What is conscious failure and how can it help you?
The following physical exercise will grow your body, mind and spirit.
This rowing machine workout builds your anaerobic capacity, increases your lactic threshold, boosts your oxygen-carrying capacity, boosts mitochondrial density, increases capillary density, allows your muscles to hold more glycogen, burns off excess stress hormones and helps you sweat out toxins.
Seeking failure will make you happier, stronger, and healthier.
This workout is designed to be done on a Concept 2 rowing machine, a Water Rower, or my personal favourite, an RP3 Rowperfect machine.
I like to call the rowing machine an ergometer – or erg for short. Ergometrics is the efficient and effective use of your body. The rowing machine uses over 90% of your body’s muscles, and when used properly can train your body’s three main energy systems – cardiovascular (oxygen power), anaerobic (glycogen power) and creatine phosphate (ATP power).
This workout is designed to maximize both your cardio and anaerobic strength.
30-Minute Seek Failure Workout
Figure out your 2k test time or baseline from a 5:00 maximal effort test.
Hold your 5:00 max-effort split time for as long as possible in short intervals over 30 minutes on the erg.
Goal: Rowing machine high-intensity intervals for optimal fitness and focus. Hold your baseline split for 15 seconds to 2 minutes. Recover for up to 2 minutes between sets.
Set your timer for 30 minutes on the erg.
Hold your baseline split time for as long as possible. When your split rises one second above your baseline (IE: your 1:40.8 split bumps to 1:41 or higher), you’ve found failure. Your hard intervals should last between 15 seconds and 2 minutes.
After failure, rest and row slowly for 30 seconds to two minutes. Let the clock count down past the next minute (or two), then go hard again as the minute changes over. Seek more failure!
Repeat the push, fail, recover cycle for 30 minutes.
Listen to your body. Go by feel. Push yourself. Hard stop when your split time rises.
When you can hold your 2k split time for more than 15 minutes of the 30-minute workout, lower your split time baseline target by one second.
Years ago, I learned about seeking failure from an incredible athlete and competitor, Jake Wetzel. He became a multiple world champion and Olympic Champion, and the subject of a well-watched TEDx talk I delivered in 2013 – I Seek Failure.
At the bequest of some clients, I designed this rowing machine workout to help the corporate athlete or citizen athlete achieve more fitness by finding failure more consistently.
This workout is also a metaphor. Where can you seek failure (and allow for recovery) to increase your capacity and boost your professional ambitions?
Seek failure to grow your physical, mental, spiritual capacity
Step 1: Finding Your Baseline
Get on your rowing machine, warm-up and set your distance to 2000 meters, which is two kilometres. We’ll call this distance 2k.
Your goal? Complete your 2k as fast as you can. This should take between seven to eight minutes – unless you’re an Aussie like Josh Dunkley-Smith. Then, the exercise will only take you 5:35.8 (at a 1:23.9 split).
If you are not familiar with the 2k distance, set your machine to 5:00 and see what average split you can hold.
After finding your baseline, rest for a couple of days.
2k Baseline Splits
An eight-minute 2km test will show you a split time of 2:00 per 500m
A seven-minute 2k test will give you a split time of 1:45 per 500m.
You can find your split time by entering your 2k time in this calculator.
You can view the World Record 2000 meter scores for different ages and genders, which are performed on the Concept 2 machine.
Step 2: Warm-Up
Row light and take some firmer strokes until you break a sweat. Practice taking 5 strokes and hitting your target split.
Do some stretches on the erg. Make sure you are fully engaging your legs and core, with as relaxed a grip as possible.
This should take 5-10 minutes.
You can try this stretching and engagement routine I developed way back in the early 00’s, way before cell phone texting, social media or TikTok.
Step 3: Do the work
Set rowing machine timer for 30 minutes.
The goal is to hold your 2k pace for as long as possible without going over. The moment you are 1 second above your 2k pace you must stop and row slowly again for less than a minute and up to 2 minutes. Rest can last 5 seconds or 120 seconds.
You start rowing hard again when a new minute starts on the screen. If you’re bagged, you’re allowed to skip the first minute and go at the second minute.
Clock starts at 30:00. Your baseline split is 1:45. You hold this for 1:19, then hit failure. Your rate is 25.
Clock is now at 28:41. You breathe deeply, relax your face muscles and row lightly at rate 18. You watch the clock count down to 28:00.
As 28:00 approaches you ask yourself, do I go hard at 28:00 or 27:00? You feel the power.
Clock is now at 28:00. You go hard. This time you can only hold your split for 47 seconds at rate 24. The clock ticks over 27:00 and you do not have the energy. You row light and at a low rate until 26:00.
At 26:00, you go hard. But then you get distracted. Your split goes to 1:46. You are only 12 seconds in. Mildly frustrated at your lack of focus, you stop and row lightly.
At 25:00, you go hard again and hold your pace for 58 seconds this time. You take a break and watch the clock tick over 24:00.
This pattern repeats. You make bargains with yourself about how hard you can go for how long.
Hard rowing can last anywhere from 15 seconds to over 2 minutes.
Push down hard on the first three strokes, so that the screen reads below your target split. You should be within 1-2 seconds of your target split by stroke 5. Finding consistent power will take time and practice.
During the first 15 minutes, stay at lower rates (less than 26). For the last 15 minutes go at higher rates (28-34+)
You should spend 30% to 50% at baseline. Once you spend over 50% it’s time to lower your split. If you spend less than 30% at baseline, its time to raise your split.
Light rowing can last anywhere from 5 seconds to 2 minutes.
Go at a lower stroke rate, and keep the stoke as long as possible. Take a few seconds to compose yourself and relax after the hard rowing.
Recovery occurs over different periods of time:
- Every stroke
- When you hit failure
- In between workouts
To ensure proper recovery between strokes, make sure your body holds as little tension as possible. Relax your face. Smile. Find an exercise flow state that is powerful yet relaxed. Find peace in the suffering.
When You Hit Failure
To recover effectively in between hard sets, you can stop rowing for a few seconds. You may close your eyes or moan in pain. Take deep breaths and recover your composure quickly. Have self-compassion. Start rowing lightly at a low stroke rate as quickly as you can. Lengthen your stroke to make sure you are maximizing the rowing motion. Breathe deeply. Relax your face.
Open your eyes wide. Engage your brain, heart, belly and pelvic floor. Feel sensations in your brain and prefrontal cortex (“This is fascinating”). Feel positive emotions in your chest and heart (“I love this. I am so grateful”). Feel the belly expand and engage your rest & digest system (“I’m safe and powerful”). Relax your pelvic floor as you breathe in, then feel energy course from your gonads through your body as you exhale. (“I’m creating a stronger body”).
In Between Workouts
Rest at least 36 hours in between workouts. This will give your body time to heal and regenerate. You can do this seek failure workout once per week as part of a larger program or do this workout up to four times per week.
Be aware of work stress, home stress and other chronic stress that can prevent you from fully entering the rest and digest recovery state. This will increase the time you will need to take between hard workouts.
Do I have to use a rowing machine?
This workout is designed for the rowing machine but can be replicated with running, x-skiing, swimming, cycling. You will have to find a power monitor and construct a power-endurance baseline test.
I’m a woman/small/large/fat/unfit and my rowing machine 2k takes longer than 8:00. What should I do?
First, this workout is designed for corporate athletes and citizen athletes. Please consult your doctor if you have any questions or doubts about starting a new exercise routine.
Set your timer for 5:00 and go as hard as you can for this amount of time. Record the split time and use this as your target baseline.
Why is 5:00 the magic baseline time?
We are looking to maximize two different energy systems with this workout. 5:00 of maximal effort requires your body to be incredibly fit both aerobically (using oxygen as a primary energy source), and anaerobically (using glucose as your primary energy source).
For any efforts that are less than 3:00, you will primarily train your anaerobic energy system. For efforts over 8:00, you start to rely more heavily on your aerobic energy system.
5:00 is a great middle-ground that requires a well-developed glucose metabolism, high lactic acid threshold and metabolism, and a great oxygen metabolism (VO2 Max).
All that and 5:00 is the perfect amount of time for acute, self-inflicted exercise discomfort.
Will this work help me lose weight?
Yes. It will help burn excess fat. Eating less cheesecake also helps.
I’m injured, what should I do?
Contact your local medical professional or athletic therapist for solutions. Take action. Leave no stone unturned.
This is how I delt with a crippling back injury in 2019.
What rowing machine should I use?
I prefer the RP3 rower because it is dynamic and simulates flat water Olympic rowing more effectively than any other machine on the market. This allows me to hop into masters boats and have the right level of core engagement and leg-driven technique.
That said any machine will do! Concept2 is the industry standard and official rowing tests are done on this machine. The WaterRower is very popular because they are quiet. Dozens of other machines are available that have reasonable on-screen displays.
Remember, the horse matters more than the chariot. Use whatever machine you have access to. Get the work in!
What is a stroke rate / SPM?
The stroke rate is a measurement of how many rowing motions you complete in a minute. SPM stands for strokes per minute.
A lower stroke rate, say 18 spm, means that you have more recovery time between pulls. However, the rowing machine’s flywheel slows down more between each stroke. You require more power per stroke to maintain your split time.
A high stroke rate, say 34 spm, means that you have less recovery between pulls. However, more momentum is maintained on the flywheel. You require less power to maintain your split time.
What is a split time?
How fast will it take you to row 500 meters? This is the standard that ‘splits’ a 2,000 meter race into smaller, more manageable chunks.
You will use this time to find your baseline.
Can I use watts, calories or another form of measurement for my failure line?
Yes! Exercise is an art, as much as it is a science. Find a method that works for you and keeps you engaged.
What spilts do you hold, Adam? What have you held?
For your interest, my personal best on the 2k test was 5:52.1 (1:28 split) This was back when I trained and recovered full time. In high school, my best time was 6:32.5. At the time of writing this article, as a 40-year-old citizen athlete, I pulled a 6:29.7 erg score (1:35 split).
A couple of years ago when I was focused on my young family, moving house, writing my book and dealing with an injury I struggled to pull an 8:00 2k (2:00 splits).
Life is much much better when you’re fit! You don’t have to be fittest in the world, but you do have to be fit enough.
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Adam Kreek is on a mission to positively impact organizational cultures and leaders who make things happen.
Kreek is an Executive Business Coach who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is an Olympic Gold Medalist, a storied adventurer and a father.
He authored the bestselling business book, The Responsibility Ethic: 12 Strategies Exceptional People Use to Do the Work and Make Success Happen.
Learn more about Kreek’s coaching here.
Learn more about Kreek’s live event service here.