How Not Counting Reps Helped Me Break Through My Workout Plateaus


I asked Stuart if I could feature this article on my blog. He is a talented writer who has some really great views on multiple different subjects. I really loved this article and wanted to share it with you all. Enjoy!

Woman working out on stadium bleachers

I feel like it wasn’t too long ago that I wrote this piece about working out every day for two months, and now it’s time once more to follow up on that.

I’m proud to announce that I’ve yet to break the chain, and I’ve now reached the five-month mark of working out every day. And this is coming from someone who much prefers sports to plain ol’ exercise.

I’ve learned so much about myself thus far, the main lesson being how much I hate exercise. But I’ve also learned that I can do hard things, especially on the days when I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve discovered is that I don’t work out for weight loss anymore, nor am I looking to break any records. All I want these days is to feel the post-workout high, to know that I’ve done something good for the day.

And because of that, I’ve also stopped measuring my progress in terms of reps or time. Sure, I might give myself an hour to work out, but I no longer follow a specific routine.

So what I do is determine a few types of exercises I want to do, and I rotate through them when I reach the pain point. Sometimes it could be a circuit of six exercises. On other days, it could be just an hour’s worth of stair running.

I’d heard about this method somewhere on YouTube, and was interested enough to give it a go. Now I feel like not counting reps is helping take my workouts to the next level.

Thinking about trying this yourself? Then check out my lessons learned and see if this is something you’d enjoy.

1. I actually work harder

When you don’t count your reps, the only gauge you have on your performance is how much it hurts. Working out this way basically limits you to two options: Can you do the next rep? Or do you want to wait?

No longer do you have to psych yourself up for a long set of thirty. If you’re up for the next rep, then do it. If you need to rest, just do so until you can do the next exercise. You know how much easier things get when you don’t have to think so much?

Maybe this is why people find that sticking to habits become much easier when they prepare everything the night before. When you have time to think, you increase the probability of talking yourself out of something.

And maybe that’s why I always choose to do the next rep, even though I’m gasping for air and am not ready to continue. Because when your choices are that simple, even the harder option becomes easy.

Here’s a real example: I usually do wall sits for one minute. When I keep my eyes on the clock, I barely make it through the minute, but when I go purely by feel, I end up holding the sit for more than two minutes. Weird how the mind works.

Main takeaway: Sometimes you need to simplify things to be able to tackle what’s ahead of you with all your energy and focus.

2. I’ve learned to adapt and improvise

My workout schedule typically involves alternating between kettlebells and calisthenics., with some jump rope and stair runs on the weekends.

While having a fixed programme helps train my resolve, it’s also a pretty terrible way of ensuring that I give my all every session, especially since I exercise every day.

For instance, I sometimes still feel sore from kettlebell squats on Friday, which means that stair runs on Saturdays promises to be a world of hurt.

Before taking the intuitive approach, I’d learn what it feels to be dead inside, and I do the damned stair runs anyway. What usually happens is me running a slower pace (I might as well be walking) and coming out of the workout feeling like I’ve achieved nothing.

After changing up my approach and having no qualms with switching my routines around, I now opt for exercises that challenge my fresher muscles. So if my quads are still shot from the day before, I go heavy on my abs or arms.

What I get is a more effective workout and a happier body. Win-win!

And in the unfortunate case when I injure a certain body part (such as tearing a huge chunk of skin off thanks to kettlebells, or having an aching knee from too many burpees), I will always have something to do if I do them long enough.

That means holding yoga poses, or doing only lower-body routines, or just walking around the living room for an entire hour—there’s always something to do if we set our mind to it.

Main takeaway: Exercise—or anything else in life—doesn’t need to follow a specific path. There are always ways to improvise and do the thing you want to do anyway.

Black and red adapter on a black and red table

Heh, adapt… adapter… get it? Get it? Photo: Anh Nhat

3. My form has improved

Another thing you tend to pay attention to when you’re not counting reps is your form. And since you’re not chasing for time, or aiming for a certain rep count, it becomes much easier to want to do the exercise well.

That wasn’t the case when I wanted to squeeze in a couple more reps just to reach an arbitrary number. In those moments, who cares about form? The main point is to be able to say you did a couple hundred burpees.

But doing that does tend to change the way we look at workouts, which shouldn’t be all about reaching goals. We need to also enjoy the process, do we not?

That’s why my routines now are mostly timed. I just start the stopwatch and do as many reps as possible at a brisk pace. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that my burpees are more crisp now, and I don’t drop my hips as much.

Maybe that’s how I can improve my writing too—by not adhering to word count and just putting words on paper for a fixed amount of time.

I haven’t started on that yet, though. Will let you know how it goes if I do.

Main takeaway: Not making everything about results or end goals tends to shift my attention towards the actual process, and things can be pretty fun when you’re present.

4. I’m more in tune with my body and mind

But Stuart, you say, if you don’t track your exercise, how do you know if you’re improving?

That’s a very good question. Because I don’t know if I’m improving. But you know what I do know? If I’m putting in an honest effort. And that’s an easy metric to measure when you’re looking within the entire session.

Am I really redlining it? Or am I just afraid of pain? Do I really want to end this workout at 45 minutes? Or can I go for an hour? All of a sudden, Muhammad Ali’s quote of ‘counting only after it hurts’ starts to make sense.

I’m more aligned towards my fitness goals too: to gain that extra pep to face the day, and to feel like I’ve pushed through some discomfort.

The reason why this works for me is because I don’t have any goals of growing bigger. Nor do I have a target weight to achieve. All I want to do is to break a sweat, and to feel better once that’s done with.

And that’s exactly how I judge my performance. Because I know when I’m lying to myself. And as long as I stay true to my vision, I don’t need to know how much I’ve improved.

Main takeaway: The real you appears during the challenging moments, and as long as you train yourself to endure, then you need very little else in terms of metrics.

Topless man with beard with closed eyes in contemplation

Not counting reps really does help you connect with yourself more. Photo: Mitchell Griest

5. It’s all about showing up

I like to remind people how I’ve written a few novels on a diet of 250 words a day. What’s important about it is that every time I aim for 250 words, I end up tripling that.

It’s the same for working out. I aim for 70% effort. Nothing too crazy, but not a walk in the park either.

No matter how terrible I feel a certain day, however, I can always do 70%. Sure, my 70% on Tuesday would vary differently from my 70% on Friday, but that’s the beauty of listening to your body. Because 70% is something I can be proud of, and it doesn’t matter if that means doing ten burpees or a hundred.

And oftentimes, it’s having shown up that I feel most proud about at the end of the day. But what’s most important to me is that my 70% today might end up becoming my 20% in my future. And it’s this consistent growth that gives me something to strive for in life.

Main takeaway: There’s value in just showing up. You may not see the fruits of your labour at first, but if you trust in the process, you’ll someday see how far you’ve come.

Sometimes you gotta go slow to go fast

I initially thought that not counting my reps would be a temporary thing, but the more I do it, the more I feel like I’m benefitting from this new method.

Sometimes it’s good to go all out just to see what you’re made of, but there are times when you should slow down just so you could soar ahead with much more gusto and enthusiasm.

But to be honest, I wouldn’t really know. Because I’m not keeping count.

Visit Stuart’s Website

2 responses to “How Not Counting Reps Helped Me Break Through My Workout Plateaus”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: