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Are numbers keeping you from your goals?

MAC Fitness Team - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Going Beyond Sets and Reps

When performing a strength training workout, many people emphasize and depend on counting sets and reps (repetitions). Oftentimes, we see a workout on the internet or in a magazine and think, “aha I need to do 4 sets of 20 reps to tone,” or “I need to do 3 sets of 8 reps to build strength". As human beings, we like finite, organized numbers; they feel good and we love to check off the box and earn credit for putting in the work. The thing to remember is workouts which appropriately stress and challenge us are much harder for the media world to promote. In essence, the 'set and rep' concept tends to be a fallacy promoted in the media rather than what experts truly recommend.

As personal trainers at the Mount Auburn Club, we are tasked with building a constructive plan which then becomes the path of success for every client. Therefore, the most important aspect of exercise science for trainers and anyone hoping to improve athletic performance is to understand how getting your body to change actually works. The human body is extremely adaptive to its environment, and this characteristic is rooted in our DNA. If humans could not adapt, then our species would quickly become extinct since our environment is ever-changing.

One example of our life-saving ability to adapt and the basis of many misconceptions surrounding diet and water intake is, as food becomes scarce, the body’s metabolic processes actually decrease to conserve and store as much as possible. This does not lead to the desired outcome and is in opposition with what occurs when trying starvation/elimination diets. They literally do not work because of the body's adaptation abilities. Another example: When my clients wonder why they have joint pain, I tell them to drink more water. The body’s evolutionary response to lack of water is to pull water from the joints/skin and decrease blood overall volume. This keeps the little water left in the body in the brain and most important organs. The list of DNA-programmed life-saving adaptations the body responds to is endless; from the body reducing circulation to outer extremities in the cold, to the body sweating in the hot temperatures, adaptions to stressors from our environment are programmed into us out of necessity to regulate our bodies and keep us alive.

What does this have to do with sets and reps?  Everything! Mechanically, strength training is about trying to force the body to adapt to a change in the environment - an environment where it needs more strength! The body’s adaptive response to this stress is to build more muscle tissue. Thus, in order to benefit from a strength training workout, the goal should be to feel fatigued. Fatigue is the signal telling us we are creating enough stress to trigger the adaption. Simply focusing on whether you did 20 reps does not matter. It could take 8 reps or 50 to feel fatigued and for your body to build muscle tissue—this is the only thing that counts (pun intended). 

Pay attention to your body next time you are strength training or in a group exercise class. If you only do 20 reps and could have done 10 more, you will not see results. As personal trainers and students of the latest exercise science, we know it’s not the specific exercise or the reps that matter, (although there are many considerations to this effect), it’s the intensity and consistently in which the activity is performed. If you have more gas left in the tank, then do those extra reps! If you are not sure how to manage injuries, what might be too much, or what’s not enough, set up a time to talk!


Chris O'Laughlin, MAC Fitness Professional, specializes in functional training with an emphasis on proper body mechanics and effective movement. Schedule a complimentary consultation today! To learn more about Chris or get in touch click HERE.



The information presented here is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or health condition. As always, please speak with your health care provider before beginning an exercise program and any modifications to physical activity.