Deconstructing the Rep

“Well I’d drive down Sunset Boulevard

My hair blowin’ in the wind

I’d stop at fancy places

And they’d finally let me in…”

Charlie Robison, Sunset Boulevard

nice tripple extension /  photo: jontunn

nice tripple extension / photo: jontunn

In previous posts, I’ve touched on the importance of rep speed (here and here are just a couple of examples) and auto-regulation (here) as they pertain, or should pertain, to one’s overall training plan. And now, in one of the better articles that TMuscle has run, Christian Thibaudeau dishes on his version of rep speed manipulation, auto-regulation and “activation ramp” (or what I refer to as simply CNS priming).  It’s good stuff, and if you’re serious about getting the most out of your time in the gym, I’d highly recommend finding a way to incorporate these ideas into each and every training session.  Check out Thib’s article, here, then c’mon back for a few of my additional thoughts on the subject.

For starters, I couldn’t agree more with Thib’s idea that to go into a workout with a pre-determined set/rep scheme is just flat out wrong minded.  That’s not to say, though, that you shouldn’t have a framework from which to begin.  In other words, I go into a session knowing what modality and movements I plan on working; specific sets, reps and weights, though, I feel as I go along.  It’s not that I have no idea here — I do — it’s just that my overriding goal is to improve over the long haul rather that to hit some pre-determined, daily goal.  Remember, sets, reps, TUL — these are all constructs of the mind that the body could give a rat’s narrow ass about.  Thibs puts it this way:

You have to stop looking at the wrong variables. Numbers, sets, reps, and rest periods are only tools. The real question is, what is your physiology telling you?

These variables are all important signposts, yes — but the body’s only real concern is with what to do with the biological cue it’s been given.  And that “cue”, to be effective, has to fall within the narrow sweet-spot between adequate stimulus and overtraining.  In other words, I can go into the gym knowing that I want to work, say a deadlift and dip combination movement pattern in a 5 (sets) x 3 (reps) modality.  That’s my framework from which to begin.  I also have a ball park feel for the weights I’ll be handling — but I am in no way, shape or form married to matching or exceeding those weights.  Now, at the end of the workout, will my end numbers wind up looking like a linear progression from the last time I performed this workout?  9 times out of 10, no.  But if I’ve manipulated these variables with any amount of acumen, and if I’ve sufficiently squelched an ego that constantly yells for more of the tangible or “show” evidence of progress (especially weight on the bar), I can effectively hit that biological cue “sweet spot” every outing.  And what is it that makes this sweet spot a constantly moving target?  Quite simply, it’s all those variables (i.e., “stressors”) outside of the gym that one has very little control over.  Old school periodization then, and/or cookie-cutter programs will only be successful (and I use this term loosely here) insofar as one is able to adequately control these stressors.  And unless you’re an athlete who’s life revolves around training, recuperation and competition, I’d say you’re out of luck in attempting to nullify these variables.  Minimize?  Yes, quite possibly.  Sufficiently nullify so as to make a pre-written periodization schedule work?  Well, good luck with that.  I liken this to virus prevention — you can wash your hands all you want (analogous to stressor control), but if your immune system is not up to the challenge, the virus (lack of progress) will eventually hand you your ass.   I agree with Thibs when he says:

“…I choose to look at periodization for what it is: a general guideline of splitting your training into specific periods where you work on one goal…”

It’s not that periodization is wrong, it’s just that it’s a tool of limited use/value.

The Force Spectrum

Note: when I post my workouts on Twitter (which I do following every training session), what I am posting is the session’s framework.  The actual individual movement’s sets, reps, rep speed, weights used, recovery periods, etc. are not, because of time constraints for the most part, listed.  And although I keep track of this information, its usefulness to me in planing future workouts is limited.  Remember, each training session occurs in a space that is unique to that point in time, and that particular confluence of variables will not happen again.  My training session relative to a particular point in time, then, must be mailable enough to adjust to these unique variables (which can never be fully predicted), and still deliver the correct stimulus relative to that unique point in time.  This is where competence in auto-regulation and manipulating the force spectrum come into play.  Don’t worry — it’s not nearly as complicated as it seems.

First, remember our old friend, the power equation:

Power = (mass x acceleration) x distance/time

And power, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is the key not only to athleticism (obvious), but also (arguably, granted) to muscle hypertrophy.  What Thibs is describing in his 5 x 3 bench press example mirrors what I actually do in the gym.  What you’re aiming for is a perfect melding of power output in a particular movement, auto-regulated to a particular and unique set of point-in-time circumstances.  Now, how do we get the body primed for its greatest power output in a particular movement at a unique point-in-time?  (1) adequate warm-up, and (2) what Thibs calls “feel sets” and what I call “CNS priming” — differing terms for the same phenomena.

The secret to weight training is that there is no secret.  But like any art, it requires practice, diligence, intelligence, and a narrowly-defined goal.  Pick and rotate through a wide variety of basic, functional movements with these principles as a guide (from Thibs):

  • execute each rep with the aim to produce the maximum amount of power possible
  • become skillful in the art of auto-regulation
  • learn to properly manipulate the CNS to achieve the first bullet point

Strive to reach that point where, as Bruce Lee says, “…a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick…”

In health,


17 responses to “Deconstructing the Rep

  1. Great post Keith.

    I’ve thrown the term “chaos training” around before and it would fit this idea. Auto regulation within a framework is something that many coaches touch on but doesn’t seem explicitly written into their program. Admittedly, I when I was younger the lack of quantitative analysis would have driven me crazy. Now, my workouts will range from the fat powerlifter standard of “hit the lift and go home” to what I did yesterday, which was as many exercises as I felt to throw at my shoulders and I STILL felt fresh when I left.

    Of course, if a punch is no longer a punch, this won’t make sense. 😉


  2. AWESOME post. I really need to remember not to have a predetermined sets/reps/load in mind before a workout. I had a “bad day” yesterday, and did not hit the numbers I wanted. That just happens, and I need to let it happen.

    • When I feel this, I just find a new exercise that I’ve never done before to work on that day. Experiment: this way, I have no cognitive expectations on performance as a result of novelty.

  3. Great post, Keith.

    I have a question regarding post-workout soreness. I’m not sure why, but it seems whenever I do any semblance of brutal workout (I have trouble not giving workouts my all, otherwise I feel, what’s the point?) I am sore for at least two days after, if not three. My friends will do the same workout and not be sore the next day, but for some reason my body takes a little longer to recover, no matter how consistent I am with my training. This usually would not be much of a problem, but I am also a practicing pianist and when playing and practicing the piano relaxation of the muscles is crucial. Even as much as I try to relax, if my biceps, shoulders, traps, etc are tight or sore, it takes away from my mobility on the keyboard and is heard in my playing.

    So my question is this: are there any measures that can be taken to prevent post-workout soreness? Can I workout hard and still be a prominent pianist or will I have to choose one over the other in order to truly thrive?

    • I have experimented extensively with swimming briefly (a few laps, some sprinting) following workouts. I then sit in the hot tub and may jump back in the water for another lap. This altering cold and hot water combination helps reduce soreness for me. Cold showers mixed with steams help too, in my experimental experience. Cooling inflamation.

      • I’m all about the steam room/cold shower contrast. It’s invigorating and does wonders for post workout recuperation.

    • Try cutting way back on your volume, Justin, and focus on explosive movements in the 3 to 5 rep range. Higher-rep “bodybuilding” style workouts will bring on an undue amount of soreness. And don’t be fooled into equating soreness with progress; it doesn’t work that way. I think you can travel in both the pianist and fitness worlds. I’ve effectively trained some pretty buff baseball players and although they don’t require quite the same level of fine motor control as what your profession calls for, they still have to be conscious of fouling up their precision. Also,make sure you’re taking in plenty of good fats and protein and eliminate the simple carbohydrates completely (a smattering of fruit is ok). Also, keep in mind what’s really important. At some point you’ll require an intensity to your workout, if you wish to progress athletically, that will wind up affecting your play. Some BB players hit the same plateau; Know when to throttle down.

      • Thanks Keith. I’ve been eating solely meat, eggs and lots of animal fat the past couple weeks (always wanted to give carnivore a try and during school food enjoyment and creativity takes a back seat to classes), so I don’t think there’s a problem there.

        I have no illusions that soreness indicates a great workout, I just wish I wasn’t sore after practically every workout of which I give my all. I’m getting about 8 hours a night, so rest isn’t a problem. I’ll try the lower rep scheme, I’ve mostly just been avoiding high weight/low reps because my back was acting a little strange when I was squatting at my max, so I dialed it down and added some additional reps. I suppose making sure I warm up really well will help with the low rep, high weight workouts. I usually only do explosive movements, so that won’t have to change.

        • Remember, peak power generation occurs at between approximately 50 – 70% of 1 rep max, with the movement executed as fast as possible. Think of the difference between a squat and a jump squat.

    • Justin, I think you may have to choose one or the other. Over time, it’s not just soreness, but also what may happen to your body, especially the hands. When I used to work out a lot, my hands got not only callused but also “meaty” and less flexible. This is something separate from soreness, and you wouldn’t notice til you’ve been working out a while. I never did specific grip exercises, so that’s not the problem.

      The only thing I could think might help is if you somehow figured out a routine that didn’t involve much gripping. For example, if you did more of a standard routine rather than a TTP routine, you could do bench flys on a machine that utilized elbows rather than grip. You might be a good candidate for the Body by Science recommendations for Nautilus. It’s not brimming with as much raw masculinity as the free weight culture, but if you’re serious about piano…

      I might be wrong, but might not. Sorry, sometimes you can’t have everything in life.

      • Good point. I wonder if Dr. McGuff does any kind of hand/finger flexibility work to maintain his scalpel touch? It might be a good idea to run this though by him, Justin.

  4. I was reading Thib’s article earlier today, thinking “Is Christian Thibadeau really Keith’s pen name?” This article certainly resonated with me and smacked of some of the principles you frequently expound upon.

    I’ve just spent the past few months using a pretty specific rep scheme and, while I’ve enjoyed it and made good gains, I’ve definitely felt the frustration of a few “bad days,” because, unfortunately, this particular program didn’t allow for any autoregulation.

    I was considering devoting 2-3 cycles now to Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program, centered in my case around snatch grip deadlifts (I really want to work my hip/hamstring mobility and power), but now I wonder if it would allow for sufficient autoregulation, as it does have specific rep schemes. There is that last “5+” set . . .

    • FWIW, I use 5/3/1 and find it allows for plenty of auto-regulation. Some days are just hitting the numbers on the target exercise, while others are volume monsters because I feel up to it. As long as I’m hitting the 5/3/1 scheme on the target exercise, everything else is following my folly. N=1.


      • I wish I’d have looked at your post before answering Bryce — I’d have just said “yeah, what Skyler said”. You’re speaking my language, Skyler.

    • I’ve used the same principles here with the 5/3/1 scheme and it works fine. Just remember to keep the last 5-rep set at an explosive 5 reps. This might mean dropping the weight drastically to accommodate nailing that final 5 reps. For example, I’ve dropped to body weight only in the dips to get the last set in. Sometimes I feel good enough to get another 2 or 3 sets of 5 in. But yeah, it’s a little tricky to pull off, but it is a great way to change things up and keep the body guessing.

      • Keith, Skyler,

        Had I not chimed in here, I’d probably have begun the 5/3/1 program with a continued focus on strength. However, I think I have managed to take the best parts of the program and apply them effectively towards a power emphasis. Thanks for the tips, and for guiding me back to a focus on power production!


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