19 min read

Total Reps Don't Mean Squat

If your training program features a fixed number of total reps you want to achieve then you're training program is a bad program. Here's what to do instead.
Total Reps Don't Mean Squat

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you because I get too many questions about this. Far more than I should.

Some derivative of:

"Will 200 push-ups and sit-ups a day help me build mass?"
"Will 50 tricep dips and chin-ups every other day help me get stronger?"
"Will 100 push-ups help me build my chest in a month?

No is the answer to all of them. And no is the answer to any derivative question.

This is an article explaining why such programs don't work and what you should do instead.

Why People Seem to Gravitate To This Terrible Idea

The dominant reason people appear to consider total reps as a training objective are the following:

  • They have no idea how to build a training program for a goal and are picking one variable that seems (on the surface) to be important: the total amount of work – resistance training β‰  cardiovascular conditioning
  • They typically want to build mass, but have some stipulations on how it can be done (typically they want to use one or many calisthenics exercises)
  • Calisthenics training is free/inexpensive and requires little equipment
  • It's easy seeming/sounding, just hit X number of reps and you should be good!

It seems easy to execute on the surface and easy is tempting. But easy isn't often effective. You're going to put in a lot of work for what amounts to very little in return.

Total Reps

Is the number of reps completed for a given exercise in a given training session (AKA workout). You can even consider total reps for all of the exercises a given training session if you like for what it's worth (not much).

If you do 3 sets of 25 push-ups, then the total reps are 75.

If you do 5 sets of 5 for bench press, then the total reps are 25.

And that's it, that's all that means. And that in and of itself is the problem.

5x5 will yield a significantly different training effect – arguably a better one depending on your goals, save muscular endurance goals – than 3 sets of 25 despite the latter involved more total reps.

I say this a lot but more β‰  better and this is a great example.

Why Total Reps Don't Matter

As you can see, those numbers are very different and more importantly the distribution is extremely different.

What if I used a different distribution but got the same number of repetitions?

For instance:

  • 2 sets of 16 (2x16) = 32
  • 4 sets of 8 (4x8) = 32
  • 8 sets of 4 (8x4) = 32

The exact same number of total reps are completed but how you got there was extremely different. And the results of each of those set/rep schemes will also be extremely different, despite yielding the exact same number of total reps.

See the problem?

  • The first example has (maybe) 4-16 stimulating or effective repetitions reps (~4-8 per set)
  • The second example has (maybe) 12-32 effective reps (~4-8 per set), more than the first example in any case
  • The third example has (probably) 32 effective reps (~4 per set because only 4 reps are ever done)

The reps that matter (not the total reps) end up very different depending on the distribution. There is also more junk volume (ineffective reps) in the first example than in the last example.

The third example will take the longest to get through, but all reps done will be effective and it will beat up on the joints considerably more. The second example is probably the best balanced overall approach for growth because all 8 reps might be effective. And despite more sets than example #1, you'd have to do a similar number of sets (4) of 16 reps to get as many effective repetitions anyway. In effect you'd have to do twice the overall work (64 reps instead of 32) for a similar result.

Total Reps Don't Account For Distribution

If all the information you had was 32 total reps, you'd never know what results you could expect from those 32 reps.

The first one is more endurance – maybe some hypertrophy depending on how they are done. The second one is more hypertrophy with some endurance and the latter is more strength perhaps with some hypertrophy – again depending on how it’s done.

So simply shooting for some fixed number won't give you what you seek and tells you nothing about the results you can expect from the training.

Sets + Reps have become the defacto standard approach to training for good reason. They are indicators of total rep distribution and how that distribution is implemented matters a lot more than the total reps completed.

The Rep Range Matters, Not The Total Number of Reps

The rep range you're working in indicates the intensity of the training. The proximity of the challenge relative to your own ability. Most often measured via one-repetition maximum or the maximum amount of resistance you can move in a given exercise one time – 1RM for short.

If you can lift a weight ten times, that is a less intense resistance than a weight you can only lift three times.

Rep ranges under 8 generally build more strength, with a grey area between 5-8 that is also pretty effective for growth. Rep ranges under 5 are better a building strength than rep rep ranges closer to 8, it's a spectrum.

You can still build muscle with fewer than 5 reps, but you'll likely need to add sets (volume) in order to do so, which will increase the length of time needed to train. Making it fairly inefficient for that purpose, much better for building strength.

Rep ranges between about 5-12 (maybe 5-15 I can't decide) are typically best for growth, with a grey area of about 9+ also building more muscular endurance.

Rep ranges above about 12+ (or 15+, again I tend to flop back and forth on the cutoff) tend to build mostly muscular endurance but if you take them to absolute failure (the moment you cannot complete another repetition) they still seem to build some mass if you accumulate the same number of sets as other rep ranges.

Lastly once you hit about 30-35 reps (which represents 30-40% of your 1RM, something like that) then you are almost exclusively training muscular endurance (if not cardiovascular fitness) because the stimulus is too low for growth.

There may be a way to use rep ranges higher than that (30-35) for growth but I don't see why anyone would want to. It's called occlusion training and it really only works for your limbs anyway. I don't recommend wrapping a blood pressure cuff around your neck and pumping it up either. It's simply an impractical way to train if you have access to any kind of weight.

These rep ranges and the proximity to failure you train to within the context of these rep ranges dictate the training result significantly more than total number of reps.

This makes a total number target completely and utterly irrelevant.

The same total reps can yield something entirely different depending on the distribution. If you don't know what the distribution is, then the total reps mean absolutely nothing other than the total amount of work done. The total amount of work has little value in the world of training because not all work is efficient or effectively applied.

Why You Should Use Set-Based Training

The # of sets is the key variable in programming as an indicator of actual training volume. That is the actual amount of stress that gets applied during the onset of fatigue.

The reason this is the ideal approach for growth has to do with your proximity to failure and the subsequent number of stimulating or effective repetitions you accumulate based on your set-to-set performance.

The reason set-based training is the ideal approach for endurance or strength has to do with reaching a threshold of ability (high weights for strength; high reps for endurance). Then you get the opportunity to rest, before further cementing that ability by repeating the attempt. Multiple attempts cement your ability better than singular attempts just like any other kind of learning.

If you're considering total reps for strength, you're way off off-base. Increasing strength is a matter of increasing resistance, not accumulating a certain number of reps.

Most bodyweight training – which are the exercises people seem to most often apply to this approach – isn't great for strength unless the rep range is under 8 reps (~80% of 1RM).

Although you'll achieve more strength on a sliding scale approaching single repetitions. You'll also need to increase the number of sets and extend training session length to permit adequate recovery. Bodyweight training tends not to get this done, although there are a few exceptions (one arm chin-ups come to mind).

And if you're considering total reps for endurance, you're equally off-base. Improving endurance means that total reps should continually go up, not stay fixed. If you're building endurance, then you're building the capacity for more total reps and more reps per set over time – performance on set #1 over time is what I recommend you use a marker for this.

Progressive Overload Can't Be Applied with Total Reps*

*For our intent and purpose it can't. There is a way to apply it to conditioning, maybe endurance, just not growth or strength. I'll finish this article explaining how to do that.

Traditionally progressive overload is best (or most easily) applied via resistance (weight or load) increases. i.e. if you lifted 100 lbs today, you try 105 lbs the next time you train, then 110 lbs the time after that and so on and so forth ...

There are other ways to increase difficulty and thus progressive overload but this is the easiest way to apply progressive overload, so long as you have the right equipment.

If you're using calisthenics, that means the weight you can use is fixed: Your bodyweight.

And your bodyweight likely isn't changing much from week to week, maybe a few pounds here or there. Assuming you do manage to build some muscle, 2-4 lbs a month would be your top level expectations. An amount of additional resistance you could easily apply every week or every training session using traditional weight-driven progressive overload.

All you can do with a fixed resistance is manipulate levers to add gravitational force or increase body weight distribution into working muscles.

For example, elevating your hands in a push-up changes the lever (makes it less efficient) and puts more of your own bodyweight into your hands. And that's a nice way to implement weight-driven traditional overload to some degree but obviously you're still going to max out at some point because there is only so much manipulation you can implement. A feet-elevated one-arm push-up is not only incredibly challenging to learn, its the maximum amount of horizontal pressing stress you'll ever be able to apply with bodyweight training only.

However, even in this example, keeping the total rep number fixed for similar but progressively harder exercises makes little sense. You can't go from 50 regular push-ups, to 50 one-arm push-ups overnight and you'll need to build up a gradual tolerance for the one-arm push-ups over time.

Meaning the total reps you do in the process will vary quite a bit to be productive. You might be able to do one set of 50 regular push-ups in a row, but require 50 sets of 1 to do 50 one-arm push-ups. It makes little sense to keep 50 reps as the total target if you can only do sets of 1 (or even sets of 5) because 50 sets (or 10 sets) of anything is simply too much to do in one go and will take far too long to recover from doing.

Most research suggests that the optimal stress is ~3-6 sets per exercise, per training session. Depending on the rep range perhaps, with lower rep ranges possibly benefitting from as many 8 sets (e.g. 8x2) but honestly I'd rarely suggest using more than 6 even for high intensity low rep training. There are a handful of papers comparing sets of 10 to sets of 5 and sets of 5 are just as (often more if you consider the relative time investment) effective as sets of 10 in each case.

Skill Acquisition Required

This need to slowly work up to sets of 30-35 reps of push-ups and then slowing transition to sets of 30-35 reps of something like feet elevated push-ups, and then slowly transition to sets of 30-35 reps of single-arm push-ups (cha right!) takes a lot of time because of the coordination training requirements. Β 

Ultimately the process of manipulating mechanical levers slow down the process of muscle building considerably as a result.

Yes, gymnasts got ripped and muscular using a lot of high rep training, but they do so over years and years of consistent training for hours and hours a day. Do you have that kind of time?

Even if you know how to manipulate levers and complicate the training the only real way you can apply progressive overload to calisthenics training exercises is to do more reps.

And this also has limits for growth. Once you can achieve about 30-35 repetitions of any given exercise in one go, the stimulus for growth is effectively nothing. This correlates with 30-40% of that 1RM I mentioned earlier.

You can keep improving muscular endurance beyond that but the further away your training is from 1RM, the less strength you're building too. That's a lot of opportunity cost. So you'd have to switch up the exercise at this point to make it harder if you wanted to continue to grow or you end up with really complicated sequences. For example (after a warm-up):

  • A couple of sets of 1-arm push-ups because you can only do one and fatigue quickly to the point of doing none
  • Followed a couple of sets some feet-elevated push-ups (because you can do more than 30-35 regular push-ups in one go)
  • Followed by maybe a couple of sets of regular push-ups just to get to 6 sets.

With training, you'll improve your resistance to fatigue. Suddenly that easy approach to training has become a lot more complicated right?

Compared that to:

  • Weighted Push-Ups (add or reduce load to keep you between 5-12 reps)

A lot easier to conceptualize right? That's why adding load tends to work best!

Multiple sets (3-6) of maximum repetitions is basically your only option for growth using calisthenics exercises.

What To Do Instead

Given what I just told you, I hope the solution seems incredibly obvious at this point.

3-6 sets of maximum repetitions.

With about 2-3 minutes of rest between sets. Gravitate towards 3 minutes if you're doing more than 5 sets. Whereas 2 minutes will probably work for 4 or fewer sets.

And don't just jump right into 3-6 sets of anything. That's a really good way to make yourself incredibly sore. Work up to it. For example:

  • Day 1 = 1 set of max reps
  • Take a day off
  • Day 2 = 2 sets of max reps
  • Take a day off
  • Day 3 = 3 sets of max reps
  • Take a day off
  • Day 4 = 3 sets of max reps (but consider 4 if you have time)
  • Take a day off
  • Day 5 = 3 sets of max reps (but consider 5 if you did 4)
  • Take a day off
  • Day 6 = 3 sets of max reps (but consider 6 if you did 4)
  • Continue this pattern until you plateau and need new exercises …
Note: Take a day off between resistance training for the same muscles groups. You're probably not advanced enough for something more nuanced.

Then hold that until progress on the reps is no longer being made. Until your first set capacity (i.e. how many reps you can do on set #1) stagnates for 2–3 workouts in a row. Or stop and hold 3, 4 or 5 sets if you want. Time being a factor for productivity that's the minimum amount of training volume in a given day with this protocol I would suggest. You can make progress on only 1 or 2 sets, but that will be really slow progress with this kind of training.

If you're not adding reps to an exercise, consider swapping that exercise out for another variation. Meaning an exercise that trains similar muscle groups, but isn't the same exercise. This can be subtle; Lifting one leg on a push-up; Or a little more obvious like raising your feet onto a chair for a push-up; Or even an extreme like working on a one-arm push-up.

This applies to whatever calisthenic exercise you're doing for whatever your rep capacity is. Push-ups and sit-ups are the most commonly cited in these questions but you can apply this to any other exercise where you're stuck using a fixed resistance.

With the following caveats for growth:

  • If you can do more than 30-35 reps on set #1 of an exercise, you need to find/pick a harder exercise you can't do for as many reps to absolute failure
  • If you can do more than 12-15 reps of something you should probably train right to absolute failure – the point where you can't complete another rep, detailed in a link above
  • If you can do 8-12 (maybe 8-15) reps of something then technical failure is probably sufficient – 1-2 reps shy of absolute failure, where the repetition speed involuntarily slows but you complete the last full rep
  • If you can't do more than 8 reps then technical failure will likely be a little more forgiving – up to 4 reps shy of absolute failure maximum though

The problems you're going to run into are:

  • Knowing what exercises are progressions of well known exercises (what's a good push-up progression?)
  • Knowing what absolute failure is and consistently training to it if you're above 12-15 reps in capacity
  • Knowing how far away you can train from failure in this rep ranges and still see progress

I'm not really going to be able to help you with the first problem for every calisthenic exercise in this article, so you're going to have to google things on your own.

It makes sense to try and train to absolute failure once you're sets have leveled off. For example, in the first few weeks of ramping up your volume (# of sets) to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (which correlates with muscle damage and increases recovery requirements but not results) you may want to avoid training to absolute failure.

However, once your sets have leveled off – i.e. you're doing 3, 4, 5 or 6 sets consistently. It makes sense to do one of the following at this point:

  1. Train set #1 to absolute failure to see how many reps of an exercise you can actually do
  2. Train the last set to absolute failure to see how many reps of an exercise you can do after all the other work

When working with high reps, I think option #1 is ideal. Option #2 is better if you're applying resistance in a more traditional manner (increases in weight).

This is important training information for you to test for periodically because otherwise you won't know what caveat above applies to the exercise you're doing based on your own capacity.

Understanding Failure

Inevitably a big mistake people will make when they interpret what I just wrote is that they'll think they can just stop at 8 reps and everything is good. That's not what I'm saying, nor what I mean. This has absolutely no value if you can do 20 or 30 reps of that exercise and is not even remotely what I mean.

Your actual capacity for a given exercise (maximum # of reps in this case) is the variable you need to consider most for growth. That's why you should test for absolute failure periodically even if your sets aren't creeping up to 15, 20, 25, 30 ...

If they are, then all of your sets should probably be taken to absolute failure and that's how that caveat applies to you.

In other words, when I say if you can't do more than 8 reps (i.e. 8RM) of an exercise that means if you trained to absolute failure (the point where you literally cannot complete another rep) you do 8 reps and fail on the 9th. This gives you a buffer on that exercise relative to your ability of 4 reps. Therefore on that particular exercise, you could do sets of 4-8 and still likely make progress on growth.

This buffer (4 rep difference) won't work if your ability for a given exercise exceed 8. i.e. you fail on rep 10 or more. The buffer should be reduced to about 2 reps shy of whatever your failure number is.

And if you're over 12 or 15 reps, then the buffer becomes effectively zero and all sets should probably be taken to failure if growth is the goal.

What About Endurance or Strength?

All you need to consider here is more load for strength so that reps of any given exercise remain under 8 (again meaning you'd fail on rep #9) and ideally I'd say under 5 (failure on rep #6). You can do fewer reps than that in practice (e.g. sets of 3 with an 8RM load) to get a strength-training effect but that's the rough threshold you're shooting for relative to your ability.

For endurance, you simply want to add more and more reps. And that's where total rep numbers might have some value.

Muscular Endurance = The maximum number of repetitions you can continuously do with a fixed resistance.

You could count total number of reps to see if they are going up as a gauge of building endurance. For example, you do 25 reps on set 1, 20 on set 2 and 15 on set #3 for a total of 60 reps. On training day #2, you do 25, 23 and 17 for a total of 65 reps.

That might be a decent indicator of improved endurance, but it won't be the best way.

The maximum number of reps on set #1 is the ideal measure for improved endurance capacity and I'd focus my attention there.

e.g. You do 25 reps on set #1 today, and 26 reps on training day #2, then you've improved endurance slightly and you're heading in the right direction.

My reasoning?

It's a better indicator of endurance directly. Total reps is a better indicator of repeat performance or work capacity in this context.

In a lab setting, we only test max push-ups once. And if that capacity has improved the next time you come in for an assessment we conclude that your muscular endurance in the chest/shoulders/triceps area has improved.

If you're testing work capacity, then you're really testing how much of a fall off in performance you see in subsequent sets, or fatigue tolerance; Not endurance directly tied to maximum performance.

To put this in perspective, imagine you were running in a 1k race. Who wins that race? The fastest person, right? They only have to run it one time.

Imagine you told race participants that you were taking the aggregate times of 6 x 1k races with 3 minutes of recovery between efforts. How would this alter how people performed each race? They'd likely take a bit off their fastest times to preserve themselves for the next 5 x 1k runs so that their average times remain relatively high, but none of those six performances will be anywhere near their actual top performance as a result.

Fatigue changes things. If total reps become too much of the focus, then people will avoid training to failure in order to save themselves for subsequent sets so that total reps remain higher overall.

It's easier to do 25 + 25 + 25 than to do 35 (your actual max capacity) + 25 + 15 even if the total reps are the same because no single set is as hard as the max 35.

Training to absolute failure will lower the amount of reps you can do on subsequent sets because you induce a lot more fatigue by training this way. Thus you may reduce the total amount of reps you can do across all sets. It might be a decent proxy, but it might not too.

Just something to keep in mind. If you want to maximize the total number of reps you can do in one go, then focusing your attention on set #1 is likely the way to go, if you have the opportunity to rest (i.e. maximum number of reps you can do in an hour) then leaving some reps in the tank might be the way to go.

How This Can Look In Practice

You are not going to terminate any sets until your reps slow dramatically at a minimum – unless you can't do 8 reps of something to absolute failure remember. Regardless of how hard it feels, it's necessary to get the right stimulation for growth.

When you stagnate on set #1 – you can't do one more rep than usual for 2-3 workouts in a row for the same exercise – you're going to switch to a different variation or an exercise that works similar muscle groups in a slightly different way. I don't care what you do, it could be diamond push-ups instead of regular push-ups if you want or any of the other things I suggested above.

What you’re going to end up with total reps all over the place. Ideally a running total that gets higher and higher until it doesn’t but I wouldn't pay much attention to it, unless you care a great deal about work capacity or density (see below). At which time you may also consider changing that exercise out for something else too.

Instead of thinking of training as a total number to hit, think of it as a number of sets you accumulate with the best stimulus you can provide each set. In practice, you may end up with 3–6 sets with wildly different counts because of fatigue. That’s good, that will build mass with high rep ranges. For example, Day 5 might look like this:

  • Set #1 = 14 reps
  • Set #2 = 12 reps
  • Set #3 = 10 reps
  • Set #4 = 7 reps
  • Set #5 = 5 reps

= 48 total reps

And by training day 30 might look like this:

  • Set #1 = 29 reps
  • Set #2 = 25 reps
  • Set #3 = 21 reps
  • Set #4 = 16 reps
  • Set #5 = 13 reps

= 104 total reps

Or something like that …

There is no way to know how you will progress, I’m just trying to give you an example of how it might look after a reasonable length of time and how you should gauge progress. The total reps are going up (more than double) but also the per set performance has also gone up dramatically and none of the sets are over 30–35 reps so we can assume you’re still likely building mass. As long as your training those higher rep sets closer to failure.

However, that first set # is where I'd focus my attention for endurance goals and for mass. For the latter, most of it is consistently hitting a point of involuntarily not being able to execute the lift anymore (or pretty damn close).

Density Training

Remember I mentioned a caveat to progressive overload being applied to total rep numbers?

Well there is one way to progressively overload this and that is to increase the training density of a total number of reps. i.e. the length of time it takes to complete a fixed number of reps.

Training density is the amount of work done within certain amount of time. It's really the only way to progressively overload a fixed total rep number.

For example, let's say your total rep target is 100 push-ups. If you can do 100 push-ups in 5 minutes and it takes me 6 minutes, then you have a greater training density of push-ups than I do.

The simplest way to implement this kind of training is to ignore the concept of sets/reps entirely. And you can break up the training however you want, the only number you care about in this kind of training is the time it takes to complete the workload. It's chaotic but relatively easy to do.

You set a timer and try to do 100 reps as quickly as you can. Resting as much (or as little) as you think you need and stopping whenever you feel like you need to. You stop the timer when you've completed all of your reps and that's your training density.

The next time you train 100 reps of whatever exercise, you're trying to beat that time.

The problem here is that this primarily improves conditioning, specifically work capacity. Like tracking total number of reps did in the examples above. It might also improve muscular endurance to a degree but you should test max capacity before and after a block to know if that's the case.

And that endurance improvement outcome likely depends on how you approached things. If you focused on max reps, rest, max reps, it tends to do just fine at improving endurance but if you space things out to conserve energy you might increase work capacity without much endurance improvements.

Think back to the definition of muscular endurance I gave you. Debatably it could also mean the maximum number of repetitions you can do in a fixed time frame but I think a better term for that is "work capacity."

And of course this kind of density training probably doesn't elicit a great hypertrophy response because the rest intervals end up extremely short. We know that short rest intervals impede hypertrophy.

Overall is this worth much? Debatable but I doubt it. It's good for certain types of athletes for sure like martial artists where work capacity is really important and it's fun to mess with periodically when you reach a certain level of training ability.

I'd generally recommend that beginners avoid it though.