Should You Be Counting Reps For New Trainees?

How useful is programming sets and reps for beginners?  Especially in session?

Whenever I start with a new trainee during our first session, it's never really about sets and reps.


In my experience, thinking about sets and reps, rather than what you should be feeling during a specific movement, is not a useful practice.


It's more about learning how to move, developing a sense of proprioceptive awareness which requires a certain amount of focus and attention.


Coaching during these first few sessions, also requires focus and attention to the client; in that, we must direct where and how they must channel their energy so the exercise we have chosen gets us the desired effect.


It may be useful to think about your initial introduction to exercise and strength training as something akin to learning how to swim or learning how to shoot a basketball.

person swimming in a pool
Photo by Jim De Ramos from Pexels

These skills are usually broken down into their component parts, so they can be better "understood" when it is expressed as one complete movement or act.


And while repetition is important it is you must FIRST understand what actions need to be repeated.


In this sense this can be seen as a form of deliberate practice as noted by expertise researcher Anders Ericsson, in which he makes a clear distinction from that of "practice" which can been seen as more of a kind of rote memorization.


Deliberate practice requires you to work on the tasks that you may not be good at or you are unfamiliar with, until you have developed some proficiency with them.


This requires focus, energy, and attention.


Practice, on the other hand - as stated before - is a kind of rote memorization which may not require any learning at all; and therefore, may not confer any benefits other than the auxiliary benefits of moving for the sake of moving.

Cluster Sets, but Not for What You Think

Cluster sets are basically sets with intra-set rest periods to break up the set.


It might look like... a set of three reps, rest for about 15 seconds, then do another set of three.


For a total of six reps for the cluster set.


The intra-set rest period is so short as not to qualify as a "rest period" in the traditional sense, which may allow you to extend a set past what you may have normally been able to do if you were perform the set within conventional standards.


It's usually used as a strategy to get more volume in, while mitigating the effects of fatigue - but in the case of a new trainee - I use it as a strategy to allow them to focus on position, and intent while mitigating fatigue and its influence on exercise form.


Prescribing reps in this fashion is less about the number of reps, but more about specifying a time to relinquish your focus and allowing any fatigue to dissipate.


Counting sets and reps may have some usefulness in terms of setting a definitive "time" in which to stop your practice.


Practicing technique should take precedence in the beginning rather than setting an arbitrary number of reps to complete.


Performing exercises with good form will allow you to reap the intended benefits from said exercise - which is why we do the things we do in training.


As you progress with training keeping track of sets and reps has more utility as it allows you to gauge progress more definitively.

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