Total rep training is a flexible way of programming strength training exercises that builds exercise density, technique and work capacity; letting athletes manage how hard they push themselves.
Standard strength training regimes typically prescribe specific sets and reps at a given intensity. For example, you may be asked to complete 4 sets of 8 repetitions at 80% 1RM. While this is an excellent way of controlling both the intensity and volume of what you’re doing and it also allows you to monitor your progress as you increase either the weight or number of reps you can perform, it does have some drawbacks.
Let’s say we use the example above and are asked to complete 4 sets of 8 repetitions for an exercise. It’s likely that in your earlier sets, when you are at your freshest, the 8 reps may not be that difficult.
But as you fatigue, it might be that you have to fight very hard to complete the entire set.
This effectively means that you are under training when you are at your freshest, but pushing too hard (risking injury) in the later sets.
One way of lowering the injury risk is to lower the weight, so you can safely complete the later sets. But that would mean that you are undercooking the earliest sets by even more.
Enter the Total Rep Method…
How to do Total Rep Training.
Rather than having to complete a specific number of reps per set, simply aim for the total number of reps for the entire exercise, breaking it down into several sets as you go.
This way you can stop each set when you get to whatever intensity level you decide you want to work at.
For our example of 4 sets of 8 reps, the total number of repetitions completed would be (4×8) 32. So you could break it down something like this:
- Set 1 – 11 reps
- Set 2 – 10 reps
- Set 3 – 6 reps
- Set 4 – 5 reps
The same total work is done as if they’d done 4×8, but with this method, the athlete has the option of doing more reps in the earlier sets (when the athlete is at their freshes and the reps are easier), and fewer reps towards the later sets as they fatigue.
How Much Weight To Use.
This depends on how hard you want to work and over how many sets you intend to complete the efforts.
I typically like to program this for primary lifts, with the intention of doing ~4 sets. Therefore, I divide the total number of reps I want to be completed by 4.
So, going back to our example. 32 total reps divided by 4 = 8.
I can then prescribe a percentage load based on my estimated one repetition max for that lift. I use this table as a guide for prescribing this:
|# Reps||% 1RM|
Based on this table I would therefore prescribe a load of ~80% of the athletes’ 1RM. If we’ve predicted that this athlete could complete a single repetition at 75kg, around 60kg would be a good weight to lift.
* Note – TrainHeroic will estimate a working max every time you complete a session and log data.
How to Know How Hard to Go.
When it comes to overloading your system, the closer you get to muscular failure, the greater the level of adaptation to whatever you’re doing. But with athletes like cyclists, who are training concurrently and only doing this style of training to support their riding, going this hard is at best impractical and at worst, a downright silly thing to do.
But the good news is, that you can moderate the difficulty level by using either of the following techniques.
#1 – Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
If you’re not already familiar with it, RPE is a subjective score between 1 and 10, with 1 being extremely easy and 10 being “the hardest thing you’ve ever done”.Simply assign a target RPE to each set and perform as many reps as you can until you hit that level of difficulty.
If, for example, you are out of season and you have the option to train harder (ie some fatigue and potential soreness after the session is less of an issue), then go for an RPE of 8. If you are in season and have more important rides coming up, you can train with the same weight, but work for an RPE of only 5.
#2 – Reps in Reserve (RIR)
RIR is a similar, but slightly different way of assessing the level of difficulty. In my opinion, this method is better for intermediate athletes who have a bit more experience in the gym.
Use this method by deciding how many reps short of failure you intend to cut each set short and stopping when you feel you’ve reached that number.
As above, out of season, you may decide to stop at 1RIR (or even go to failure…0RIR on each set), but in season, you may decide to stop with 3-4 RIR.
Both of the methods I’ve described above are fantastic forms of auto-regulation that require athletes to have enough experience to really understand how “hard” each set is in order for them to be effective.
How to Progress Total Rep Training
Total rep training is best assessed over a number of weeks when all forms of training are consistent.
Essentially, all we are trying to do is complete the prescribed number of repetitions in as few sets as possible. If we judge the weight correctly, it should take us the desired 4 sets to complete, so we can monitor improvement simply by reviewing how many reps are left in the final set.
As you get stronger, the reps left at the end should get fewer and fewer.
Should you get to a stage where you can complete the prescribed total number of reps in only 3 sets, then increase the weight in the next session.
In general, I gradually increase the load and reduce the volume of all exercises as my athletes become stronger and more proficient at the lifting technique of the main movements I ask them to perform.
The need to practice movement patterns reduces as the ability to stimulate the muscle fibres safely increases. Over several training blocks I use the following loading schemes:
- 48 reps @75% (a weight that is a challenge for 12 reps).
- 40 reps @80% (a weight that is a challenge for 10 reps).
- 32 reps @82.5% (a weight that is a challenge for 8 reps).
- 24 reps @85% (a weight that is a challenge for 6 reps).
- 20 reps @87.5% (a weight that is a challenge for 5 reps).
Total rep training is an awesome technique to use to freshen up a stale routine or to use at specific times of the season where fatigue needs to be regulated.
However, it is quite easy to get carried away, chasing the numbers and you can either dig yourself a hole that’s a little too deep, or worse, get yourself injured; so it’s important that you’re able to act with restraint and recognise when you’re working at just the right level of difficulty.
Only use the total rep method with multi-joint lifts and stick with traditional set/rep schemes on secondary/assistance exercises. In addition, I wouldn’t consider doing this with more than two lifts (one lower and one upper body) per session.
Have you ever done total rep training or would you consider giving it a try? Drop me a line to let me know how you get on…
Alternatively, if you’d like to discuss how I can safely plan this kind of training in and around your cycling training, click the button below to arrange a face-to-face chat.