Counting the reps

Counting the reps

One thing that may come as a surprise is that I don’t count my repetitions. Of course, I still record my workouts and always note the number of repetitions I performed alongside the weight I lifted, but I don’t actively pick up a weight and tell myself I’m going to lift it for X number of reps.

The reason I do this is I find targeting a certain number of repetitions limiting. If I told you to do a shoulder press for 15 reps, you would probably automatically grab a very light weight. If I asked you to lift that weight to failure, you could probably do far more than 15 repetitions – perhaps even double that.

Even if I gave you a lower target, such as eight repetitions, I bet you could lift that weight for nine, 10 or even 12 repetitions if you put your mind to it. When you have that limiting number in your head, you stop yourself from making progress as gains are what happen in the final two to three reps. If you’re not pushing yourself through those crucial final reps, you will never challenge your body to get stronger.

So how do I lift?

I grab a weight I know I can lift for reps and simply lift it as many times as possible. If I’m training to failure, I simply lift until I can’t lift anymore. If I’m completing a regular set, I’ll always leave one or two reps in the tank. This means I could perform one or two more repetitions with perfect form.

Concentrate on mental focus, rather than ticking off reps


I then record how many repetitions I performed using that weight, and then try to work on beating that number over subsequent workouts. There is always a method to my madness, so my workouts aren’t as random as they may seem. I have been lifting long enough to have a general idea of what I can lift for 20 reps versus a max effort lift, and everything in between. I’m obviously not going to select a weight that will cause injury, just as I would not select a weight that will be too easy.

Instead of targeting specific repetitions, I target small rep ranges: usually 8 to 10. Since I started leaning out again, I’ve consciously made an effort to lift slightly lighter by doing more sets of 12 to 15 repetitions.

For this reason, I never tell my clients exactly how many reps they are going to do. A lot of them ask, because it helps them mentally prepare for the coming set, but instead of giving them an exact number I will also give them a (wider) range such as 6 to 10 or 12 to 15. The final number is determined by them: how much they are struggling, if their form is starting to falter, and if they are truly working.

I have never understood how trainers can tell their clients the exact number of sets and reps of every exercise in advance of their session. Unless you know your clients’ inner workings and exact progress chart, it’s impossible for you to know what the perfect number of repetitions for each weight will be right from the start. Of course, if any of my clients start to lose form, I will stop them immediately. I have one particular client who struggles with leaving reps in the tank – he always wants to push himself to absolute failure. I love his enthusiasm, but I don’t believe in training like that all the time.

I structure most of my workout programs in a pyramid format. When I give my clients sets of 15, 12 and then 8 reps for example, they often find it difficult to increase the weight with each set – despite the number of repetitions decreasing. It is therefore important to note that my programs, and in fact all programs, are just a guide. I would rather you increase the weight and come up one or two reps short then not change your weight and perform an easy set. Get as close to the target number as possible, and be sure to note how many reps you are doing. I put a star next to any exercises where I think I could increase the weight next time, otherwise I’m always striving for more reps.

Do you count your reps, or aim for a range like me?

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