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Why Count Reps? – Every Rep Counts!

If you have ever spent any time in a gym, lifted weights or even if you have only read the odd magazine or internet article, you will invariably have seen some kind of rep prescription. 3 sets of 10 reps; 5 sets of 5 reps; 2 sets of 12 reps…

But what does it mean? Why would you want to stick to those reps? Why do you need to count reps at all?

There are a couple of reasons why a set number of reps are commonly used in the creation of training programmes.

The first is to develop progression and give a target.

If you were able to lift a set weight for 10 reps last time round, perhaps you want to force out 12 this time. That’s progression, you have lifted more, so you have improved and you will force your muscles to develop. By having the number in your head you know what you have to achieve. There is a finish line in sight. So when you get to 8 reps and it starts to burn, you can tell yourself you haven’t made your target yet and force through to find the additional 4 reps.

The other reason has a more academic foundation.

There have been a number of studies carried out on the effects of different rep ranges on muscular development. Although each study used differing parameters, the general conclusions were that, lifting in the lower rep ranges (below 6 reps) is optimal for strength increase and mid range reps (8-12) were best for hypertrophy.

The higher rep ranges (12+) resulted in differing conclusions depending on the study. Strengthening of tendons; lengthening the muscle fibres; endurance within the movement etc. All these have been shown as optimal reasons for using this rep range.

So when someone is devising a programme they will generally use these rep ranges as a guide depending on their primary focus.

Both reasons are perfectly valid and can happily be used as a tool within your training regime. The problem comes when these reasons become gospel. They are the rules and there is no deviating from them.

There is no doubt that progression is important for development when training and that utilizing reps as a method of tracking your progression is a useful tool. Having that target in mind is certainly a way of ensuring you push far enough to promote progression.

What you should remember though is development is never linear. You can’t force a one or two rep progression with every workout. You may be able to for a few weeks, but eventually that progression will stop. That doesn’t mean, as is often claimed, that you have hit a plateau. More likely you have just spent the first few weeks becoming anatomically adapted to the movement, which made it look more like muscular progression. But it is often at this point that the real development starts.

In other words, constantly changing your routine whenever you appear to plateau is not as good an idea as it may appear.

Also, just because you can’t do more or even as much as you did previously, doesn’t necessarily mean you have gotten weaker. You could be just as strong, or perhaps stronger, but if you’ve had a long, stressful day or a poor night’s sleep, you can’t expect your body to perform optimally.

See this article for more on this.

Not only that, but what if you are particularly invigorated on a particular day? Setting yourself a target could be very limiting.

Say you managed 10 reps last time, so today you are going to push out 12. What if you actually had enough in the tank for 15 or 16? You start to struggle at 11 so stop at 12, after all you made your target, you have just lost the opportunity for an additional 3 or 4 reps.

So, you can see, using reps as a target is generally not the optimal way to train.

Not all reps are equal.

How you lift is crucial to the return you get. As I covered in This Article you should be looking to give your all in every rep. Either you should be lifting explosively with full contraction and constant tension on the muscle or carrying out controlled negatives enforcing your mind muscle connection etc.

Regardless of the technique you are employing, every rep requires you to give it your full, undivided attention.

If you are busy counting reps, that is just another distraction you don’t need and most likely you will start to think about how many you have left rather than making the most of the rep you are on.

It is for that reason that I generally prefer to work in the lower rep ranges.

Which brings us to reason number 2 – Different rep ranges should be used for different results.

It is issues like this that show the difference between pure science and real world application.

In a like for like situation it may well be mildly optimal for each result to be in the rep range described earlier. But regardless of your target, all rep ranges will show some kind of improvement. Low reps will cause hypertrophy and high reps will increase strength (assuming you are nutritionally set).  However, working in the low rep range will allow you to maintain focus on each and every rep.

Generally I have found that, above 6 reps, most people lose their intensity and focus and start looking to get through to the end.

You should always aim to do is as much work as you can.

Your muscle fibres will always fire in order (smallest to largest) and the way to get to the larger fibres is to apply as much force from the muscle as possible.

The most common route for doing that is to add weight. But if you remember your high school physics, weight (or mass) is only part of the equation.

Force = Mass x Acceleration

So the other factor is acceleration. If you accelerate a lighter weight faster than you would a heavy weight, you are potentially generating the same amount of force. To that end, the optimal movement would obviously be to accelerate a heavy weight fast.

If your target is hypertrophy, the convention might be to do 3 sets of 10, but what if you did 10 sets of 3? What if you just kept the rest periods short and gave your full focus to every one of the 3 reps? You would be able to use a heavier weight, but you’d still do the same number of reps. The volume would be greater and you would have lifted with greater intensity. And if you are lifting at that low rep range, you don’t need to count. 3 is easy to track. And if you only do 2 or you do 4, so what?

Just keep your focus on the individual reps, not the number.

If, on the other hand, your training requires you to be working in the higher rep ranges (8-12), you still don’t need to count. If you end up doing 15 or more, you will be very aware that the set has gone on too long and you need a heavier weight. If you only managed 5, you will know it wasn’t enough without counting the reps out and that your weight is too heavy.

Just focus on each individual rep, make every rep count and continue to push until you have truly failed (assuming maximum reps were the purpose of the exercise).

That way, you are more likely to be focused on your form, your technique, your contractions, your range of motion and you will be getting much more in return from your workout. If you have given up time out of your day to go and make improvements, then why waste reps?

Stop getting hung up on numbers. Yes it’s good to see progression, but if you are giving your all at all times, the progression will come. Feel free to test yourself every few months, but don’t get caught up on bean counting.

Numbers are meaningless for most people. You want your body to look good, you want to feel good, you want to improve, so make the most of every element and don’t get distracted by reps, weight or time. They are simply distractions and you have enough to focus on.

Make the most of your workouts. Stop counting reps and make EVERY rep count!

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