The Thinking Man’s Repetition Revisited by Jim Brewster

The Thinking Man

The rep is simple, right? Just grab the bar and go! Not so fast. When I decided to write about the proper way to do a rep, I remembered an old M&F article from the late ’70s or early ’80s. Sadly, I don’t have the issue, but I remember reading it probably 20 years or so ago and being a little disappointed. I felt that the article did not live up to the title “The Thinking Man’s Repetition”. Therefore, here is my version, aptly named “The Thinking Man’s Repetition Revisited”. Let’s dive in!


Let’s Look At The Rep

The Thinking Man’s Repetition, to me, ultimately means you have thought through how to perform your reps correctly, rather than just mindlessly knocking them out using sloppy form. 

To begin with, a good repetition should start with understanding the exercise. What muscles are being worked? What is their function? Do I feel these muscles while doing the exercise?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you need to make sure your form is correct, and that you are setting up correctly. With this in mind, let’s say you want to do a bench press. Ok. Shoulders back and pinned into the bench. Feet flat on the floor. Chest out. Arms from your hands through the elbows to the bar should be “L” shaped – everything in the same line. Grip the bar with your whole hand, no thumbless grips. 


Perform a rep. Lower the bar slow and controlled, no dropping it quickly. The bar stays straight, no wobbling. Above all, no bouncing the bar off your chest. Touch the chest just above the nipples and explode the bar up and back to the starting position – under complete control. Never let momentum get involved. This is one rep done one way. However, there are other ways to perform a rep. You can do the entire rep slow and controlled. Or, you can do them at a medium speed with no pausing, up and down like a piston. You can follow a precise tempo, counting maybe 3 seconds down and 2 seconds up, perhaps with a 1-second pause at the mid-point. As you can see, there’s a lot to the rep, the most basic bodybuilding component. 

 Let’s Look A Little Deeper

Yet, there’s more. As you do your set, you can add to the rep performance. You can take it to failure, and add in some static holds while you are heading there. Once you’re there, you can add in some extended set techniques to take the rep even farther. This can include rest-pause, drop sets, and/or burns. Not to mention, to make the most of your rep, it is imperative to have a good mind-muscle connection. You want to feel the rep 100% in the working muscles. Therefore, part of proper rep performance is to always start the pull or push with your target muscles. Here’s two examples. If you are doing lat pulldowns, you begin the pull with your lats, not with your arms. If you are doing side laterals, you begin the movement in your delts, not your arms.


Thinking About Your Performance 

Countless articles talk about the number of reps per set, how muscle fiber types affect training performance, and so on. No doubt these things are important. What I want to emphasize is the actual physical performance of a rep, and how you should think about it. This goes back to the mind-muscle connection. As suggested above, you need to focus on the task at hand. Each rep is important, therefore, every rep should be performed to the best of your ability. What if you feel you are not connected to what you’re doing, or if your form feels sloppy? Using your warm-up weight, fix your performance before getting into your working sets.


That Was a Great Set – Feel Good?

Once you’ve completed your working sets, you should walk away with a sense of accomplishment. After all, while the rep is the most fundamental tool in bodybuilding, it is the most important. Nothing happens in terms of progress if you don’t perform a quality rep. No matter what else you do, your progress hinges directly on how well you execute your reps and sets. With this in mind, as noted above, don’t let momentum take over. Don’t get sloppy and just heave it up any way you can, only to let it drop with no control. 


Don’t Do Your Reps Like This!

To conclude, there’s a guy that likes to post training videos on social media, and he likes to do deadlifts. It hurts just watching this guy. He’s putting too much stress on his lower back, and he’s lowering the bar completely uncontrolled. So in effect, he’s getting half a rep, every time. He holds on and lets the bar slam hard on the ground. By doing that, he shakes like he’s been hit by a tank. I’ve had a lumbar fusion in my low back. Watching his super heavy but sloppy sets kill my back every time. That’s not how it’s done. The rep should be performed completely under control, both up and down. Get the full benefit from the entire rep, every set, every time. Ultimately, that’s what a thinking man’s repetition is all about.



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