We love specific numbers. As humans we idealize a fixed end point to everything from counting to our measurements. No one likes decimals, fractions, or complicated math when we're recording how many repetitions we've done on an exercise or the girth of our waists, arms, or anything else someone might contemplate measuring.
I've said repeatedly to my clients that "there is no magic to doing sets of ten". I've coached other trainers to embrace the science that drives our industry and stop throwing down sets of ten on every exercise. It seems that every magazine, fitness blog, and passerby fitness conversation recommends 3 sets of 10. There is no secret sauce here, I promise. There are a variety of principles that govern WHY we do HOW many repetitions we do, but that is a conversation for another time.
To the contrary though, there is strong evidence to support the 1000 repetition rule. In fact, as you'll learn in the coming text - 1000 might even be low for what we are aiming towards, true mastery. The construct of this digit and rule is built on the absolute need for us to refine our practice of exercise before emphasizing any specific goals.
What is the Rule?
One should complete 1000 repetitions of a compound movement at 70% of their 1-repetition-maximum prior to chasing any strength, power, or hypertrophy goals.
I can hear you now:
ugh, 1000 reps?
Holy shit, how much time do you think I have to go to the gym?
Why only 70%?
How do I know what that weight is if I don't train heavier?
Fear not, we'll address all elements of this construct and you'll leave this little article understanding the motivation behind it. Hopefully, you'll heed this advice and set yourself up for the greatest year of your fitness life while you're at it. So, first up:
Why are we doing 1000 repetitions?
Mastery. The end.
No really, the goal of this mentality is to refine a movement pattern down to its nuts and bolts prior to expanding on its intensity. Malcolm Gladwell brought the 10,000 hour rule to the forefront of our focus in his book Outliers, but it's become all the talk in the world of personal development since. Now, 10,000 also happens to be one of those pretty little fixed numbers that our brains just love to digest. Enough hours to seem like a challenge, but truly not too many when placed against the context of our entire life.
Success, excellence and mastery may or may not require more or less than ten thousand hours of practice. But one thing can be agreed upon: whether you are trying to learn the guitar, study the stock market, or refine your deadlift technique - the more time you dedicate to deliberate practice (a term popularized in Cal Newton's So good they can't ignore you) - the higher probability of your proficiency.
In short: Practice with intention, practice often, and one day you'll get to where you want to be.
Chances are you aren't very good at many of the movements you consistently do in the gym. I'm not trying to be rude or anything, but from my vantage point as a trainer in a popular commercial gym - you have no idea why you are doing what you are doing, what you should be feeling, and where you should be focusing your attention.
It isn't your fault though, at least not most of it. The fitness industry has a lovely way of giving you the what and leaving out every other detail. Open up any magazine at your local store and you'll notice a whole variety of blanket prescriptions. Do "x" for ten reps and do "y" for twenty for a better butt.
There will be a feature article too, one that likely gives you enough information to help you believe you can do the complex moves, but lacking enough depth to prevent you from turning yourself into a gym-fail video submission. Men's magazines and websites are the worst offender here as they often play off the ego and list the weights that the model or bodybuilder would use in the workout, but this is a whole other issue.
To the point, you've been fed a whole lot of information in regards to what you should be doing in the gym, but not much else. You've been led to the battlefield, shield and sword in hand, but not much else. You are under equipped for the task you've been given.
Going forward I encourage you to consume as much why and how material as possible to equip you for better workouts and better progress. But again, this article isn't about that.
What I do want you to do is practice, relentlessly. Perform 1000 repetitions of any new movement added to your program, specifically loaded compound exercises (such as deadlifts and squats), before looking to add weight, volume, or density. It is the constant grind of repetition that is going to help you understand the idiosyncrasies of your body, the exercise, and the modality you are using.
It's hard to learn and perform near max efforts at the same-time. No matter how gifted you are it is incredibly hard to move heavy loads, manage your body in space, and document the experience in your brain.
So, to repeat one final time. Before you decide to add load to a bar, train for muscle fatigue, or add speed to a lift - focus on being able to repeat the performance time and time again - 1000 times that is.
How do I get 1000 reps though?
Ah, fair question.
I'm not telling you to go the gym tonight and bang out 1000 deadlifts. Quite the contrary because that wouldn't look pretty, it would be a pretty shitty experience, and you'd hate me forever for suggesting it.
What I'm suggesting is spending a period of weeks on the mastery process before you go off and chase your specific goals.
Let's say you are comfortable performing 4 sets of 10 repetitions of a given movement during your workout. Maybe you are learning how to sumo deadlift. Well, a 40 repetition dose at only 70% isn't likely to break you down and make you sore, so you could do it everyday you are in the gym.
Yes, I know...that sounds weird, but when you consider your primary goal to be movement mastery, then it makes perfect sense that you should be maximizing frequency.
So, if you do 40 repetitions a day, 5 times a week, that leaves you with 200 repetitions of said sumo deadlift per week. In just 5 weeks you'd hit your 1000 repetition goal and feel confident to progress into training the sumo deadlift for strength, power, hypertrophy, or whatever else gets your goose.
A couple notes:
Adding two sets to each day could get the "job done" in just 4 weeks, and going with good old German Volume Training (10 sets of 10) would get your thousandth rep in just two weeks.
Now, I don't recommend these last two options for people who are newer to resistance training. Time is necessary for the brain to form new patterns, for you to understand the why and how behind a movement, and for mastery to take hold. You have to look at fitness as a lifetime of work and so taking five weeks to perfect a pattern shouldn't feel like a burden.
Yet, if you've been around the proverbial block a time or two, are learning a new variation of a movement you've known, and your comfortable with higher training volumes - by all means get aggressive and look to complete your thousandth repetition a bit sooner.
How do I find my 70% maximum if I don't know the maximum of my lift?
Another great question. How could you possibly know how to lift seventy percent of your maximum on a movement that you've never done (or had extremely limited exposure to)?
The answer lies in your ten repetition maximum test. Essentially, you'll want to warm-up and keep performing sets until you find a weight that makes you feel as though repetition number ten is the last possible repetition you could do.
It might take you as many as 5 sets to do this, but once you do - you can multiply that weight by 1.33 (a coefficient that has strong scientific backing) in order to find your maximum load you could lift on a given exercise. Then, multiply that by .70 and you'll find yourself with your ideal load.
Let's say you do 100 pounds for ten repetitions. That would mean that 133 pounds would serve as your single repetition maximum. Once you multiply that by .7 you'll find a load of 93.1 pounds. You'd save yourself the stress and round that up to 95 pounds (two quarter plates on a barbell) and get to work.
A second way of performing this, although it has less scientific validity, is to find your eleven repetition maximum. It seems that most people can perform eleven good reps of their 70% max. I'd personally recommend our first method, but you could skip it and do the 11 rep test.
Wrapping it Up
Mastery is a very simple concept. It states that you should strive to become an expert in your practices before worrying about any flash or intensity. In exercise - mastery is the step that most overlook on their journey towards the leaner, stronger, and more impressive physique.
I petition you to place your emphasis here; especially if you are new to resistance training and eager to become a more physically impressive human. Instead of falling prey to the temptations of intensity, hold steady and practice mastery. Sure, others will seem to be doing more while you toil away with loads that hardly challenge you. Yet, in time you'll lap everyone else who let ego and emotion drive their workout decisions.
This holds most true with the advanced compound lifts. Squats, deadlifts, pressing, power cleans, snatches, and rows. These movements, especially when done with a barbell, are exceptionally hard to learn and often pose more problems than most expect. Taking the time to master the movement, the barbell, and your body in space will lend itself to you succeeding beyond your own expectations.
Once you've completed that thousandth repetition - let it rip. Chase your goals. Load it up and get to work. But not until then. You'll achieve mastery, sure, but you'll also develop the virtue of patience. There is no magic pill in fitness and so embracing the process sooner than later will always lead to better longevity, more optimal results, and greater satisfaction on your behalf.
Go get it.