- Reps in Reserve (RIR) is an autoregulation technique
- Fatigue digs a hole and to build muscle and strength you need to get out of that hole
- Average a 2RIR over the course of a mesocycle for long term gains
- It’s going to take time to get used to but the benefits far outweigh the initial investment
The first time I went to the gym I was a sophomore in high school. My childhood friend had started going and asked me to come along.
Having an overabundance of pride in my athletic ability and wanting to prove I was stronger than him despite him being a good 50lbs lighter than him, I was all in.
(Side note, I had absolutely no reason to believe I was stronger than anyone at that point in my life. My life consisted of smoking weed, playing Madden, and playing basketball.)
Now the details of that workout are fuzzy. I do remember we added an obscene amount of weight to the leg press. Thinking back on it and how little we knew about working out I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the only exercise we did with maybe some abs sprinkled it. Because the only way to finish a workout is hitting abs. #fact
The next few days I was all Bambi legged. I remember dropping my books down the stairs between classes because I had to catch myself when my way-to-sore-to-live legs gave out.
And that my friend is how my lifting journey started.
Flash forward almost 20 years (God that’s depressing) I only knew one way to train thanks to that day, bodybuilding magazines, and Pumping Iron…training to absolute failure.
If you weren’t ready to throw up after a set you were leaving gainz on the table and might as well not have even lifted at all. Bro sin #1.
For a time this method worked great. I was gaining muscle, strength and I thought I was the next Jay Cutler.
Then shit changed.
I got older, the gainz slowed down, and injuries piled up.
Between shoulder impingements and a back surgery this mode of training wasn’t working for me, my goals, or the life I wanted to lead. Now in my late 30’s it’s not about becoming huge anymore, it’s about looking better naked and lifting weights when I’m 85.
This is where Reps in Reserve comes into play. Without a doubt the best thing to come out of 2020 for me.
So if you’re tired of beating your body up without seeing much progress then as your coach, I suggest you pay attention and train smarter using Reps in Reserve.
WHAT’S REPS IN RESERVE
Reps in Reserve or RIR is an autoregulation technique. Basically you’ll be working out on feel. Whishy-washy I know. I wasn’t happy about it either.
When you workout your body digs a hole of fatigue. The closer to failure, the deeper the hole. In order for you to make gainz you have to be able to get outta that hole so your body can build up bigger, stronger and faster…and obvi more sexy.
As fatigue accumulates over weeks it makes it harder and harder for you to recover. And without proper recovery your muscles aren’t a-growin.
Thankfully, your muscles failed kindergarten so they can’t count. They don’t know the difference between rep 10 or rep 5. All they know is stress or stimulus. Which is why stagnant rep ranges (i.e. 8-10 reps) alone might fall short or be too much.
The trick with getting results from your workout is doing enough to give your muscles a stimulus to grow while not burning the candle at both ends and bringing fatigue up too high. This is where Reps in Reserve comes into play.
WHAT IS FAILURE
So we are both on the same page when it comes to failure, I mean technical or form failure. Same thing.
Once your form breaks down you start shifting the weight and while you might be able to knock out a few more reps, you are shifting the momentum or getting more supporting muscles into it. So really the point of the exercise is lost.
From here on out, when I say failure I mean technical or form failure.
THE DOWNSIDE OF REPS IN RESERVE
If there was a drawback of Reps in Reserve it is it takes time to learn and really feel your body. The days of mindlessly going through the motions or hitting a certain rep range are over if you try Reps in Reserve.
I guarantee that most people that try this won’t stick with it because they feel like they aren’t making progress.
Couldn’t be further from the truth.
In this instance we are taking 1-2 steps back to change and evolve your training forever. Remember, you’re playing the long progress game here. This is not a 6 week let’s see how hard I can push my body experiment.
HOW TO KNOW YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT
This is something I and people I know have grappled with for a while so pay close attention.
As you get further and further into an exercise and a set that fatigue hole we talked about earlier gets deeper.
And as anyone that has ever dug a hole knows, digging deeper down does not fill the hole back up…it leaves you with a deeper hole to fill up.
Rep 8 on set 3 is a lot harder than rep 8 on set 1. Can’t argue that.
So if you’re using an Reps in Reserve target then you should expect the number of reps on sets 2-4 to go down, right?
Say the blue line is the Reps in Reserve target amount of fatigue. The green line is set 1, yellow set 2 and red set 3. As the sets increase you’re starting with more fatigue and you hit that fatigue line sooner. Caveat: The graph is to visually show you the concept, the numbers, actual rate of fatigue are just ways to visualize it.
So if you’re doing bench press and the workout calls for 3 sets of 8-10 reps with an RIR of 0-1 (failure or 1 rep from failure), you shouldn’t see something like this:
Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 10 reps
Set 3: 10 reps
As your coach, this tells me you didn’t push set 1 to your true 0-1 RIR target. If you did, fatigue would be so high that you wouldn’t be able to hit the same amount of reps on set 2 or 3. So my response to you would be to push harder on set 1.
Remember we aren’t trying to dig the deepest hole of fatigue, you’re trying to do just enough to stimulate and then recover.
Now what happens if you hit your Reps in Reserve target and it’s outside of your given rep range?
Set 1 is the baseline and should be within the given rep range. Sets 2-whatever fall where they may as long as you hit your RIR target.
This paradigm is counterintuitive to everything a lot of people know and have been practicing. Believe me I know that very well.
Just because you are not in an almost arbitrary rep range that is perfectly fine, you’re still building muscle and strength. Remember, your muscles can’t count, all they know is tension and effort and you are supplying both of those in recoverable doses.
PICKING THE RIGHT WEIGHT
This is a tough section to grasp so I’m going to break it down a few different ways. All are good, just find the one that fits your situation and go with that.
Keep in mind, picking the “wrong weight” for a rep range is not the end of the world. Research has shown as long as you pick a weight that is between 30-80% of your 1RM and you take it to or close to failure you’re good. You could land a plane in that range.
If you know the weights you fail at:
This is easiest. If you take good notes in your workouts then you’d have no prob figuring out 3-4 reps less than your failure point.
In this instance take the weight that you fail at the top of the given rep range.
So if your workout says 6-8 reps, take the weight you fail at 10 reps. Then it just becomes hitting the RIR target each week. So let’s say you can bench 200lbs for 10 reps. On rep 10 you can just get the bar back up to rack it. This is RIR 0.
So if in Week 1 the RIR target is 3-4, you’d use 200lbs for 6-7 reps.
If you have no idea what weight to use, do this:
In Week 1 of your new program, select a weight that you think you can hit for the amount of reps in the range. Best guess here. Even if you are way off base we can course correct in the following workout.
Now take that weight to failure even if it is outside of your desired rep range. And now you have your failure point.
If you were way off from your target rep range use the chart above to increase or decrease the weight to hit the general area of your rep range.
Now if you do go with this method there’s a caveat:
Drop the number of sets while using this method to 2. One to technical failure and the second set to 4-5 reps before that point. This will help manage fatigue so the next 4-12 weeks are productive training.
This is a method but not my favorite due to the high amount of fatigue you’ll accumulate in set 1. However if you have absolutely no idea what weight to use you at least get some useful data to work with.
If you have no idea what weight you use do this:
Select a weight and hit the RIR target each week. No rep range, just grab a weight and go until you hit your RIR target.
Do that for the entirety of the 4-5 week program (mesocycle). Then in your next mesocycle you can set a rep range depending on your goal. This allows you to test out weights without going too hard in mesocycle one and refine it in mesocycle two.
This method works great for accessory movements and getting used to RIR targets. Hat tip to my coach Jeremiah Bair for this method.
HOW TO PROGRAM FOR REPS IN RESERVE
So like we talked about before, RIR is great for managing fatigue while still helping you build muscle. Going with an RIR of 0-1 for 4 weeks is not going to be ideal because you’ll be dead (OK, prob not dead-dead) by the end of Week 2.
Too much fatigue is going to accumulate and you won’t be able to push as hard as you should.
On the other side of that coin, a 3-4 RIR for 4 weeks isn’t going to supply the amount of stress needed to give you results in the long term.
So, the happy medium is a 2 RIR. Hard enough to make gains but not hard enough where you can’t recover. Some people call this the Goldilocks target, but I wouldn’t want to insult RIR with that trespassing hussy.
Now, should you do a 2RIR forever? One could argue yes, however I’m not a fan. Especially if you are putting in new movements to your workout.
When you introduce new exercises, grips, movements it doesn’t take much for your body to achieve the stimulus needed to build muscle. Think about last spring when you did yard work for the first time after hibernating all winter, or shovelling that first snow fall. You’re sore as hell right? Kinda the same idea here. Novel movement equals high stimulus.
So since you don’t need as much stimulus in week 1 it makes sense to lower the RIR to 3-4. This way we aren’t overdoing it. Then as you get used to the movement, exercise, grip etc. you increase the RIR target until you hit an RIR of 0-1.
So over the course of a 4-6 week mesocycle you are gradually increasing your RIR target and over the entirety of the program you average out to a 2RIR.
BOOM. Fuckin’ science.
So when it comes to how I program my client’s workouts we usually work in 5-6 week mesocycles.
Week 1: 3-4 RIR
Week 2: 2-3 RIR
Week 3: 1-2 RIR
Week 4: 0-1 RIR
Week 5: Deload 3-4 RIR
If it’s a 6 week program because they are getting used to a bunch of new movements or getting used to RIR, then I’ll do something like this:
Week 1: 3-4RIR
Week 2: 3-4 RIR
Week 3: 2-3 RIR
Week 4: 1-2 RIR
Week 5: 0-1 RIR
Week 6: Deload 3-4 RIR
HOW TO PROGRESS
This might be the easiest section in this entire article.
You increase the weight when you hit the top of your rep range on set 1.
So if you’re feeling strong and your goal is 12-15 reps with a 2 RIR and you hit your 2RIR on the 17th rep, up the weight 5-10% next week.
Otherwise, I would stick with one weight until set 1 is outside your rep range.
Each week your goal is to move up in reps based on your RIR target.
Using the 5 week progression above:
Week 1: 3-4RIR
Week 2: 2-3 RIR
Week 3: 1-2 RIR
Week 4: 0-1 RIR
Week 5: Deload 3-4 RIR.
Let’s say week 1 you hit 10 reps with 200 lbs with a 3-4 RIR. Week 2 you’ll want to increase that to 11 reps at least if you’re feeling good because your RIR target is now 2-3. Week 3 you’ll jump up to 12 reps and Week 4, in theory, you should be at about 13 reps.
These numbers are arbitrary btw. If you’re feeling good and strong you might be able to push it a little further in a given week. But again, base this on feel.
One thing that shouldn’t happen, but isn’t the end of the world, is you decrease in reps the following week. That means you either pushed too hard the previous week or something is off (sleep, nutrition etc.) this week.
Not the end of the world if you have a shitty workout or a week of shitty workouts because of life shit, but over the course of a mesocycle you should see an upward trend in reps used at a specific weight, or a weight jump.
Both good indicators of progress.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR
Now finding that RIR target is going to be different for everyone. You’ll have to listen to your body. Here’s a few things I’ve found in my training to help me navigate to where I am in the RIR scale.
Bar Speed-I’ve noticed when my bar speed slows down especially in the lower rep ranges I’m usually about 3-4 reps out from failure.
The burn – On sets above 8 reps, once I start to feel the burn I’ll have about 1-4 reps left. This is largely dependent on the size of the muscle I’m working. For bicep curls (small muscle) I’ll generally have 1-2 more reps with good form. On the other side for a split squat (big and multiple muscles) I’ll usually be able to go 3-4 more reps with good form.
These are the two things I look for to see my RIR. Feel free to use these as a baseline.
WRAP IT UP B
I’m not going to lie to you, RIR is weird to get used to. Coming from a meathead-balls-to-the-wall-or-you-wasted-your-time background it was a tough concept for me to grasp at first. It took me a solid 4-6 weeks before I felt like I got it.
But I also knew the consequences of my training (back surgery) and as I get older it’s harder and harder for me to justify putting myself or my family through that.
So I highly recommend using RIR for your training. Once you get the hang of it it makes training a lot more enjoyable, less injuries (nagging and otherwise) and more progress over the long term. I know for my clients quality of life is YUGE. They don’t want to feel beaten down, always tired or injured. They want the benefits of the gym without all that crap.
Any idiot can program a workout that makes you sore. Hell, throw a ton of volume and weight and you can achieve that. But that’s also a shitty game plan for longer than a week. Play the long game, your life is more than training.