Training Methods: Reps in Reserve Explained


In sports specific coaching and client-focused personal training, tailoring a workout program that aligns with your client or athlete’s individual goals is your aim. At the PFCA, one  of our favourite and highly effective methods for achieving this is by implementing the concept of Reps in Reserve (RIR) into workout programming. The Reps in Reserve technique not only ensures that workouts are effective and sustainable, but it also takes into account how a client feels on the day, whilst also maintaining a high degree of safety with long term progress in mind. RIR is something which you may not see on your typical Level 3 Personal Trainer Course, but at the PFCA we like to go above and beyond the standard, teaching only the most effective methods.

What is the Reps in Reserve (RIR) Concept?

Reps in Reserve is a training methodology that involves the coach prescribing that you end a set with a certain number of reps left in the tank. 

This means you stop short of muscular failure, leaving one or more reps that you could have done. For example, if you complete a set of bench press where you could have done two or three more reps before reaching failure, you would say you had an RIR of 2-3.

This technique is one of our favourites for coaching, because it helps communicate the intention behind each workout clearly.

The Importance of Intention Setting in Workouts

Setting a clear intention for each workout session is vital. Consider this, a coach prescribes that their client runs a 5KM at a 6:00 min/km pace. This would have a much different physical demand and outcome compared to requesting the client run the same distance at a 3:00 min/km pace. 

Similarly, if your 1RM (one-rep max) back squat is 180kg, performing 3 sets of 5 reps at 90kg (50% of your 1RM) versus 162kg (90% of your 1RM) targets very different physiological responses and achieves different goals.

We can also look at this same concept in a CrossFit workout. Compare a high intensity PR attempt in a Fran workout versus a 30-minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) at a sustainable effort. The outcome is very different; the former has the goal of achieving a PB, with no notable lasting fitness outcomes, whilst the latter has the intention to build aerobic capacity. 

Clear intentions in designing a workout programme helps to prevent misalignments undertraining, overtraining, injuries, and ineffective efforts that don’t contribute to actual short and long term progress.

How Reps in Reserve contributes to Workout Intention

One of the beauties of the reps in reserve method is that it is highly specific to the individual on that specific day. The intention of the workout remains consistent.

Unlike a fixed percentage based programme where the load is predetermined without considering daily how you feel both physically and mentally, RIR adapts to how you feel on a particular day. Factors such as sleep quality/quantity, nutrition, and stress levels can significantly impact performance, and these are mitigated to an extent with the RIR methodology.

For example, if you haven’t had a good night’s sleep, or if your nutrition has been off, using RIR allows you to adjust your training intensity accordingly without compromising the effectiveness of your workout or risking injury. This regulation by the coach or self regulation by an athlete improves both immediate and long term performance.

Implementing RIR in Training Programs

To implement RIR effectively, start by understanding your or your client’s current fitness levels and goals. Know the intention of the workout, and then you can prescribe the exercise, rep range, number of sets, tempo and finally the RIR with which the exercise should be completed. Here is an example exercise prescription. 

Exercise: Back Squat

Tempo: 3-1-1-1 (3 seconds down, 1 second pause at bottom of the rep, 1 second up, 1 second pause at top)

Sets/Reps: 4 sets of 8 reps

Rest: 120 seconds between sets

RIR: 2-3 reps left in reserve on the last set

This approach not only ensures that the workouts are challenging and productive, but it also gives the client an idea of how much weight they should probably use in order to finish the set with 2-3 reps left in the tank. Only the client truly knows their own capability, and so the method in a way also gives them ownership of their own action, based on their capacity on that given day. As a personal trainer, it is important that you still ask the right questions to get a proper understanding of your client’s goals. 


Incorporating Reps in Reserve into your training programs can change the way workouts are planned and executed. By focusing on what clients can sustainably perform, trainers and coaches can get better engagement from their clients, as well as deliver safer sessions which are themselves better for long term progress. If you’re not yet a personal trainer, and you found this post about training methodology interesting, then why not consider a career change to personal training. Be sure to check out the PFCA Level 3 PT Course, the best and highest standard of personal training teaching in the business.