Are Rep Counts Actually Worth Anything?
Before sitting down to write this post I had a quick investigation into ‘the most searched fitness questions’. I could only get info for 2018, alas, but nevertheless I was surprised to learn ‘what’s the best rep range to use?’ wasn’t one of them.
Then again, I guess on a surface level it’s too technical a question. ‘What’s the best exercise to lose weight?’, and ‘how do I get a 6 pack?’ are better examples of severely vague questions to which the answer(s) could warrant a 5000 word essay to answer with any degree of accuracy covering individual specifics.
Anyhow! I digress…….
Regardless of training goal, reps are important. At a fundamental level reps are essentially a means of standardization; they give you a variable to track and manipulate. Obviously the ‘bros’ of this world just want to know what the best rep range is for sculpting the lower pec fibers and the cardio bunnies want to know what reps will tone their arms and slay the bingo wings once and for all. The science means precious little to them.
I agree getting too ‘sciencey’ is just a ticket to boring the average Joe to tears, which is why I’ve never cited tons of studies or gone down the uber science route on this site. I’ll leave that to the Greg Nuckols of this world! However, my theme is empiric and I’d like to make the case for rep counts being virtually useless at the base level.
Rep Counts – A Universal Dick Measuring Contest
‘I knew a guy who could bench 315 for X reps and you can only bench 315 for Y reps?! You need to get on his level, son!’ To the ill informed or the newbies this makes sense: If you can lift something more times than someone else, you’re stronger, right?
The problem with this theory is it doesn’t allow for quality deviation. Which means 2 guys might actually lift the same weight for the ‘same’ rep counts but one guy’s reps were of a higher quality, so does it mean he’s weaker just because he lifted the weight 7 times instead of 10, despite using his target muscles much better?
No. Not by a long shot……..
Before we go further, let’s look at some key factors that might influence our judgement on what constitutes a quality rep or a garbage rep. The main mechanisms are:
1) Are you using the target muscles and ONLY the target muscles?
There’s almost an unlimited pool of examples to choose from for this but one that comes to mind is a bench press or a push up. The target muscles would be the prime horizontal pushing movers with assistance from the core, but we’ve all seen the arched back bench press or arched back push up. The arched back is basically the body dumping the load here because the prime movers aren’t able to handle the load themselves.
It sounds crazy but if you’re getting sore legs from bench pressing, are you really bench pressing at all?
2) How much range of motion are you using?
Three moves come to mind here: the squat, the pull up and the bodyweight dip. These three are so universally varied in terms of range of motion, you’d struggle to know they’re the same exercise.
NOBODY has spent time in a gym and not seen pull ups where the chin doesn’t go above the bar, dips which more resemble a shrug and squats that are akin to a pulse or hip bounce.
‘Range of motion is king’ is one of my favourite fitness mantras and for good reason. You ALWAYS want to train through the biggest range of motion you can safely access. Doing so not only eradicates injuries and muscle imbalances, it also makes you far more functionally sound than any half rep ever could!
3) What lifting tempo are you using/how much control is there on the lowering phase?
It’s all well and good powering up on the lifting phase but what’s your lowering phase like? Believe it or not, the eccentric/lowering phase is where much of the strength gains happen. And a pronounced/accentuated lowering phase can make a weight feel way heavier and thus, the set way harder.
This isn’t to say there should be ultra slow eccentrics on every lift, BUT, there should certainly be control and awareness on the negative phase of each rep.
Basically: there’s a stark difference between letting a weight fall and lowering a weight.
4) When failure is reached, are you reaching technical failure or absolute failure?
We’ve all read the bodybuilding articles and even tried the routines where you do 4-5 sets of a move to failure…….
In my early days I would (moronically) take that to mean, go until you cannot move. So half reps, quarter reps and eighth reps are all exhausted first! This would be absolute failure. There’s hardly ever a reason to take moves this far apart from when you need some form of therapeutic self punishment. But ignorance is bliss, as they say. Of course, ‘failure’ when written in the context of exercise programming means technical failure. Which is failure to maintain all the key points covered thus far.
When you can’t use a full range of motion, the set is done. When you can no longer only use the target muscles, the set is done. When you can no longer lower under control, the set is done.
It takes a good bit of experience or the presence of a competent coach to know truly when you’ve maximised a set but being aware of the previous points will go some way to aiding you to better training awareness.
So these are 4 fundamental properties of a rep that you can see could easily make a word of mouth rep count mean nothing. Which brings about more questions……..
What about rep based competitions?
As much as different organisations try to standardize parameters within rep based competitions, there’s still a wealth of deviation possible within form. Why train properly (i.e. using correct muscle tension) to let it all go out the window when you compete?!
Granted, some rep based competitions have good standardized rules – calisthenics rep based ones, for example, have pretty solid rules (pull ups must be from a dead hang & the chin must go above the bar)……but even then the reps you see will be sloppy reps by muscle & strength building standards. Simply because it’s inefficient to do proper reps in these environments.
(credit: musclemindconnection.sport.blog) – example of a judged max rep muscle up contest.
You’ll NEVER win a rep based competition or challenge using perfect form. Never. Because the guy that will beat you won’t be using perfect form either.
This is fine but always be aware that just because someone got more reps than you it doesn’t always mean they’re stronger or fitter than you. It’s more likely a case of movement efficiency; their technique allow them to resist fatigue better, which more often than not comes about via the use of very subtle momentum.
So counting reps is completely pointless?!
Not quite. As is so often the case in life, the answer is dependent on the situation. If you still haven’t learnt good technique or fully understand a movement, yep, rep counting means jack sh*t. If you’re trying to compete with random numbers you heard someone’s friend’s brother’s uncle do once, rep counts still mean jack sh*t.
However, if you understand ideal form on movements and have practiced the skill that is keeping form in spite of fatigue, then tracking reps can be very useful. Otherwise how do you know you’ve got stronger or are progressing?
The final bottom line: technique first, reps later. It’s that simple.
JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.
Interesting way of putting it. I laughed reading this- laughing with you, not at you.
Great stuff. 👍
That’s awesome man, glad you had a chuckle 🙂 Thanks for reading & commenting!
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Thanks for the nice words, appreciate it! Contact email is: email@example.com. Happy to see what it’s all about for sure!
This gave me some good insight on how to improve my fitness journey. My girlfriends and I just started our fitnes journey a little over a month ago and always looking for new information to help us better our knowledge and get a better workout. I’m glad I cam across your post, will definitely be sharing with my gals.
Wicked, glad you found it useful! Thanks for sharing as well. Let me know if you want info on anything specific in the future?