Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Total Rep Count

How do you un-stick a repetition sticking point? You're looking for 3 sets of 20 pushups, but you only get 20 the first set and then it drops off to 15 reps and then only 9. You want 5 x 5 pullups, but you get 5/4/4/3/2 and you're thoroughly exhausted at the end. How do you get more?

The method I've used and recommended to others is to back-load the rep count - do more reps later, less earlier. I've started to call this method "Total Rep Count" but I'm sure it's known elsewhere by other names. It's hardly new, it's not my invention at all, it's just that's how I think of it. It just seemed a logical way to make some progress.

The goal is to get more total reps in the workout by pacing yourself until the last set, and then go all-out.

First, total the reps you do across all of your sets. For that pushup example, you're doing 20+15+9=44 reps. For the pullups, it's 5+4+4+3+2 = 18 reps. For the pushups your goal is 3 x 20, or 60 reps, but you're 16 reps short. For the pullups, the goal is 25 reps and you are 7 short.

Second, add a rep or two to the total and divide them up across your total sets. For the pushups, you could aim for 45 reps, 3 sets of 15. For the pullups, aim for 19 reps, going 3/4/4/4/4. Always back-load the reps - put the higher rep sets after the lower-rep sets.

Third, do the workout. Just get your goal reps in the earlier sets. In the final set, go all-out. You can stop at your goal reps for that set or do as many as possible with good form. Pace yourself in the earlier sets. Get good, solid reps and don't aim for too much. Get the work in.

Each workout, repeat this process - total your reps from last time, nudge it up a little, and add another rep or two to the previous total. Then divide them up again and repeat the process. Your goal for pushups might be 3 x 20 and doing 3 x 15 may seem a big step backwards...but 45 reps is better than the 44 you managed the previous workout. If you manage 15, 15, and 17 instead, you've improved to 47 reps, and you can probably aim for 3 x 16 the next workout...and again push that final set. For those pullups, maybe you'll do 3/4/4/4/4 this time, then next time 4/4/4/4/4, then 4/4/4/4/5...and so on. Always just a little more work. That's progressive resistance training, and that's progress.


Why not just go all-out every set? If you go all-out from the first set, going too close to your maximum, you won't be able to recover. That's fine for some forms of training, but we're looking for steady progress here, not trying to adapt to maximal stress each time. The problem with that pushup example is that 20 reps is probably pretty close to your absolute one-set-to-failure maximum. So you finish the set and can't recover in time for the next set. If you keep doing this, you'll show some progress, but this method is aimed at slow, steady, achievable progress each time.

Does this work? Absolutely. I've used it for pushups and pullups and squats. I've used it for Crossfit "metcon" workouts, breaking up long sets (like 21 pullups) into a series of shorter sets below my maximum. I've recommended this method to others stuck below a goal number in pullups and other exercises. It's especially useful for bodyweight work because it's so hard to adjust the resistance, but you can use it for almost anything.

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