Rep outs aren’t anything new they have been around probably for as long as weights have been around it doesn’t take a genius to take a weight and say I am going to do this till I can’t do no more. They have gained some pretty good popularity and notoriety with programmes such as
- Jim Wendlers 5/3/1
Using them either as their primary method for producing overload on a weekly basis (5/3/1) as an acute overload tool to try and take advantage of the accumulated volume or fitness you gave gained in previous weeks (juggernaut) or as a method to produce work capacity or exercise density as a method to measure and develop fitness (CrossFit).
Before we go into how to utilise rep out sets we need to cover off a few key topics
Should you go to failure?
Depending on the literature you have read you can go either way on this question from experience I would lean towards never going to true concentric failure if you are training for performance or for strength. There is a lopsided fatigue to going to actual concentric failure on large compound lifts like squat or deadlift that need to be experienced to let you know they aren’t a great idea unless you are only planning on training the lift once a week for 1 or 2 working sets (as in 5/3/1 which advocates training close to failure).
When you train to failure you invoke size principal through fatigue (size principal basically means that your muscle will use the largest motor units to produce the largest amount of force or velocity) lifting at 1 rep max isn’t the only way to activate these motor units. By taking a muscle to concentric failure (going till you can’t lift the weight anymore) you will recruit the largest, highest threshold motor units because the smaller ones will all be too fatigued to produce the force necessary to lift the weight.
In English this means you can recruit the same amount of muscle and the same motor units by doing one rep at 100%+ of your max or you can take 75% and rep it out till you can’t do anymore.
What does the research say about training to failure?
Some research demonstrates utalising sets to failure may be a slightly more efficient way to train for size or strength when compared to a multiset programme since there are metabolic stress mechanisms that accompany training methods such as training to failure, hypoxic training and utilising shorter rest periods which can increase the effectiveness of training and induce more hypertrophy when compared to just straight sets. If size is your number one goal you should have some form of failure sets in your program.
There is a lot less support for training to failure and it’s effects on strength, most researchers in the area of strength training and muscle physiology would probably recommend that you should avoid training to failure in your strength training. In a recent systematic review performed by Tim Davies et al (2016) on the effect of training to failure on strength they found that there was a small increase in performance when not training to failure vs training to failure. They stated even though the effect size was small the increased risk of overtraining or injury from training to failure meant it should be used sparingly in training.
An example of an interesting single study of training to failure Mikel Izquierdo et al (2006) looked at the effect of an 11-week training programme followed by a 5-week peak had on 42 subjects. They were split into either control, non failure or failure training groups. At the end of the 16-week programme, the researchers found that the non-failure group realised better gains in both maximal strength and power whilst the failure group realised a better gain in muscular endurance and increased growth factor responses which could be beneficial for hypertrophy.
So in layman’s terms or getting straight to the point training to failure is useful for
- Hypertrophy training (if used strategically)
- Endurance specific to the exercise being trained
- Generally advised against for strength or power training.
So why would you include rep out training in your program?
Well, most programs that advocate AMRAP or rep out sets such as the previously mentioned 5/3/1 or Juggernaut advocate the lifter keep 1 or 2 reps in the tank when it comes to the rep outset. Which in reality isn’t really adhered to most lifters will take the rep out to the cliff’s edge i.e. the rep before failure and some will just YOLO it on to failure. We will no go through a bit of an explanation on why you might want to utilise rep outs or AMRAPs and why you don’t want to make them a pillar of your program.
Can you get stronger only doing Rep outs?
For novice or intermediate trainers rep out training will probably provide enough volume and stress for them to progress with on their own. 5/3/1 works really well with this population of lifters and is massively popular for a reason it is very easy to understand and it gets results. If 5/3/1 didn’t make people stronger it wouldn’t have stuck around for as long as it has. However, the common experience with it stalling out or not working for a certain population of lifters (more advanced or well-trained lifters) is down to one of it’s components.
The lack of total volume in the program makes it less suited for prolonged progress it effectively only had one working set per exercise per week which is a rep out. The other sets on the ladder up to the rep out set are too light to really be considered working sets. A program like juggernaut where the rep outs are part of a whole cycle and used in a cyclical fashion is a better set up for lifters who are a bit more advanced or just a better set up in general.
Rep outs will provide a stimulus for novice or intermediate lifters to become stronger at a top end but they may also lull lifters into thinking they may be stronger than they are. From the discussion above it is clear that rep out training produces a specific endurance adaptation to the lift being performed. So for a lifter who has specialised in repping out it may be possible for them to take an 80% load and take it from 5-6 reps up to 10-12 reps over the course of a few blocks. Whilst this lifter will have definitely gotten stronger from a one rep max perspective they will be sorely disappointed if they think that they are going to achieve the one rep max calculation from their rep out sets.
This is due to them becoming specialised at repping out. They develop muscular endurance in the lift, the ability to find a way (such as using their back when their legs are too tired to continue in a squat to eek out more reps) and they become better at the mind games of repping out.
What benefits does repping out bring?
- Can provide a “standard candle” in your programming to see how you are progressing without repping out. If a lifter reps out once or twice in a 12-week block they won’t have enough time to adapt to the training method and therefore will provide a better measure of where their strength currently lies.
- It puts a lifters form under fire once they start to get majorly fatigued having to hold your form during a rep out is a very good test of a lifters technical ability.
- It can help to develop the lifter’s mindset. Some people don’t really know what they are capable of or how to actually push their own boundaries having to rep out a heavyweight under encouragement can really show them what they can do and give them experience of grinding out a heavy load.
- It provides an acute overload which can be a good way of increasing the stress load of a block or introducing an element of overreaching into training without putting the lifter under too much general fatigue and carries a much-reduced chance of burn out when compared to more traditional overreach techniques.
- It can be a good way of gauging a lifters working loads when put into a block for instance for a protocol such as 5 sets of 5 reps I would consider around a 10 rep max load to be the optimal working weight. You can add in a rep out every now and again as part of your volume weeks to see just where the lifter’s volume selection lies within their strength.
Note there is an extreme amount of variance with ability when it comes to repping out some lifters who are habituated to this style of training or athletes with a better conditioning base can achieve outrageous results with these protocols. I’ve had a second-row rep out 180kg for 13 reps (85% of his maximum) without any previous rep out training during the block so be wary of who you are prescribing it to because you could just be putting them under duress for no real gain.
Some examples of rep out programmes.
Undulating volume-based programme (repeatable template)
|2||80%||5||4||Rep out on last set|
|4||85%||6||3||Rep out on last set|
Linear rep out program example 1
|4||90%||3||2||Rep out on last set|
Linear rep out program example 2
|4||88%||4||4||Rep out on last set|
4 Week hypertrophy cycle utilising rep out or training to failure.
|1||70%||5||12||90 seconds rest|
|2||75%||4||8||Rep out on last set to failure / 120 seconds rest between sets|
|3||72,5%||5||10||90 seconds rest|
|4||77.5%||4||6||Rep out on last set to failure / 120 seconds rest between sets|
These are just examples of basic 4 week programmes and where you can use the rep outs to push the progress in examples 2 and 3 they basically act as a standard candle (an indicator of where you are at and allow you to readjust training loads for the next block). In example one they provide an extra bit of overload for the higher intensity weeks helping the lifter to increase the stress of the block and if they can recover to increase their strength faster.
Repping out is a useful tool to have in your programming toolbox but it is not a training method which you can rely on for strength gains for the rest of your days as a lifter. It has it’s uses of which we have touched on in this article. The more creative your use and the better throughout your training cycles the more useful this tool can become.
Never forget your bottom line however as long as your workloads are going up over time and you are recovering from your workouts you will get stronger guaranteed.