Total Rep Training

Hello fellow trainers, lifters, and calisthenics enthusiasts.

Has anyone ever tried counting “total reps” and not worrying about the amount of sets. I have been doing that for my strength work and it seems to be a great way to train. For me, it helps to “keep my reps honest” because I’m not trying to cram X number of reps in a given set. It allows me to practice the complexity of the harder movements to a greater degree. I’ve found some articles written on it but it seems rather unconventional. I was just curious if any have had experience recording your training that way. Please share your thoughts if you have.

I know there are some good reads by Chad Waterbury regarding this but I can’t find much else.

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I have done a lot of that on the bodyweight training side of things…for example getting 100 pushups, 50 pullups or whatever. Setting a rep goal can definitely work and is adaptable. At one time i was shooting for 300 push-ups throughout the day a few times a week cause there were certain variations i wanted to work towards…and all those reps got me there.

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For me, it’s been almost a game changer. I actually came up with this concept by myself through trial and error. Then I realized that I didn’t come up with anything original at all as there are those who train the same way. It was nice to be vindicated however.

I find it to be a very enjoyable way of training because I ask, “what is a set?” It’s nothing but a collection of reps. Why not only worry about completing the reps.

I think some would think that this way of training is a bit “loose” and the need for another control mechanism would help. Some would argue that doing the prescribed number of reps in a given set would be a more accurate way of showing you’ve gotten stronger. To me, just focusing on the “total reps” works well enough.

I do it for one of my lower body days with pistol squats. I did the same for GHR’s in the past when I was new to them.

I think it’s a a great method for difficult calisthenics that one cannot do for more than five reps.

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That’s what sort of led me to this method. I would get fed up with only getting 2 or 3 reps in a set of a particular movement when I was supposed to get 5 reps in a set. So if I had a plan that says 5 sets of 5 reps for example and I got 5,5,4,4,3, I would have to try again next round to see if I could get it. Then next round would come along and I would get 5,5,4,4,3, or something similar. This would then keep repeating week after week, round after round. I started getting tired of being constrained with a prescribed number of sets and just focused on quality reps.

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Yup! I focus on getting 30 reps with pistols regardless of sets and not to failure. I left out I’m doing that with sternum pullups too. I want to those muscle ups. :slight_smile:

You’re just practicing the movement. I think it’s liberating to train like that. It makes training much more enjoyable too.

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This is just wrong. A set is an event involving the accumulation of fatigue, along with a ramped demand on available contractile elements. Consider, for example, the first vs last three reps of a set of widowmaker squats–they are not remotely comparable from a training perspective. Sets are mos def more than ‘a collection of reps.’

What you’ve written here is ‘I got frustrated with not meeting my training goals, so I decided to replace them with goals that are much easier to meet.’

By all means train how you want to train. But you’re kidding yourself if you think doing, say, 5 sets of 2 reps produces the same training effect as performing 10 nonstop reps with the same weight.


When you distill it all down, a set is a grouping of reps. It maybe an oversimplification as I agree that the first rep is easier than the last rep in a set but it is still a grouping of reps at the end of the day. I know what you’re saying though.

I would argue that I replaced my goals with something that made a bit more sense. I’ve been down that road before. Using the prescribed set and rep schemes of a particular program only seemed to get me so far past a certain point. So what do you do when you can no longer get the prescribed reps within a certain number of sets? You just keep slogging along round after round each workout session when you’ve hit a plateau. What if you never get past that plateau using the prescribed set and rep structure? At some point, there is only so hard you can milk that structure.

Now with that being said, I still use traditional set and rep structures and I don’t think there is anything wrong with them.

Of course it’s not the same. That would be silly to think so. But with using a rep total system, you may be able to “practice the lift” for lack of a better word, long enough to get “10 nonstop reps with a single weight”.



There’s this new idea about recruiting muscle fibers and training muscles. In the past people did straight sets and as the reps added up and fatigue built up more and more muscle fibers were recruited, fatigued and trained until you were too tired to continue and the sets stopped. So if you’re doing a set of ten, some of those reps are just there to fatigue you so the later reps can be good.

The new scheme is to lift slightly heavier. With a “perfect” weight so that you get total recruitment of all the fibers on each rep. Each rep is an “effective rep.” Then you stop the set before you get sloppy from fatigue, you recover and then do another low rep set of “effective reps.” Then you do that a few more times. And the idea is you’ll accumulate more good, effective reps and not waste and time doing “junk reps”.

I only bring this up because it goes along with the Training Not to Failure discussion from before. And you’re a smart guy so I wonder what you’ll make of this.

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Thanks for all the responses guys. I’m just trying to bounce these ideas off of you guys and see what you think of them. I do appreciate the feedback.

When I started reading some of Chad Waterbury’s stuff, I was thinking, “this is the determination I came to” with regards to focusing on just quality reps.

While I agree there is no perfect system and I think there could be some flaws in this approach. To me, the “perfect system” is the one you can use consistently and focus on progressive overload.

I also think that enjoying your training is important especially if you are just the recreational trainer and not playing sports, participating in powerlifting, etc.


After you’ve been training for awhile it takes longer and longer to progress.

It’s nice to have a system where can build up enough work to move forward and progress without driving yourself crazy obsessing about how you build up that amount of work.


5/3/1 and some other programs use total reps for accessory work. I’ve been using it to push myself on isolation work. A few days ago, during a leg workout, I had 100 reps of belt squats and 50 reps of belt lunges. I couldn’t unhook the belt until the reps were completed. It essentially became a giant set as any time not performing reps was breathing and standing while still holding the weight.

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Total reps in sets is good.
For instance 25 pull ups in less than 4 sets was a marker for me.
But just total reps. To easy to manipulate.
25 single squats at 400lb is easier than say 5x5 at 375 or even 350.
Uniformalty allows for a bit more measure. Even total reps in a time period would work. With out that you’d never know if you were making progress.
Of course this is on main lifts. For accessories it’s fine.

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I’m not sure how new it is… :grinning:

The idea of effective reps has a ‘that makes sense’ appeal, no doubt. The question is, what makes a rep effective?

The thing is, I’m not convinced/sure that, for purposes of maximizing hypertrophy, the effectiveness of a rep can be defined solely in terms of the proportion of fibers recruited. Metabolic stress seems to play a role as well, and cluster-type techniques may be suboptimal for producing it. A better technique IMO is myo-reps, developed by Borge ‘Blade’ Fagerli:

The Exact Reps That Make You Grow | T Nation (

(If you want to learn about it from the horse’s mouth, you can find his original article on the web.)


That’s the one criticism I have with it. Others have said and I somewhat agree, you need another control such as a block of time or the traditional X number of reps in X number of sets.

I know “Massive Iron Steeve Shaw” has a total rep system but he limits it to a certain number of sets. Example: 25 reps in 4 sets. Having that extra control measure would help more accurately track if you were progressing.

With all that being said, you still have a control measure even with JUST focusing on total reps because you are still doing them within a training session. It’s a time control measure and a loose one but it’s still exists. I think that it allows for a bit more auto-regulation.

I guess if you’re not pushing metabolic factors to grow, and you’re focusing on Quality reps it’s Mechanical Tension that makes the reps effective.

Like loading up the muscle and keeping the tension On through the whole range of motion. Without any bouncing or cheating. I can imagine calisthenics guys doing some weird hangs and lengthening muscles under load, and how doing that would be more effective than jerking around.

I guess guys concerned with Maximum Hypertrophy are already focusing on tension and lifting this way. So maybe bouncey half reppin’ cheaters (like me) will get more out of Quality Reps than muscle focused hypertrophy dudes.

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Well the way I look at it right now is I have my “strength work” where I’m just trying to focus on quality reps. That’s where using a “rep total system” could be a great asset.

Then after that, you can have your “assistance or hypertrophy work” where you use a more traditional set and rep structure (3 x 10 etc.)

That way, I feel you can have the best of both worlds.


Another way to get the best of both worlds but keep on track in terms of progression would be that if you did your 5, 5, 4, 4, 3 and you were supposed to do 5x5, you do 1-2 extra sets - whichever it takes you to get those 3 reps that you owe. I know @T3hPwnisher has discussed this elsewhere. That keeps you on track for your total amount of reps, and if you only manage 2 and 1 reps for a total of 7 sets, you can shoot for 6 sets the next time to beat it. So, the goal is still 5x5, and the program is still structured that way, but you use the total rep system to get in the reps that you missed out on instead of feeling like you failed, and you have a clear progression plan to make it back to 5x5 and then onwards/upwards.

I do agree with @EyeDentist though - total reps is very different from prescribed sets. Jim Wendler does the opposite of what you suggested at the end here - he prescribes the sets, and then for the assistance work he just says 25-50 or 50-100 reps, however you want to do it. That way, your main work stays focused and you can hammer the assistance however you see fit.