For many years, one of my rules within a coaching session is to finish on a good rep or set wherever possible.
Tough sets happen. Bad reps happen. Grinders happen. We all know this. How we respond to these things can make a huge difference to someone's progress.
Before we go on, this article would not exist without the huge contribution of Lyle McDonald. We had a conversation on a Facebook thread recently and he was dropping some bombs of knowledge about coaching and client work on the gym floor.
As Lyle stated in the conversation, we have two main areas where finishing in a strong fashion is useful AF:
People are weird. A workout can be INCREDIBLE. But then one bad rep or one bad set can make them feel as if they have failed. That feeling can last for days and weeks.
An example of this is when someone hits a big PB, then tries to do heavier weight or match the same weight again, misses the lift and then assume they did the previous rep as a fluke and suddenly that number becomes a problem number. They, in essence, remove the huge fucking win they had and make their strongest ever lift into a loss.
Compare this to a difficult lift going well followed by back-off sets that fly, or finishing on the PB, the person is going to go into the next session with momentum and positive feelings.
On the flip-side, if 99% of your workout or a segment of a workout is terrible, a great set to finish will have them (to quote Lyle directly) "walking out of the gym like a god."
For me, building momentum is paramount, as you'll notice by how many times I've used the word momentum.
A good set to finish any exercise or session makes you feel as if progress is possible. One of the exceptions to this rule is high effort strength work in the 1-3 rep range.
If you fuck up your low rep work, adding in a light set won't necessarily solve your problems if messing up keeps happening unless you are more on the beginner side.
Some suggested preemptive strategies would be tying your target numbers to a target level of effort.
The level of effort a lift takes is traditionally called RPE and is usually a number out of 10. Practice hitting the desired amount of effort rather than aiming for an exact weight on the bar.
Practice dropping away from a target number/sets/reps a few times a year.
Practice getting focused for a lift all the god damn time.
Practice a repeatable lifting routine before all your big lifts to limit silly mistakes and you are more likely to finish on a good rep or set because you have procedures and practices in place to reduce their incidence.
If you do fuck a set of low rep work entirely, don't panic. It does happen. At every level.
My usual strategy here is to go lighter in the session itself and use the next session (or a session in the near future) as a momentum builder.
Sure, you messed a lift up the other day, but if you build up to a weight near what you did and it flies, you'll be feeling top of the world again.
Your momentum is restored, and you can feel as if progress is possible.
You would be amazed at how much progress is made when someone FEELS like progress is possible.
It's like a weight is lifted from your shoulders when you feel like you are going to progress in the next workout, which is ironic, because a weight lifted mentally often allows more weight to be lifted physically.
Use your last lifts build success. If you can't use your last lift to build success, use your lifts in the next session to restart on the path to progress as quickly as you can.
Myself and Lyle have the belief "the body remembers the last thing you did from a motor learning standpoint." The previous sentence quotes Lyle directly and he is probably where I got it from in the first place.
Maybe it was Dan John?
Maybe it was Tony Gentilcore?
All I know is it's from someone much more talented than myself.
This concept is more important in the earlier stages of lifting.
It takes more than a rep or two to mess your technique up if you have thousands of good reps under your belt recently and generally "lift well most of the time."
Meaning the aim has to be getting thousands of good reps under your lifting belt (god, I'm funny) and eliminating the idea of finishing on a bad rep. You can't remove bad reps. You can only reduce their incidence and know how to respond to them.
In the early stages of lifting, a bad rep may make up 10% of the reps they've ever done! That shouldn't be the case. Finishing with great reps reinforces good technique and lowers the percentage of total bad reps.
I think this "finishing well" effect is strongest when you finish with a weight "you have to think about" which is why going waaay lighter as an experienced strength athlete doesn't cure all because you when you go too light, it's not the same and the lifter knows it.
Elite athletes will bounce back from bad reps far quicker due to being elite, us regular people aren't quite so robust.
When it isn't an experienced strength athlete and is a beginner?
All weights take a lot of thinking and focus, so good reps have a huge affect, which means bad reps have a huge affect so you can drop to pretty much any weight and finish with a win.
Am I pandering to the lifter? Yes.
Will it mean they feel like they've triumphed over something and make them more likely to keep turning up and learning to train hard? Absolutely.
The concept is important for intermediate lifters, more so if they are perfectionist, less so if they can take the occasional bad rep or set in their stride and bounce back quickly. I've had lifters finish a set terribly and they've carried on as if nothing has happened. Others might take a couple of weeks to recover from any training mishap.
Finish well no matter what as a beginner lifter (unless you've injured yourself or need to leave to tend to your crying child.)
Do bodybuilders need to worry about this? Not usually, unless they are utilizing a strength block or something. As during a strength block they are kinda pretending to be strength athlete for a while therefore much of the above applies.
However when they are performing the bodybuilding training which will take up the bulk of their training it is more about ENCOURAGING muscle failure and slightly/reallyfuckingdodgy technique at the end of a set because building muscle requires training in a painful way that negatively affects technique.
If every set looks perfect as a bodybuilder, you are not training hard enough. This isn't to be confused with "doing some appropriate bodybuilding training" which borrows concepts from bodybuilding, without necessarily taking everything to technical failure. Because many goals and situations don't require that kind of balls-to-the-wall training.
I'd say bodybuilders are negatively affected when exercises are performed perfectly throughout every set because they know they haven't challenged the muscle enough to grow (unless they are on gear, in which case sitting down will facilitate muscle growth because they are bastards and i wish i could go on gear with a clear conscience and no risk to my health because who doesn't want to grow muscle while they are just sitting?)
Weightlifters, Strongmen & Crossfitters (when they are training the most complex lifts) should be the most aware of finishing with perfect reps as their sports are the most technical. The more technical the lift being trained, the more important it is to finish really-fucking-well.
Powerlifters, especially those perfectionist types need to be highly aware of finishing on good sets and reps when performing their competition lifts and when performing low rep work.
Bodybuilders don't need to worry about the concept about finishing strongly unless they are performing a strength block or when they are practicing their posing. You always want to finish your posing well, but most of my readers won't be concerned with this.
If you are beginning your strength journey, finishing perfectly builds success. Success breeds progress and progress in the gym is how real change is forged.
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal Strength Coach