by Jacob Carr
When thinking about our strength workouts, we often aim for a specific rep range or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) at a specific load. This is a tried and true method of strength training, and when put into practice can produce great strength results.
I recently had an athlete struggling to make progress with their front squat. We had tried a ladder scheme, a 3x8 rep scheme with accessory exercises and nothing seemed to be helping the athlete. At just the right time, I came across an article with recent research targeted at keeping reps in reserve (RIR) while performing a lift.
The research suggested keeping some RIR would decrease the athlete’s rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and allow for more consistent form and muscle recruitment. I employed RIR with my athlete and after 5 weeks at the same load, they were able to perform repetitions at roughly 20% more of their previous load.
During this RIR training cycle, I kept reminding the athlete to practice good form and control and asking how the sets felt after the workout. They reported lower RPE and I noted more consistent control than previous workouts. With this particular athlete I wanted to train muscular endurance, but depending on how you manipulate volume and load, you can develop strength, power, or muscular endurance with the RIR method. The lower the load and the higher the reps we can complete, the more muscular endurance we will train.
Going between strength and muscular endurance for specific blocks will produce great strength results and overall higher muscular economy for that muscle group. These same principles are used to program climbing training too. A “strength” climbing workout could look like a project level bouldering session or an integrated bouldering session. A “muscular endurance” climbing session might look like an intensive endurance session.
You have probably been there. Your rep scheme is 3 sets of 8 reps @75 % of your max barbell squat and the last couple reps of set 2 is just absolutely grueling. Your form may be a bit sloppy and you may not be getting the reps you desire. You’re thinking, "I guess I’ll drop weight on the last set so I can make sure my glutes are engaged and my back doesn’t hunch." Instead, you can employ RIR. The idea of RIR is to allow you to keep a high load without compromising form or the goal of the workout. RIR allows you to manipulate the amount of reps you do during a given set and will decrease the overall feeling of fatigue from the workout, and most likely will allow you to perform more sets of the same load (Mangine et al. 2022). In the case of my athlete, they went from being able to lift 90 pounds 32 times in a workout to 71 times in a workout by the end of the cycle all with a lower RPE than before.
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To start, determine your goal reps or load you would like to maintain throughout the workout. In short, determine what you will be targeting: strength, power, or muscular endurance. Decide how many reps you would like to keep in reserve and perform the workout. For example, your original workout would be 3x8 but with an RIR of -2 notated as “RIR-2” would allow for 4x6. The great thing about this rep scheme is that it doesn’t move the scale from the original goal of the workout as long as the load is correct.
Load is important in any workout because it usually determines the outcome of the workout. Load creates the intensity of the lift which in turn determines the amount of times you can lift the load, which is the volume. In this context we are talking about a single exercise and a single load (75% of max) and volume (24 reps). When we start talking about total load and volume of an entire workout or phase, things can become much more intricate and equally as important to understand the total load and volume over the entire phase.
If the goal is muscular endurance, and your starting point is a volume of 15 reps at load, 60% of max barbell squat, your workout might originally look like 3 sets of 15 reps. With an RIR -3 rep scheme it could look like 5 sets of 12 and an RPE that is significantly less than the 3 sets of 15 while also getting 15 more reps at the desired load which can add up in the long term. Using RIR has been shown to improve overall strength and power gains compared to a traditional percentage rep scheme based on 1 rep max. (Arede et al. 2020).
How does this relate to climbing and our climbing training? In general we can look back at our idea of volume, load, and intensity. Volume is the any amount of exercise or effort given during a particular amount of time. Volume can also encapsulate the amount of time given during an effort. As Chris Beardsley describes mechanical stimulus in his article “What is Training Volume?”, “The duration of time for which the muscle fibers controlled by high threshold motor units are activated and shortened slowly.”
This gives you an idea of what volume of stimulating repetitions you are performing at a given load that will produce the desired results. In other words, the load and volume have to be such that your muscles respond to a higher stimulus in order to progress and get stronger. Load is the amount of weight or difficulty of a given effort. Intensity is a dependent variable in the equation, intensity can change based on the amount of volume, load, or both. With the understanding of “stimulating repetitions'' as a load for an athlete in which they recruit the most muscle fibers in that particular movement.
This is why it is so important to perform each rep with excellent form and control, to recruit the most muscle fibers we can. RIR allows for this to occur by allowing the athlete to worry about their performance under load without having to count or worry about performing for a specific amount of repetitions.
“The duration of time for which the muscle fibers controlled by high threshold motor units are activated and shortened slowly.”
With this in mind, we can look at a capacity training day at the crag where our climbing is low load (for our abilities) but our volume is high for our normal pitch count. For example, someone who projects 5.12a, a capacity day might look like an average of 5.10c for 8 pitches. With RIR in mind, the average could be 5.10a for 10 pitches, although we are performing at a slightly lower load, we are able to achieve 2 more pitches without sacrificing good technique while climbing and continue to perform well.
If we take this idea to the bouldering gym and are working on power endurance, our load is high and our total volume is low. If our goal is to produce a higher capacity for power over a longer amount of time, it would make sense to employ RIR here also. A power endurance session might look like 4x4’s or it might look like 3 sets of onsight bouldering every minute for 5 minutes with a full rest after each set is complete. If you employ RIR, you can manipulate your v-grade or the amount of time for each set.
If you look at our original example, we will only climb 15 routes at a specific grade (load). If the v-grade is manipulated then the load is decreased and the volume can be increased. If the time is decreased and the v-grade stays the same, the total sets can be increased (volume). In either case, the total amount of quality efforts goes up and RPE is at a manageable level. For example, you start with 3 sets of on-the-minute bouldering for 6 minutes at an average v-grade of v5, with a full rest after each set. If you employ RIR, you can manipulate the amount of sets and time but keep the intensity the same.
The RIR version could look something like 5 sets of on-the-minute bouldering for 4 minutes at an average v-grade of v5, with a full rest after. So we end up climbing at a higher volume while keeping the intensity the same and performing more high quality repetitions. If we look at a traditional 4x4 with an average v-grade of v5, you could use RIR to perform a 5x3 at an average v-grade of v5 or 5x4 at an average v-grade of v4.
RIR is an excellent tool to use in order to create quality reps and technique in the gym and at the crag. It is important to understand that although the intensity, load, or volume may feel less intense, total volume needs to be taken into account over a training phase to ensure overtraining is not occurring.
RIR can be employed during a regular phase of training but it can also be used as a maintenance tool ahead of a performance event or even during a performance phase. As with many of the sets and rep schemes, if you stay too long with the same scheme it will eventually stop providing the results you desire. Try RIR for a phase of training and then come back to it again at a later time. RIR will hopefully direct your training to one of long-term growth as it is easy to manipulate to achieve the desired results.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 36, Number 1, January 2022, pp. 1-9(9)
The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 23 Jun 2020, 60(9):1231-1239
Beardsley, C 2018. What is training volume? In: Strength and Conditioning Research
Sports Performance Bulletin, Strength training: should you hold back for greater gains? Jan. 2022 19(1).
ABOUT JACOB CARR
Jacob has a dual master's degree in Strength and Conditioning as well as Nutrition, and is a Certified Personal Trainer with the NSCA. Jacob started his Elemental journey as an intern with us as part of his education. He arrived just two weeks before we were forced to close for COVID in March 2019. Jacob kept in touch and is now with us full time, managing Climb Strong's operations as well as taking on a personal training and group class instructor role. He has worked in a Physical Therapy setting for the past four years and has interest in functional movement training to ensure athletes move well for their lifespan. He loves climbing, mountain biking, and surfing.