The truth about ‘effective reps’

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JULY 4, 2023

You've probably heard of effective reps before, but what are they, do they matter, and should you change how you track your training for better results?

Stick around to find out.

What Are 'Effective Reps'?

'Effective reps' is a concept in weight training. It focuses on the idea that not all reps are equally beneficial for muscle growth. The idea is that the last few reps of a set when your muscles are close to failure and you've recruited all motor units, are most productive for hypertrophy.

In most cases, trainees focus on the total volume: the number of sets and reps they do. For instance, if someone does 3 sets of 10 reps, all 30 reps would be equal in their eyes.

However, with the effective reps concept, the first few reps of each set are considered less effective because they aren't as challenging. The muscles involved are still fresh, and moving the weight through the full range of motion takes less effort.

Then, as the trainee approaches the end, each rep becomes more challenging and requires more conscious effort. So, in a 10-rep set, perhaps only the last three or four reps are considered 'effective.'

The idea behind effective reps is to maximize growth by only focusing on the last, most challenging reps. This often means lifting more weight (to get to the effective reps quicker) or pushing close to failure on most sets.

The Rationale Behind Effective Reps

The rationale behind effective reps is rooted in progressive overload, muscle fatigue, and mechanical tension (a key factor for hypertrophy).

The more you have to push yourself to complete each rep, the more significant the disruption and training stimulus. You generate more mechanical tension and experience a far more intense burn in your muscles.

Consider the scenario:

You pick up a dumbbell and start curling it. The first few reps feel effortless, and you barely engage your biceps. Stopping the set then would feel like you haven't done any work.

But as you continue to do reps, each elbow flexion becomes more challenging, and you start feeling your biceps work and burn. By the 12th, 15th, or even 20th rep (depending on the load), your biceps feel like they are going to burst, making you intuitively value the last reps more than the first few.

Some Issues With Effective Reps

1. Injury Risk

Pushing yourself to your limits all the time can cause excessive joint, muscle, and connective tissue damage, increasing the risk of nagging aches or injuries. Training to failure can also lead to technique breakdown, which also carries risk.

2. Overtraining

Training to failure most of the time is demanding and can lead to overtraining, where the body cannot recover adequately between workouts.

Overtraining puts you at risk of injuries, impairs your immunity, and has other adverse health effects.

3. Overall Effectiveness

The effective reps concept is more applicable to some exercises than others. For instance, training to failure on isolation lifts (e.g., bicep curls) is generally safer and more effective than on complex, compound activities (e.g., high-bar back squats).

4. Mental and Physical Demand

Pushing yourself to your limits all the time can be mentally and physically exhausting, putting you at risk of burnout and loss of motivation to train.

5. Tunnel Vision

Focusing solely on the effort side of the training equation can lead to tunnel vision and neglect of other important factors, such as overall training volume, exercise selection and order, progression, and recovery.

While the last few reps might theoretically be most effective, those leading up to that point also play a role, and we must not ignore essential training principles.

What It All Means For You

While effective reps makes sense as a concept and underlines the importance of effort for gym progress, this is simply a tool. Like any tool, it's not without its limitations.

Here are a few practical takeaways:

  • By all means, work hard and take the occasional set to failure. For example, take the last set for a muscle group to failure (especially if it is an assistance lift like the leg press or an isolation movement like the leg extension).

  • Don't solely focus on effort but look at your training plan as a whole and consider all the moving parts that can affect the outcome: overall volume, intelligent exercise selection, steady progression, adequate rest between sets, etc.

  • Always prioritize proper technique and never shorten the range of motion or use jerking motions to do a few extra reps. It's better to stop a set short of failure than to put yourself in a compromised position that invites injuries.

  • Listen to your body and adjust your training intensity if you feel excessively tired or unmotivated to keep going. Persistent muscle soreness and declining performance are indicators of overtraining.

Thanks for sticking around. I'll catch you next week!



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