Reps in Reserve – How to Calculate, Example Chart and Benefits

Reps in Reserve (RIR)

All aboard the gains train, but wait! Before you go full steam ahead, have you ever thought about the power of leaving something in the tank?

It’s not just a “nearly-there” excuse… it’s a strategy.

The concept of “reps in reserve” is pumping up in popularity, and for good reason. It might just be your ticket to more effective and safe workouts.

In this guide, we discuss everything you need to know about reps in reserve and ultimately, if it suits your training goals.

Quick Summary

  • Reps in reserve is about holding back a specific number of reps during a set.
  • This approach to strength training brings with it unique benefits, and in many cases, might be a better fit than training to failure, especially for beginners and early phases of a new training plan.
  • Using a weightlifting app can help track your RIR with each exercise.

What is “Reps in Reserve” (RIR)?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt that final push in a workout, where every fiber of your being is screaming, “One. More. Rep!”

We’ve all been there.

Traditionally, the idea of pushing ourselves to the limit, often called “training to failure,” has been the gold standard in fitness circles.

However, there’s a new kid on the block, and it’s making quite the entrance.

“Reps in Reserve”, or RIR, is a training concept where, instead of pushing yourself to complete failure, you finish your set with a few “reps” still left “in reserve.”

In simpler terms, if you’re doing a set of 10 squats and you stop at 8 because you believe you could only do 2 more without losing form, those 2 are your “reps in reserve.”

It’s like leaving a party when you’re having fun, not when you’re the last one standing and can’t find your shoes.

You know, quitting while you’re ahead.

Understanding Personal Reps in Reserve

If you’re new to exercise, it might take some time for you to understand how many repetitions you are able to do before failure. As a general guideline, when your reps suddenly start to slow down, you’re probably approaching your final few sets.

The Science Behind RIR: More than Just Leftovers

Now, we can hear the skeptics. “Why would I want to leave reps on the table? Isn’t the whole point to push myself to the max?”

Ah, that’s where the magic of our body’s physiology comes into play.

When you train to absolute failure, you’re essentially redlining your body’s engine. Sure, there’s a time and place for that, especially if you’re testing limits or chasing a personal best.

But regularly pushing your muscles to their absolute brink can lead to overtraining, increased risk of injury, and prolonged recovery times.

You’re basically creating a lot of fatigue… which will likely catch up with you at some point (especially if your diet and sleep aren’t so good).

RIR taps into the concept of ‘effective reps.’ Not every rep in a set contributes equally to muscle growth. As you near the end of a set, the reps become more “effective” in stimulating muscle hypertrophy.

By stopping just short of failure, you’re still capturing most of the muscle-building benefits, but without the nasty side effects of overtaxing your body.

The ability to limit fatigue over the course of several weeks means you can keep progressing throughout a training plan… which is an effective way at building muscle.

Efficient, right?

What Does the Research Say?

This research paper from Lovegrove et al, 2022, suggests that RIR can be a reliable tool for load prescription.

How to Calculate and Implement RIR in Your Workouts

So, you’re pumped about using RIR, but how the heck do you figure out those elusive reps left in the tank?

Step 1: Know Your Limits

Before you begin, you need to have an idea of your maximum capability for a certain exercise. This doesn’t mean you need to lift your max weight or run at your top speed, but be aware of where your edge is.

If you’ve ever worked out your 1 rep maximum, or 10 rep maximum for an exercise, this will help you make an educated guess.

Step 2: Listen to Your Body

During your set, check in with yourself. How many more reps can you do with proper form? If you’re doing bicep curls and feel like you can crank out three more before your arms morph into spaghetti, then those are your reps in reserve.

If your arms already feel like spaghetti and your form has completely gone, then you’ve already gone beyond your reps in reserve.

Step 3: Keep the Ego at the Door

This isn’t about proving how much you can endure; it’s about smart training. It might feel odd at first, not pushing to total fatigue, but remember: it’s all part of the grand plan.

It’s also about taking the whole workout into consideration, not just the first exercise.

Creating a Customized Fitness Plan

For some, RIR is a great approach for strength training… for others, training to failure might be better. Our guide on creating a customized workout plan helps you understand how to create a fitness plan that works for you.

Reps in Reserve Chart and Example

Set NumberWeight UsedTotal Reps PerformedRIRPerceived Effort
1100 lbs83Moderate
2105 lbs72Challenging
3105 lbs61Very Hard
4105 lbs50Maximum

Step-by-Step Example using the Chart

Imagine you’re doing squats with the goal of performing sets with varying levels of RIR:

  • Set 1: You start with 100 lbs and perform 8 reps. After the 8th rep, you feel like you could’ve done 3 more reps before hitting failure, hence an RIR of 3. The effort felt “moderate” to you.
  • Set 2: You slightly increase the weight to 105 lbs. This time, after 7 reps, you believe you could’ve done 2 more reps at most, hence an RIR of 2. The added weight and reduced RIR make the set feel “challenging.”
  • Set 3: You stick with 105 lbs. This set, you manage 6 reps. You think you could’ve squeezed out just one more rep, which gives you an RIR of 1. This set feels “very hard.”
  • Set 4: Keeping the weight at 105 lbs again, you push yourself and end up performing 5 reps. At the end of this set, you feel you’ve reached your limit and couldn’t have done another rep, resulting in an RIR of 0. This set is your “maximum” effort.

This table and example clearly illustrate how one might progress through their sets, adjusting weights and keeping an eye on RIR to manage effort and prevent overexertion.

RIR and Strength Training Goals

Training GoalSuggested Rep RangeTypical RIR RangeWhy This RIR?
Muscular Endurance12-201-2Longer sets aim to challenge endurance without hitting total failure. The athlete needs enough reserve to perform multiple sets.
Absolute Strength1-51-2Strength gains are a priority. Avoiding complete failure ensures recovery for subsequent heavy sets.
Building Muscle (Hypertrophy)6-122-4This range balances intensity and volume, stimulating muscle growth while avoiding excessive fatigue.
Improving Power2-62-3Power training requires explosive movement. Keeping a larger reserve ensures optimal performance on each rep.
Burning Calories10-152-3The goal is a balance between intensity and volume to maximize calorie burn without extreme fatigue.

Muscular Endurance: Here, the aim is to condition muscles to perform over extended periods. Athletes typically stop just short of failure, preserving some energy for the multiple sets required for this kind of training.

Absolute Strength: The emphasis is on lifting heavy weights. Pushing too close to failure with maximal loads can risk injury and hinder recovery, so a small RIR is maintained.

Building Muscle (Hypertrophy): This range is the sweet spot for muscle growth. The goal is to push the muscle, creating enough stress to induce growth, but not so much that recovery is overly hampered.

Improving Power: Power is about explosive, high-intensity movements. As such, you don’t want to be too fatigued, ensuring each rep is performed with maximum explosiveness.

Burning Calories: This range is a bit of a hybrid, mixing elements of endurance and hypertrophy. The objective is to sustain longer, moderately challenging sets to optimize calorie burn.

This table provides a roadmap for athletes to select the right RIR based on their specific strength training goals. Adjustments might be needed based on individual factors, but it serves as a general guideline.

Benefits of Using Reps in Reserve: Not Just Playing it Safe

Avoid Burnout and Overtraining

Training to failure every single time is like trying to sprint an entire marathon… you’re bound to burn out fast.

With RIR, you’re pacing yourself, making sure you have enough juice left in the tank for your next session. If you’re following a 12 week training plan (such as this 12 week dummbell training plan), for example, this ability to pace yourself is really important.

This prevents the dreaded overtraining syndrome, characterized by fatigue, decrease in performance, and even mood swings.

At the end of the day, consistency over intensity is key in the long run.

Enhanced Muscle Growth

Muscle growth isn’t just about how hard you can push in one session, but how consistently you can stimulate muscle hypertrophy over time.

By focusing on the “effective reps” and ensuring you’re not annihilating yourself every gym session, you maintain a steady path to those muscle gains.

Reduced Risk of Injury

There’s an unspoken badge of honor in the fitness world where pain equals progress. However, the real pros know that staying injury-free is the ticket to consistent progress.

Pushing to your limit every time increases the risk of poor form, which is often when injuries sneak in. By using RIR, you prioritize safety, which means more uninterrupted gym days ahead.

Improved Long-Term Progress

Incorporating RIR isn’t just about today’s workout; it’s about where you’ll be months or even years from now. Think of each workout as a deposit in your fitness bank.

With RIR, you ensure you’re making regular, steady deposits without any costly setbacks, maximizing your long-term returns.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Miscalculating Your True Reserve

Often, especially when starting out, it’s tempting to either overestimate or underestimate our real capacity. This can result in either not pushing hard enough or pushing too hard.

Regularly reevaluate and adjust based on how your body responds. And hey, it’s okay to ask for feedback! Sometimes an outsider, like a gym buddy or CPT, can provide a clearer perspective.

Being Overly Cautious

While the concept of RIR is to leave some reps behind, being excessively cautious can hamper progress. Don’t leave too much in the reserve.

It’s a balancing act… challenging yourself while avoiding complete burnout.

Forgetting Form

With all this talk of reps and reserves, it’s easy to sideline the importance of form. But let’s be real, even if you’re counting reps in reserve perfectly, it’s pointless (and risky) if you’re doing the reps with sloppy form.

Keep technique at the forefront. Watch your technique in a mirror as a self-check or to get feedback from someone else.

Not Tracking Your Workouts

To truly harness the power of RIR, you should have a record of your workouts. By knowing how many reps you did at a particular weight, and the RIR for that set, you can better plan your progression in future workouts.

This allows you to make better judgements about how to progress and what weight/reps you should aim for in your next workout.

There are all sorts of weightlifting apps and workout loggers you can use, but when it comes to tracking RIR, we think Alpha Progression wins hands-down. It allows you to track this training metric so you can monitor it in each workout. Check out our Alpha Progression review for a full breakdown and a unique discount code.

FAQs on Reps in Reserve (RIR)

How does RIR differ from Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)?

While both RIR and RPE are tools used to gauge workout intensity, they approach it from slightly different angles. RIR is a specific count of how many reps you think you have left in the tank before reaching failure.

On the other hand, RPE is a more general scale (often 1-10) that rates how difficult a set or exercise feels. So, while RIR might say, “I have 2 reps left,” RPE might say, “That set was an 8 out of 10 in difficulty.”

RIR is more applicable for lifting weights, whereas RPE could be used for any sort of physical activity.

Can beginners use the RIR method?

Absolutely! In fact, RIR can be particularly beneficial for beginners. It provides a structured approach to understanding one’s limits, which can prevent overexertion and reduce injury risk.

However, beginners might need some time and experience to accurately gauge their true “reps in reserve.”

Is RIR effective for both strength training and cardiovascular exercises?

While RIR is primarily discussed in the context of resistance training, the principle can be adapted for cardiovascular exercises. Instead of reps, think of it as “time in reserve” or “distance in reserve,” gauging how much longer you could sustain an activity.

How often should I reevaluate my RIR as I progress?

Regularly! As you grow stronger and more in tune with your body, your capacity will change. It’s a good idea to periodically test and recalibrate your understanding of your limits. This could be every few weeks or when you feel a noticeable change in your performance.

Bottom Line

Let’s face it… in a world obsessed with pushing limits, the concept of holding back sounds, well, counterintuitive.

But when it comes to fitness, a long-term approach is always the best approach.

It’s not about taking the easy route, but rather the smart and sustainable one. With RIR, you’re not only paving the way for consistent muscle growth and reduced injury risk but also fostering a long-term, healthy relationship with fitness.

So, next time you lift that weight or do that squat, remember, it’s okay to reserve a little for tomorrow.

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