This podcast is all about reps in reserve (RIR). Specifically, I’ll discuss what that is and why you should be tracking it in your workouts.
If you’re familiar with my work, you’re probably already tracking a lot of things: your body weight, how much weight you’re putting on the bar, your sets and reps, and more. One thing you’re probably not tracking, however, is reps in reserve.
After your first 6 to 8 months of training and you’ve passed the newbie gains phase, reps in reserve becomes vital in your training. This is true whether you’re using double progression or linear periodization.
I’ve talked before about how to use reps in reserve and why I prefer it over RPE, but this episode is specifically about tracking RIR and how I’ve found it very beneficial.
3:35 – What are reps in reserve?
8:35 – Strength training and reps in reserve
15:25 – Isolation exercises and reps in reserve
Mentioned on the Show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey there folks. I’m Mike Matthews. This is Muscle For Life. Thank you for joining me today for an episode on Reps and Reserve, and I’ll talk a little bit about what that is and why you should be tracking it, not just using it as a tool in your training, but actually tracking it. Just like you track your weight and your reps of each set, you should also be noting down your reps in reserve and.
Especially true if you’re an intermediate or an advanced weightlifter. If you’re brand new and you just get to add weight to the bar every week, then it doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to even pay attention to your reps in reserve. But after your first six to eight months or so, When progress begins to slow down and the weights start to get heavier, reps in reserve becomes vital minimally to use in your training, especially if you’re using a double progression method.
But even if you’re using other types of progressions, like a linear progression that you’ll find in beyond bigger, leaner, stronger. My program for Intermediate and Advanced Weightlifters, it uses a linear periodized program. For the primary lifts, the big lifts, and then it uses double progression for the isolation exercises, the accessory exercises.
And so I have written and spoken about reps in reserve and RPE rating of perceived exertion, which is related to reps in reserve. Not exactly the same thing. So I have written and spoken about these things in the past, and I have talked about how to use reps in. And rpe. I prefer reps and reserve, and I’ll explain why in this podcast, but in this one, I wanted to explain why you should track your reps and reserve because I didn’t recommend that previously, and for a long time I actually didn’t do it myself, but I’ve been doing it recently and I’ve found it very beneficial, and so that inspired me to create this podcast.
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It is simply how many good reps left you have in the tank. So when you’re getting toward the end of a hard set, a muscle building set, a working set, a set that you’re taking close to muscular failure, once it starts to get harder, if you ask yourself, How many good reps could I do if I had to? Now that means reps with good form, how many reps shy of muscular failure am I, is what you are asking yourself.
And if you are an experienced weightlifter, your intuitive answer to that question will be pretty accurate. So you’ll be getting, let’s say, toward the end of a set of, let’s say, bench press and you’re going for six reps. And so you’re on the fourth rep, right? And it’s pretty hard. And then if you ask. How many more good reps could I do?
At what point would my form break down or would I not even be able to move the weight anymore? And in most people, when your form breaks down, that’s technically known as technical failure, and maybe you can finish that rep with poor form. So you have reached. Technical failure if you can finish it, but your form gets sloppy.
And then muscular failure is when you can’t finish a rep, even with bad form. Now, in most people, technical failure is either at the point of muscular failure or one rep shy of it. And so I don’t think it’s necessary to distinguish between those two things. Again, when you are trying to determine how many reps you still have in reserve, you can just think with muscular failure, how many more good reps.
Could I get, and again, you’re gonna have an instinctive answer just based on your training experience. You’re gonna finish one rep and you’re gonna feel like I could probably get one, maybe two more if I had to. And so that would be a one to two reps in reserve. Now reps in reserve relate to an acronym that I shared in the intro and one that has gained a lot of currency in the last year or so, especially in the evidence based fitness space.
Several years ago, there weren’t many people talking about R P e. Now, what quite a few people are, At least quite a few people I pay attention to. And what is that? It stands for rating of perceived exertion. And there are different ways of expressing that, but they basically are a numerical measurement or expression of how hard an exercise feels.
And the original idea came from a Swedish researcher named Gunnar Borg. Incredible name, a name I put in my character names document for when I write fiction stories in my next life. I still plan on doing that at some point. That was actually my original interest as a writer. I wanted to write fiction and became a victim of my own success in health and fitness writing, but it reminds me of a name of somebody else who made it into my character names document Thad Butcher, his real. A guy who worked with us at Legion to help us get retail going and it turned out his connections in retail were more mass retail and our stuff doesn’t really work for mass retail. Big box because the margins aren’t good enough, but super nice guy and gave it a go with an incredible name, fad, butcher
So into my character names document that went, who knows that if you’re listening, maybe I can make you famous one day. If I can write good fiction stories, we will have to see. Anyway, coming back to Gunnar Borg, he created this scale, this Borg RPE scale, which went from six to 20, and that was the numerical.
Scale. And then the qualitative aspect of it, the perceived exertion went from no exertion at a six to maximal exertion at a 20. And the reason why it went from six to 20 is because if you multiply those numbers by 10, you get a rough estimate of what your heart rate will be at each level of intensity.
And that, of course, is a reliable indicator of how much you are exerting yourself and obviously particularly cardiovascularly. So if a run feels like a 10 rpe, that would mean. It is a run that keeps your heart beating at about a hundred beats per minute, and that scale was useful, but as you have gathered, it was designed for cardiovascular training in particular, not strength training, where heart rate is not.
Closely correlated with physical effort. And there were some other drawbacks as well. Like the numerical range is quite large, and that made it confusing. It made it hard to use because how do you really determine whether it’s a nine or a 10 when there’s not that much of a difference between the two intensities?
And then studies have also shown that heart rates can vary quite a bit from person to person at the same workout intensity, so that made it less consistent. Person to person. And in the case where people have very different heart rates at the same workout intensity, that can lead them to misestimate, the rpe, the rating of their perceived exertion.
And so researchers continue to work on this and they came up with simpler and more useful scales. And for strength training the most. Practical method that I know of. The most practical evidence based method for determining how hard you are working in your sets is reps and reserve, and it is based on the RPE research.
It’s just tailored to strength training. And one of the reasons it works so well is it reflects how we naturally think about our lifting, how we naturally express how hard a set feels. We will instinctively say, oh, I think I had one rep left, or two reps left, and research on. This Reps and Reserve method has confirmed that it is a very accurate way to track that same variable that our PE tracks, and that is intensity.
So for example, if we were to say out of a scale of one to 10, if a set is a 10, that would mean max effort. Zero. Good. Reps left. That was your last rep. The next rep was going to be failure. Now, if we say that a set is a seven out of 10, then we would be saying in terms of reps in reserve that we had three good reps left, and if it’s a three or a four, while we could have six reps left.
It could be. A research on reps and reserve shows that the further we are from muscular failure, the less accurate our estimates become. But it doesn’t really matter in that case. We’re saying it was really easy. It was. It was a warmup upset, basically. And I don’t want to rehash all of the information that I shared.
In the last podcast on RPE and Reps and Reserve, if you wanna learn more about both of these models and specifically how to use Reps and reserve, just go check out that episode. It’s called The Complete Guide to the RPE Scale and how to Use It. So if you just go to legion athletics.com, search for rpe.
and it’ll come up. There is an article and then a podcast that I recorded based on what I wrote in the article. And so I’m gonna assume going forward here, that you understand reps and reserve how it works and basically how to use it. Now. I would definitely recommend that you use it, especially if you are not brand new.
I mentioned that earlier in this podcast. Here I wanted to particularly emphasize the usefulness of tracking your reps in reserve, putting your reps in reserve next to your wait and reps of each set of each workout into your workout journal or your workout app, or your notepad app in your phone.
However you are tracking your workouts, track your reps in reserve. And so how do you do that? You determine your reps in reserve as a set’s getting hard and. Coming closer to failure, maybe within five reps, you start paying attention to how many more good reps could you get. And if you are doing, let’s say, double progression, then you are working in a rep range.
Let’s say it’s four to six. And so you are trying to end your compound lifts with. Two reps in reserve. That’s my general recommendation. When you are squatting, deadlifting, overhead pressing, bench pressing, even barbell rowing, I do not recommend going to the point where you have just one rep left. I do not recommend taking all of those sets to one r I r, one rep in reserve or worse.
Zero meaning. The next rep would be failure because that final rep then probably was a little bit sloppy. You probably did reach technical failure, and then you are feeling that you could not do another rep. Generally speaking on your big exercises, you want to end most of your sets with. Two, maybe three reps still left in the tank, and there are two reasons for that.
One is those exercises place a lot of stress and strain on the body, and if you regularly push them to one rep in reserve or zero reps in reserve, you may start falling behind. In recovery, you may start experiencing symptoms related to overreaching, even if. Deloading and eating enough food and sleeping well.
It depends on your personal circumstances, but as a rule of thumb, I would say that again, if you are regularly going to that point where you could not get another rep, so you have zero reps in reserve, there is nothing left. After that rep or maybe just one rep shy of it on those big lifts, it’s probably going to be counterproductive.
It’s also not necessary for making progress, and research has shown that clearly, even for experienced weightlifters, you do have to train hard to make progress, but you don’t have to train insane unless you remain the same. Now, one little exception, every good rule has exceptions, right? If you’re doing, let’s say, three or four sets of a compound exercise, In a workout, and if your reps in reserve start at, let’s say a two to three you could get two, maybe three more, and then ends at a one or two, or maybe starts at a two and then ends at a one.
So your last set is a one. I would say that’s totally fine. But what you don’t want is you don’t want to start set one with a zero to one, because that’s going to quickly become a zero, and you may actually reach muscular failure on your final set. And even that can be done from time to time, but.
You need to have the right programming for it. You need to be attuned to your body. You need to understand the signs and symptoms of under recovery, and that’s why, again, for most people, I just recommend not bothering with it, following a good program that keeps you well shy of muscular failure most of the time.
Maybe lets you push it now and then like in my beyond, bigger than your stronger program, you have four month macro cycles that end with. Am wrap as many reps as possible, sets on your big lifts with 95% of your one rep max. That was calculated at the beginning of the macro cycle, so it’s not 95% of your current one rep max, because hopefully you’ve gained a little bit of muscle and strength over the last four months, but it’s still heavy weight.
It maybe represents 90% at this point. And so you’re loading heavy weight on the bar and you’re doing as many reps as you can. And if you go to the. Technical failure in those sets. Again, where you can finish the rep, you can keep the barbell moving, but your butt starts lifting off of the bench. Maybe your elbows flare a little bit or you have to like really try to keep them in place.
Or on the squat your knees are bowing in a little bit and you’re struggling to get up or on the deadlift, you’re grinding it up a little bit. That’s okay. But again, that’s once every four months. I do not recommend doing that in any of the other training that you’re doing over. Time.
If you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my sports nutrition company Legion, which thanks to the support of many people like you, is the leading brand of all natural sports supplements in the world. Okay, so that’s compound lifts and reps in reserve. Now, isolation exercises you can take a little bit further.
I think it’s reasonable to say that you should end most of those sets with one or two reps in reserve. And then in that case, if you take the occasional set, if the final set of your biceps curls is. Is a zero reps in reserve. Like you really got to the point where you couldn’t do one more again. That’s okay, but most of your sets should still leave you with one or two reps still in the tank.
And those recommendations apply to really any and all. Weightlifting, whether it is pure strength training or pure body building hypertrophy work, so any rep range, really any type of progression model, those reps in reserve targets will serve everyone well. And so I do recommend that you use them in your training, but I also recommend that you track them.
Now. Why? Because when you are no longer a newbie and you can’t just add weight to the bar every week and hit your rep targets like clockwork, when you have to work very hard for very little, that is the life of the intermediate and advanced weightlifter progress looks like this. Here’s how you experience it.
First, your reps in reserve with a given. Go up, and if you’re not tracking this or paying much attention to it, you may not realize it, but that’s what happens first. First you are, let’s say, bench pressing 225 pounds. And again, you’re going for six. And when you start your training cycle, let’s say that it’s pretty hard.
That first set is a two reps in reserve. Your second set, two reps in reserve, still your third. Now you’re not sure that was a one or maybe a two, and then your fourth and final set of the workout. Maybe it’s a one or maybe it’s another one, eh, maybe two. Now, if you are following a good program and if you are doing the most important things in the gym and.
Outside of the gym, mostly right, most of the time. Then you are going to get a little bit stronger over the course of a training cycle, gain a little bit of muscle, and how that will first manifest is in reps in reserve. So what you’ll notice if you’re tracking reps in reserve is, let’s say two months go by and you’ve been training well, and you’ve been eating well and sleeping, and you’re now back to 2 25 for sets of six, and now you.
Three reps in reserve, A solid three on set one, and then it’s a two or maybe even three on set two, and then it’s a solid two on set three, and maybe it’s a two or maybe a one or two on your final set, and that represents progress. You haven’t gained reps yet. You haven’t added weight to the bar yet, but that training.
Is now a little bit less difficult and if we apply this to double progression, so the example I just gave was a progression model like I use in, might be on bigger lean or stronger program where you are loading a percentage of one rep max that was calculated at some point on the bar. And you have to get a certain number of reps, not a range of reps.
You’re going for six. And if you were to get five or four, that would be considered missing. Set or missing your reps. And then there are things that you would do, and I talk about that in the book, but let’s say you are doing bigger, leaner, stronger or thinner. Leaner, stronger. Again, you are using double progression where you’re working in a rep range and you’re working to hit a certain number of top rep sets.
That’s what I like to call them, meaning you’re trying to hit the top of your rep range for a certain number of reps, and then you add weight to the. Dumbbell or machine or whatever. So let’s say it’s four to six and we’re on the bench press, and let’s just say it’s 225 pounds again. And so now your goal is to hit that six reps for one set or two sets, so you can add weight to the bar.
And at the beginning of a training cycle, you get five. You get five with two. Reps in reserve on your first set, and by your last set you get five, but it’s a one rep in reserve, which I would say again is okay. If that’s your last set, if that were your first set, I would say, nah, the weight’s too heavy.
You need to drop five to 10 pounds. Probably five would take care of it if you can. If it’s a dumbbell exercise in your gym only has five pound incremented dumbbells, then of course you’re gonna have to drop 10 pounds. But if it’s a barbell exercise and your gym has two and a half pound plates, then you can do that.
You can drop five. Okay, so you’ve just done your three sets. Let’s say it’s bigger than you’re stronger, four to six, you got fives. That’s pretty good. Your final set was a one rep in reserve. That’s pretty hard. Okay? You train a few weeks. Now, let’s say your first set goes from a two reps in reserve, which means you’re not ready to progress yet because you could get six.
You could, right? But then you’d be at one rep in reserve and I do not recommend progressing when you hit your top rep set or sets when you hit your progression target. If you only have one rep, or certainly if you have zero reps in reserve, you also want to ensure that you have two reps in reserve, because what’ll happen is you will hit.
That progression target with one or zero reps in reserve, you’ll add weight to the bar and you will almost certainly either miss your set, you’ll miss your rep. So you’ll add weight to the bar, four to six, and you’ll get three, for example, or you’ll get four. But it’s very hard. It’s a zero or one rep in reserve, which again, it should not be your first set with that new weight should not be a zero or one.
You want it to be a solid two, and for that to happen, you have to work up to a three, a solid three reps, and. With a given weight. And then if you can do that, if you can get six with three reps in reserve and you add weight to the bar, you will be able to get four. Let’s say again we’re talking four to six.
You will be able to get four and you should also have two reps in reserve. There, which allows you to continue making smooth progress. If you progress too quickly, if you push yourself a bit too far in a set just to hit a progression target, it’s basically robbing Peter to pay Paul. And so then by tracking your reps in reserve, it allows you to understand a bit more about what’s happening with your body, how you are responding to your training, whether things are going upward or down.
Because if you have at least one year of good weightlifting behind you, you are going to have to work with the same working weight on most exercises for weeks or even months at a time, depending on how far along you are in your journey and what you’re doing in the gym and your lifestyle. And when that’s the case, if you are not tracking your reps in reserve, you can think you’re gaining muscle and strength when you’re not.
Because in your training log, you’ll just see weight by reps and depending on what program you’re following. The same weight by reps over the course of several workouts, like in beyond bigger, leaner, stronger. And then with double progression, which beyond bigger, leaner, stronger uses for isolation and accessory exercises.
You’re just gonna see working in a rep range, and that’s gonna vary. You might get 5, 5, 4, 5. Four. Five. Five, four. Four. And so then the only way to really know if you’re progressing is your total reps. If you are calculating how many reps you are getting across the sets of an exercise, that’s of course one way to see that you’re getting a little bit stronger.
Or if you are adding weight to the exercise and. Many people do well just looking at those elements of their training. But as I have mentioned multiple times now, if you also track your reps in reserve, that allows you to get ahead of even the gaining of reps across sets. Because before that happens, your reps in reserve go up.
So you could even look at your total reps and reserve across sets, and that’s gonna go up first. And then your total reps across sets are gonna. And then eventually when you hit your progression target, and that just depends on the programming. You’ll actually see the weight go up, and so that also then highlights another benefit of tracking reps in reserve in that it allows you to see when you are making progress that you would otherwise miss if you weren’t tracking that.
You might look at your training log and think nothing has really changed. Nothing is moving in the right direction. I’m looking at a month of training here, or two months of training. And I haven’t added weight to the bar. And many people, they don’t want to calculate the total reps across exercises, but maybe they see small improvements here and there on accessory exercises.
Exercises they’re not as concerned with, and they’re looking at their primary exercises. And especially if those are following a more linear type of puritization, and beyond bigger, linear, stronger, where you are explicitly working with the same weights at the same rep ranges, which it changes week to week over the course of four months.
It is very helpful to see that. Oh, actually, okay, so maybe I haven’t been able to add weight to the bar. Maybe my total reps have not changed much. If you’re using double progression or maybe they haven’t changed at all because that’s how the programming works. But my total reps in reserve when I started this training cycle were, let’s say you’re doing four sets and you have a total reps and reserve of seven or eight, and then you get in the middle of that training cycle and.
That has gone up to a solid, let’s say 10. That is progress and that will turn into weight on the bar eventually. So long as you’re following a well designed program that indicates that you have gained a little bit of muscle, you have gained a little bit of strength. So when it comes time to. Move up. And again, that depends on how the program works.
You should be able to see, even if it’s just a small improvement, adding five pounds to your one rep max on an exercise over the course of four months, for example, might be really good progress depending on where you’re at. For me, I take that as a w for sure. If I can add five to 10 pounds to one of my one rms after four months of training, I am very happy.
That means I did a good job. So when you are lifting and a set is starting to get hard, Ask yourself after each rep, how many good reps could I still do? How close am I to, to failing and end your compound lifts around two end your isolation exercises around one, let’s say a two to three for the compounds and a one to two for isolation exercises.
Most of your sets should be no more intense than that. That’s the intensity ceiling that I re. And track the reps and reserve that you end those sets with in your training log and pay attention to that and use it as a bellwether of how things are going. All right. That’s it for this episode. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting and helpful.
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