Increase Reps In Reverse for Foolproof Progress

Increase Reps in Reverse for Foolproof Progress (FI)

There are dozens of methods of strength progression, along with three main weightlifting exercise categories, and it can be daunting for both beginner and advanced lifters to choose the strength progression method which will pay the biggest dividends in the gym. Some of these methods include increasing the weight of the exercise, increasing the repetitions performed, increasing the time spent performing each repetition, decreasing exercise leverage, decreasing time in-between sets, utilizing periodization, and the list goes on. One of the simplest ways to progress in the gym with strength training is to increase the repetitions performed across working sets as strength increases until a rep threshold is reached, at which point the weight of the exercise is increased.

The Standard Method of Increasing Reps

A program calls for 5 sets of 5-8. A weight for the exercise is chosen where 5×4 (5 sets of 4 reps) can be successfully perform. To progress, the goal of the next workout would be for one additional rep or greater to be performed compared to the previous workout.

Workout 1 – 5,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 25

Workout 2 – 6,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 26

Workout 3 – 6,6,5,5,5 Total Reps – 27

Etc, etc

It is recommended that reps are kept even across the sets even as much as possible, ideally striving for a 1 rep maximum difference across all the working sets. This difference is shown in the next two examples. If strength is gained quickly, and more than one rep across the working sets is added per workout, reps should be increased in the following manner:

Workout 1 – 5,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 25

Workout 2 – 6,6,6,6,5 Total Reps – 29

Workout 3 – 7,7,7,6,6 Total Reps – 33

Etc, etc

Most new (and some old) lifters try as hard as possible on each set, quickly going to central nervous system (CNS) failure. I advise against doing under most circumstances as the rep progression will end up looking like this:

Workout 1 – 5,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 25

Workout 2 – 8,7,5,4,3 Total Reps – 27

Workout 3 – 8,7,7,5,3 Total Reps – 30

Total reps still increased each workout with both methods, but the first method theoretically allows for faster progress as more total reps are performed each workout considering CNS fatigue doesn’t affect performance during the later working sets.

Hitting a Plateau

What I have found through my own training, is that while the above method for increasing reps evenly across working sets to gain strength is effective, there is a slightly different variation of the method above which is even more foolproof.

One of the situations frequently encountered which highlights the main fault of the first rep progression method is when only 1 rep is able to be added across all of your working sets per workout. In this scenario, if that extra rep is unable to be performed, then the total reps of the workout stay stagnant and the previous workout is effectively repeated.

Workout 1 – 5,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 25

Workout 2 – 6,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 26

Workout 3 – 6,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 26 (6 reps were attempted on the second set, only 5 could be performed)

Maybe on that 6th rep form broke down, someone bumped into you, or the rep right before fatigued the CNS to a critical point, but either way the extra rep was unable to be completed.

What often happens when reps only increase at 1 rep across working sets per workout is that the chance of failing that extra rep is increased, and as a result progress stagnates. Sometimes, hitting failure on that extra rep will even affect the future working sets in a negative way (as I’ve experienced).

Workout 1 – 5,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 25

Workout 2 – 6,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 26

Workout 3 – 6,5,5,5,4 Total Reps – 25 (6 reps were attempted on the second set, only 5 could be performed)

In the above example, failure on the 6th rep during the second set of the third workout fatigued the CNS to the point where only 4 reps were able to be performed on the 5th set. Now instead of just stagnating at 26 total reps, regression actually occurs back down to 25 total reps. Sure, your body is still receiving a training stimulus with 25 total reps, but 26 total reps is a stronger training stimulus as well as morale boosting. If that 6th rep hadn’t been attempted, it is very likely that total reps for the third workout would have remained at 26. So what’s the better method?

Increasing Reps in Reverse

Considering the above scenario, let’s now consider an alternative way to increase reps, which is to increase them in reverse order. Instead of adding an extra rep onto the first set and as strength is gained eventually adding an extra rep onto the last set, start by adding the extra rep to the last set from the start.

Workout 1 – 5,5,5,5,5 Total Reps – 25

Workout 2 – 5,5,5,5,6 Total Reps – 26

Workout 3 – 5,5,5,6,6 Total Reps – 27

This method of adding reps across working sets removes some of the risk of hitting CNS fatigue and missing reps on subsequent sets. In the event that CNS fatigue (or form breakdown, etc) is reached, it is most likely to occur on the very last set, and if this happens, then as long as only the extra rep for that workout is missed, then the total number of reps remains the same as the previous workout. Regression from the previous workout is much less likely when increasing reps in reverse, and the confidence of hitting the reps easily for the sets preceding the anticipated “extra rep” set helps to place you into the right mindset to be able to hit that extra rep for the day.

Work this new technique into your routine and experience more consistent progress and faster progress in the gym, and consider using a training journal at the same time!


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Stefan Burns

Stefan Burns

Fitness, nutrition, and powerlifting buff. Created Strength Cooperative as a way for hardworking, natural lifters to share advice on how THEY got results in the gym.
Stefan Burns

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