Make the Most of Each Rep
One of the important things I’ve learned over my years of training is that what you do in the gym isn’t as important as how it’s done. This might seem like a pretty simple and obvious statement but I think we forget about it all too often. What I’m referring to is making the most out of each rep you take and being intentional with your time and efforts. Take a minute or two to think about how many training reps you do in a particular lift, let’s use the back squat for an example, while doing the classic 5×5 program.
Typically this workout would look something like this: you take three or four warmup sets to get to your working weight, which would be around 80% of your max give or take. The first two or three reps of most of your sets are going to be relatively easy and your last one or two reps are going to be grinders.
The last set might be really tough and you may have to fight each one up and really earn your sweat. So after you’re done and catching your breath while basking in the euphoria of an awesome squat workout let’s take a look at your volume and examine how much work you actually did. Your three warmup sets didn’t add anything to your number of training reps because half of them were high since your hips weren’t warm enough to hit depth yet and besides it’s a warm up, no one performs a warmup set with any intensity and they don’t really matter. Next, the first three sets with your working weight don’t add three to your total number of reps trained because you have five sets at this weight, you need to leave something in the tank for the long grueling workout, the intensity you put into the bar is submaximal and you’re able to coast to lockout (maybe it’s a pretty soft lockout because you’re doing reps) for all but the last rep, which is actually fairly tough. For set 4 and 5 you’re actually able to get into the meat and potatoes of training, the first rep of 4 is easyish and the rest tough, all of set 5 is tough which together adds 9 reps to your training. So for a workout that from start to finish was supposed to be 40 reps (3×5 warmup, and 5×5 working) turned into 12 good reps where your squat was trained. That’s just looking at intensity, we’re not looking at how many of the reps look alike and how many are really training the movement. If we look at the movement pattern alone we could weigh the number of reps that have good technique against those that don’t, in this example we are saying that the warmup sets didn’t count because they were high and the technique was a little off. The number of reps that the squat pattern was trained diminishes to 10 because you have to “undo” the training you did with the “bad” reps by performing “good” reps.
That was just an example that I think is fairly common. This article is written out of experience as I’ve been in this situation and can speak to not making every rep count. I’ve certainly done this exact same workout before. Making every movement count is incredibly difficult and no one will be able to do it every time they walk into the gym, but it should be aspired to. The ways to make each rep more impactful to your progress is to make sure that every single rep looks the same, strong technique will make or break you, if your technique isn’t solid you are leaving so much potential untapped it isn’t even funny. Putting intensity into each rep will help build up that training number too. Compensatory Acceleration Training (a term popularized by Dr. Fred Hatfeild) is where you try to move the bar as fast as possible on all your sets. This will mean you are putting more force into the bar (F=MA), effectively making you work harder. Lastly don’t neglect the eccentric (down) portion of your lift. Putting some effort and mental energy into making the eccentric of your lift more difficult can help you get more time under tension and you will be training a half of the lift that you may have been neglecting.
This is just another way to look at what you are doing in the gym. There are many methods, programs, styles, and thoughts on training and the confusing thing is that they all work to some degree or another depending on the individual and where they are in their training. It is important to think critically about what you are doing and have a reason for why you do it. Make sure the reps you are doing count for something and that you are actually training what you intend to train. Be intentional with a purpose for every movement and the actual program you do follow won’t matter as much as how you perform it.