happen if you got totally fatigued on a treadmill.

Not pretty.

Imagine what could be the result of riding a bike when your muscles are too exhausted to quickly maneuver to avoid a sudden large rock in your path, or to recover from something throwing you off-balance.

Not pretty.

If “exercise” is activity performed to improve your health and ability to enjoy life, anything that puts you at a high risk of injuring yourself does not qualify–and it should not be considered exercise.

Hammering nails while blindfolded is physical activity, but I think that it should not be considered exercise.

I believe that the intensity of exertion is the most important factor in generating strength and cardiovascular benefits, after looking at the evidence. Therefore, I recommend that any activities you use for exercise are simple to learn, master, and perform, and are very difficult to do wrong.

The skills/activities you use should be mastered to the point of feeling well within your control before you attempt to really “empty the tank” with them.

Also note that “empty the tank” means to go to the point where you physically cannot move … and beyond — to continuing to try for another 10 seconds just to make sure you really can’t physically move under sustained 100% effort. When people feel that they are absolutely “too exhausted to continue,” that is often a sign that they are about 50% of the way to this point. Maybe 40%.

I am not talking about feeling too tired, or mentally giving up — I’m talking about the point at which your muscles are physically incapable of moving the weight — even as you’re exerting a maximum effort.

To get anywhere near this point, a good type of exercise is isometrics (like I demonstrated on the video linked to from the last newsletter), as there is no movement at all to mess up. Also, resistance exercise machines that are totally stable and can be performed with very slow movements are great — performed in the right way, they are nearly isometric.

I avoid anything with instability — including most free weight exercises and DEFINITELY instability devices like inflatable balls and instability boards for two big reasons:

1. To the extent that these exercises destabilize you, they do not allow you to target more intensely. The instability required different muscles to take over intermittently, which gives other muscles rest. There is not sustained effort in one targeted muscle group. No muscles can be thoroughly exhausted in the manner described above.

2. To the extent that you train more intensely with such activities, and get closer to real muscular exhaustion, your risk of injury increases.

If you want to get the most intensity out of your workouts (and therefore the most results), I recommend focusing on activities that are simple — activities that you can completely master and perform totally in control all the way to muscle fatigue with little to no risk of your technique falling apart — even if your muscles become so tired that they simply cannot move at all.

Such intense exercise, performed properly, will take you less time, get you more results, and give you lots of extra strength.

THEN you can go enjoy all of the fun activities you like to do–such as biking, skiing, tennis, hiking, swimming, etc.

As a major bonus, you’ll never have to worry about exhausting yourself during your fun activities — you can just enjoy them, knowing that you already got all the exercise benefit you need.

(And if you don’t believe this, wait until you see the video footage of our clients in our LA gym describing what types of improvements they’ve seen in their performance since switching to once-weekly training the way we do it. We’ve been recording some amazing stories; we’ll put them online soon.)

Your next action exercise:

1. Take a piece of paper and pen, and draw two columns: “High-Intensity Exercise Activities (that I can take to muscle failure)” and “Fun, Non-Exercise Activities.”

2. Write down all of the activities that you do, and put each into the appropriate column.

Now evaluate at what you have.

If you end up with an empty “exercise” column, then perhaps it’s time to think about adding one 20-minute per week block of intense, purposeful *exercise* to your week.

That’s all it takes to be consistently improving your strength, cardiovascular health, bone density, and many other factors of health — if you believe the studies I’ve read and the clients I’ve worked with.

3. Write down, “Considering what I’ve just thought about, my next action to improve my fitness routine is …” and finish that sentence, based on the simple advice in this newsletter.

If you take action on this, I bet that you’ll start feeling stronger and healthier, looking more attractive, and enjoying your recreational activities more.

Comment below, and let me know how you’re using this tip … or if you have any questions.


P.S. If you’d like a personal trainer in Los Angeles to teach you optimal exercise activities for a once-a-week routine, and also to help keep you accountable every week, click on the “introductory session” link and find out if you qualify and are a good fit to work with us.

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