One potential reason for feeling beat up after workouts is from pushing the intensiveness of the exercises too far. Done with many exercises for several consecutive workouts (or weeks of workouts), pushing each set to the near limit may lead to that “beat up” feeling.
The trend I’ve noticed with some trainees (certainly not all) is that they may feel “beat up” or overly fatigued from working out because they incorrectly applied a guideline commonly used in strength training programs.
Many strength training programs, the ones I design included, use what’s known as the reps in reserve (RIR) guideline. For example, a workout may call for 3×8 (three sets, eight reps) for squats while leaving two reps in reserve. Meaning, a weight should be selected that allows for two more reps than what’s listed in the workout to be performed.
With the 3×8 squat example, that means a weight that you could squat for 10 reps would be used, but you’d perform eight reps, thus leaving two reps in reserve (or as some say, “two reps in the tank”).
The critical element of this guideline can be overlooked, however, and lead to issues. If the instruction is to terminate the set with two reps left in reserve, that means to stop the set knowing two more reps could be performed without compromised technique or range of motion.
Why is that clarification important?
The overly enthusiastic trainee, for instance, may terminate the set of squats knowing she could grind out two more reps, albeit with compromised technique (or reduced range of motion). “I could force out two more reps,” she may say at the end of the set, thus thinking she correctly applied the two-reps-in-reserve guideline. However, if those “two reps in the tank” would’ve been performed with a shorter range of motion, or her hips would shoot up first out of the bottom, her back came unlocked from the neutral position, or some other technique breakdown occurred to force out the extra reps, then the guideline was not correctly followed.
If range of motion would be decreased or technique compromised to complete two more reps, then the trainee, in this example, actually trained to failure since two more solid reps were not possible. The intensiveness of the set was too high (i.e., she trained too close to failure). Too much weight was used for that set.
Conversely, the trainee who followed the two-reps-in-reserve guideline correctly would finish the set of squats knowing she could perform two more solid reps, and they would look identical to the previous reps — in both technique and range of motion — she performed. The only difference could be the speed of the reps; they could be slower simply due to fatigue. But no technique breakdown would occur.
This trainee would have, as I like to call it, “finished the set strong” or “dominated the weight.” Every rep was identical and the last one or two reps were certainly challenging, but she could have done two more without having to rely on sheer will and grit to grind them out.
With a set of push-ups as another example, incorrectly applying the reps-in-reserve guideline, additional reps could be forced out but with either reduced range of motion (not going all the way to the ground or barbell, if performing them with hands elevated in a power rack), elbows flaring out to the sides, or the hips sagging or shooting up. In other words, they wouldn’t look like the previous reps in the set.
The trainee who terminated the set of push-ups knowing two more reps, without compromised range of motion or technique, were possible would have correctly applied the guideline. The RIR guideline can be applied to dumbbell workouts too.
What Causes That “Beat Up” Feeling after Workouts?
I think it’s more of an accumulating effect from incorrectly applying the reps-in-reserve guideline (or not using it at all) that can cause the “beat up” feeling; something experienced after numerous workouts, or successive weeks of workouts. If a trainee follows a program that instructs termination of a set of an exercise when 1-3 reps are possible, but those reps would require compromised technique or range of motion as discussed above, then they would be training very close, or to, failure (the point when another rep isn’t possible).
Training to failure, especially on large movements that can handle a lot of weight (e.g.: the barbell squat, deadlift, bench press), on a regular basis can eat further into recovery than someone who finished most sets with 1-3 reps “left in the tank.” This is why the reps-in-reserve method is used, and is particularly important to apply, in the STRONG Program, because it uses primarily barbell exercises that can use a lot of weight, and so it’s important to correctly apply the RIR instruction so as to not build up too much fatigue.
What You Can Do Next
If you’ve been left exhausted or have that beat up feeling after workouts, aim to apply the reps-in-reserve method. Begin by aiming to leave 2-3 solid reps in the tank. Terminate the set knowing you could perform 2-3 more reps without compromising range of motion or technique. Think “finish this set strong” with all work sets.
Every rep should be identical, except the last couple reps of a set may be slower due to fatigue. If you’ve been feeling achy or worn down from your workouts, leaving a couple reps in the tank may have a positive effect on how you feel, and even your performance. (There are, obviously, other reasons why a workout can leave you achy or exhausted: poor programming, poor recovery methods and nutrition, too much volume added too aggressively, life stressors, etc.)
To provide a visual example, here’s a clip of me performing a set of safety-bar squats leaving three reps “in the tank”:
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I terminated the set knowing I could have completed three more reps with the same technique and range of motion as used in the previous reps.
If you’ve experienced nagging aches and pains from strength training before and have, as a result, developed a fear of lifting weights, rebuild your confidence by using the appropriate reps-in-reserve guideline.
Helpful tip: If you’re unsure whether your technique or range of motion is ever compromised during the final reps of set, record yourself so you can see exactly what’s going on. Trainees who’ve never had a coach or seen themselves perform an exercise often learn a great deal from this. What you think you’re doing may be different from what’s occurring.
Does This Mean to Never Train to Failure?
No, not at all. Training to failure — the point when another rep isn’t possible — is a viable training strategy, but it must be intelligently designed into a training program. Its execution, or inclusion, will vary according to:
- A trainee’s goals
- Age: Older trainees tend to take longer to recover from strength training, and training to failure can take longer to recover from.
- Exercise selection: Some exercises may be more suitable for training to failure, especially on a regular basis, such as machine-based exercises, isolation exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions. Barbell exercises can be taken to failure but must be programmed properly and performed by trainees who know how to push a set to that limit confidently and strategically.
- Available training time and frequency: If someone has 30 minutes to work out three times per week, for example, training to failure can be useful since training volume is limited. (Related article: How to Make Short Workouts More Effective.)
- Training experience
When training to failure, apply this guideline: do not attempt a rep you’re not confident you can complete without compromising technique or range of motion. Some people think training to failure means they must gut out as many reps as possible, even if that means squirming around on the bench or putting forth a blood-vessel rupturing effort. It’s understandable why some have that assumption since term is training to failure, after all.
Even when training to failure, the last rep of the set should look controlled and use the same technique as the previous reps. Here’s an example of me performing a set of presses to failure:
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Notice that every rep looked the same, except the speed at which the last rep was performed. I may have been able to force out a fifth rep, but it would undoubtedly be ugly and my technique would break down, and it’d be an effort of sheer will to get it up. Because I wasn’t certain a fifth rep was possible, I didn’t even bother attempting it.
A good training-to-failure guideline to employ: the heavier the weights used, and thus the fewer reps that will be performed in a set, the more reps can be “left in the tank.” For example, if performing a challenging set of five reps, you can use a weight that leaves two reps in reserve. Most motor units from the involved muscles will be involved in most reps of the set due to the heavy load.
The lighter the weights used and thus the more reps that can be performed in the set, fewer reps can be “left in the tank” since the greatest amount of motor unit recruitment won’t occur until the last few reps as fatigue accumulates. For example, performing a set of 15-20 reps, you could stop the set with one rep in reserve.
“I don’t know how to use the reps-in-reserve method. Help!”
Using reps in reserve correctly is a skill that must be practiced. There is a way, however, to shorten the learning curve.
This “shortcut” is also key to showing you how strong you really are; that you’re capable of more than you realize. To shorten the learning curve to properly utilize the reps-in-reserve tactic, refer to the article You’re Stronger Than You Realize (The Key to Better Results).
To summarize proper execution of the reps-in-reserve guideline: Correctly terminating a set with the specified number of reps in reserve means those reps would look identical to the prior reps in the set, the only acceptable difference being the speed at which they’re performed. Due to fatigue, they could be slower. But there shouldn’t be egregious technique breakdown and no reduction in range of motion, nor should you fight to the death to complete them.
Train hard, and train smart.
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