Should Beginners Perform High Reps?

The other day, one of our interns, Jarrett, approached me shaking his head and wearing a tetchy expression on his face. I asked him what was up, and he proceeded to tell me about an incident that took place while he was out on the floor of a local gym (in which he works as a trainer).

Apparently, he witnessed a basketball coach instructing two girls on the bench press, and it was evident it was the girls’ first time learning the movement. The coach had the girls banging out sets of 15 reps at a time, all the while their elbows flaring out to the sides and their bodies writhing and wiggling as they struggled to press the bar back up.

Jarrett’s defensive instincts kicked in, and he quickly approached the coach to try and spare the poor girls’ bodies and souls from being crushed to death. The conversation went something like this:

Jarrett: “Um, sorry for interrupting, but I don’t personally recommend that you have the girls pressing the bar like that, with their elbows flared and all. It’s pretty dangerous for the shoulder joint, and not to mention they’ll be able to generate a lot more power by tucking the elbows slightly. I’d also recommend having them practice benching with much fewer than 15 reps at a time, as you can see their form quickly breaks down with the high reps and it’s tough to learn a new movement that way.”

Coach (looking clearly but briefly bemused before shrugging off what was said): “Uh, ok yeah, well, these girls aren’t ready for that stuff yet. It’s best to keep their elbows out for now and stick with the high reps since they’re just beginners.”

Jarrett: “Oh, okay I got it. So what you’re saying is that the girls aren’t ready for healthy shoulders, ingraining sound motor skills and enhancing their overall movement quality, since they’re just beginners?”*

*He didn’t actually say that (although a small part of me wishes he did), but fortunately was kind enough not to pick a fight and he just walked away. As the he was walking away, however, he heard the coach lower his voice and say (I kid you not) to the two girls, “You hear everything that guy just said? Yeah, he has no idea what he’s talking about. Just ignore him”

Which brings me to the central point of this post:

Stop Programming High Reps For Beginners, FOR THE LOVE!!!!!

One of my biggest pet peeves (outside of stepping in something wet when in socks) has to be witnessing a lifting instructor take someone who’s new to the weight room, and making them perform sets of 10-15 reps for everything they’re learning.

Now, before I proceed any further, let me give full disclosure: I used to do the same thing when I first started out as a trainer. There, I said it. I, Steve Reed, have given high reps to beginners in an attempt to teach them various lifts.

And yes, if I could go back in time to when I worked with my first client, I’d give myself a hadoken straight to the face.

After all, it’s the common (albeit unfortunate) practice taught by the majority of certification courses and exercise texts. Yet, as usual, there often exists a large gap between textbook theory and real-world application, and it’s sad that it has taken this long (and still has a ways to go) for more “sound” teaching practices to permeate the educational sphere of trainers, strength coaches, and/or anyone simply walking someone through basic lifting instruction.

When the average person seeks out advice/information on how to “break in” to lifting weights, usually the first article or person they come across will tell them to do anywhere from ten to twenty reps on e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. Squats, machine presses, deadlifts, bench press, banging head into wall. Fifteen reps for all.

It’s sad, but true.

When teaching someone how to properly execute a complex lift – primarily the deadlift, squat, bench press, and I’ll even throw the pushup into the mix – keep the reps AND the load low.

It’s so much easier for someone to focus on correct technique when they only have to worry about 2-5 reps, as opposed to 10-20 reps, ESPECIALLY in something like a deadlift where there are so many “moving parts” for them to think about . Either they’ll become too fatigued physically, or they’ll simply lose attention mentally. It’s unfair for a coach to ask them to do otherwise, to be honest.

For example, if the goal is to hit 30 total reps of a lift, I would recommend shying away from the common 3×10 protocol you’ll see in virtually every beginner program. I’d rather have someone execute 10 sets of 3 reps, ensuring that each and every rep is perfect (or at least as perfect as it can be, considering they’re learning something new), in order to reach the 30 total reps for that day.

Not to mention, they’ll have a much greater frequency of exposure to the process of setting up and finishing the lift, practicing it ten separate times in one session as opposed to three.

On a side note: if you’re worried about the fact that the load should still remain low even with lower reps, take heart in that a beginner will get stronger using a load as low as 30-40% of their one-repetition maximum. There’s no need to rush things in that department.

And just to be clear, it’s a bit of a different story if we’re talking about accessory exercises like rows, split squats, or pulldowns. I think it’d be perfectly fine to accumulate more volume with these lifts, as the risk of injury is much lower, and it’s typically easier to learn these movements more quickly.

Not to mention, you can easily do high reps with prowler/sled work, which is essentially a unilateral exercise for the legs, or even farmer carries for that matter, which are a “high rep” exercise for the core and shoulder girdle (keeping the midsection braced/stable, and the scapulae in a slightly upwardly rotated, adducted, and posteriorly tilted position).

Once a beginner can demonstrate proficiency with the movement pattern in question, then they have the green light to up the reps slightly, or (perhaps which I’d prefer) continue to keep the reps down on the compound lifts, but progress via a gradual increase in weight used.