Why Don’t You Count Reps?

Walk into any fitness facility in any part of the world, and inevitably if you see a trainer working with a client, part of the workout will consist of the trainers standing there counting.  “One, two three” or “four more, three more, two more, last one!”  I joke with my clients that trainers are the only people who can count to fifteen better than any kid watching Sesame Street.  Now, here’s a little tidbit for those of you that see this all of the time, and it might just open your eyes into something that will make you rethink exercise.

The amount of reps doesn’t matter.

I know immediately I’ll have a bunch of weightlifters jumping on my head who will say things like “what about power training?” “8-12 reps is for hypertrophy and 15-20 reps is for endurance” and similar things.  While it is true that different rep ranges bring forth different types of stimulation, it has little or nothing to do with the actual rep range – it has to do with the load in question and the fibre type of the individual in question.  And this has been backed up in studies, unlike many of the lifting myths that are out there.  I’ll provide some background:

Without getting into too much detail here, Dr. Wayne Westcott (and this has been backed up by others) many years ago presented evidence of 10 different studies that basically all came to the conclusion that high repetition and low repetition training yield the same results in terms of strength gains or muscle gains.  People who trained two or three times a week – same results.  People who trained for 40 seconds versus people who trained for 80 seconds – same results.  Young men doing either 3 sets of 10 reps or 6 sets of 4 reps – same results.  8 reps versus 20 reps – same result.  And here’s really the fundamental truth behind the whole thing:

“It doesn’t matter how many you do if they all suck!”

I tell my clients constantly – we don’t train reps – we train CONTROL.  I would expect that every rep is as perfect as the first one, and when you lose the ability to control the movement, then we stop because we are likely pushing your body beyond the ability it has at that time to maintain joint control.  It’s as simple as that.  Our goal is to keep you coming back in a better position than you were before, and your body will adapt over time with appropriate positions, motions, time, effort, and intention.  Plus, some days you are going to be able to get that really heavy lift and be able to control it – some days, when you had a fight with your partner, you have two deadlines and work and haven’t eaten or slept – you’re not.  It is my job to program things accordingly and make sure we take your body to suntan, not sunburn (like in my previous article).  This applies whether you reach 8 reps one set, then 11 the next and then 4 on the next.

This is also why some of the workouts given in workouts like P90x, Insanity and CrossFit are ridiculous.  They will ask you to force your body to perform something it lost the capability to do about a dozen reps ago and greatly increase your risk of injury just for the sake of “being hardcore” or “feeling the burn”.  This is idiotic for most of the general population.  Pushing your body beyond its’ capacity, especially when it is telling you that it is tired by using sloppy form and the myriad of other ways it will tell you it is pushing too hard is irresponsible to your body, not “hardcore”.

For someone like a powerlifter, they are training to lift something exactly once with perfect form.  This is why they use really heavy loads because that is what they have to get used to controlling.  But for the average gym goer they (hopefully) aren’t looking to lift 400 pounds.  Just focus on doing a bit more than you did previously.  That’s how gains are made, no matter what you are doing.  Runners go up from 30 miles a week to 31.  Military people go from 45 pushups to 46.  That’s how we make progress and improve.  Write it down and focus on trying to do a bit more than you did last time, if your body will allow it.

So to that client, why are we stopping at fifteen?  Why are we not stopping at twelve or ten?  It’s not like if you do 17 reps you’re magically going to poof into an endurance athlete.  And if you can only do 4 you’re not going to become the Hulk.  It just means that the load, rest period and intention needs to be a bit different and also appropriate for what you are trying to accomplish as the goal of the exercise.

So next time that you decide to do 3 sets of 10, just think about what I have written first.  Take that first set and go until you are tired and can’t control the movement.  Once you are tired, stop.  If you feel you need to do more to get tired enough, do another set.  Figure out what works for your body, not what someone wrote down in a book.  And if you need someone to figure it out for you, that’s where people like me come in.  And you won’t hear me counting.

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