What To Do When You Cannot Finish Your Reps In Your Set?

May 16th 2019

You are working out in the gym and you find that you cannot finish the working set reps for a particular exercise. If you have been strength training for any amount of time consistently, you will know that failure is another part of learning in the strength training community. In fact, some people may argue that failure is THE best teacher when it comes to learning. You will not take for granted anything that has significantly impacted your life or health.

What To Do when I Can’t Finish My Reps?

If you can’t finish your reps, there are several training methods that lifters can use in order to continue training hard without feeling sorry for themselves:


  • Follow the three strike rule
  • Deload 10% and restart
  • Add more sets
  • Write it off as an off day
  • Check what you are doing outside of the gym


If you are a beginner in strength training, you will probably be doing a 5x5 program, Greyskull LP, or Starting Strength. Regardless of what you do, all beginner strength training programs incorporate linear progression. This means that after every successful workout, you will increase the amount of weight you lifted in the next session. For example, if you are squatting 210lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps, in the next squat workout you will squat 215lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps.

The issue comes where you cannot do the recommended amount of reps. What should you do then? Well, if you are running a general strength training program, it is outlined in detail about what you should do when you are unable to finish your reps. To make it brief, you have one of two options:

  • You have three strikes in order to finish your reps

This means that you will have three consecutive workouts in order to finish your reps. It will be okay if you fail the first two workouts but as long as you can finish your reps by the third session, it is okay.

  • Deload 10% and restart

For more advanced beginners, a three-strike approach may not be appropriate due to the amount of training stress that the lifter has not experienced. Personally, I would advise lifters to go through the pains and depths of the three-strike approach. It will open your eyes on how far you can push your body.

But more about this method of training - some lifters can just take 10% off their working set and continue on progressing. This minor deload will be enough recovery time for your body to push past the minor plateau.


But what if you are not on a strength program? What if you are doing pullup accessories and cannot finish your reps? What should you do then? And if you are on a 3x10 bodybuilding program where the fitness goals cannot really be measured in numbers, but more about perception?

For less structured programs and more flexible exercise selections, the lines of what to do are a little more blurred. This is precisely what makes working out so exciting for me! So, here are a few invitations on what you should do when you think you ran into a brick wall:

Add more sets

If you originally planned to hit a 3x8 on pullups for example but was only able to hit 6-7 reps today on all three sets, you can add another one. Sure, it may not be what is written on your program but there is a lot more going on in programming than just your reps and sets. For instance, one important programming concept that all lifters consider is whether or not you are improving. For beginners, they are measured on how often they can improve each workout. For intermediate lifters, they are measured on how often they can improve each week. For advanced lifters, they are measured on how often they can improve each month.

Many coaches will also take a look at the amount of volume you do per week, depending on your training cycle. Of course, as you continue to peak towards a competition, your volume will general taper off. But for most of strength training, your volume should be steadily increasing. One, this will help your work capacity. Two, you are getting stronger.

Write it off as an off day

It would be nice to be 100% ready for the gym all the time. Otherwise, why would people rest if they know that for every gym session they went to, they will always improve? With that thought, you will have some off days. It is just a matter of time. Though you cannot control how many off days you will experience, you can control your attitude. Should you beat yourself up for not finishing one workout? That is probably not a smart decision.

There will be plenty of other workouts for you to smash. This approach is sort of a modified version of the three-strike rule but rather than having three strikes per se, you are excusing yourself for not being able to perform today.

As any competitive athlete or person, this really hurts your ego. This really shakes your foundation. What do you mean that I can take it easy? If I am not improving, someone else is taking my place at the top. I share your same values and belief systems. If I am not performing at my best on every single endeavor, I will feel that there is something wrong with me. That I failed myself, my mission in a way. That I am not worthy.

It has taken some time to become self-aware and to understand and accept that life is not linear. It will have turns and upheavals, some that I have prepared for and some that I will not have seen coming. It is okay to not be ready for everything. What is more valuable is that you can see the world for what it is and make a rational decision on how you can adapt in order to live your life to the fullest. And for me, it will be to continue training and to not take one bad day so seriously.

Check what you are doing outside of the gym

If you read any of my articles in the recovery section, a large majority of them will harp on the importance of what you do outside of the time. How is your diet? How is your sleep? How are your stress levels? You are shooting yourself in the foot if you are not optimizing your life so that you can improve in the gym. You need a lot of rest, high-quality food and a low-stress environment for optimal strength and size building.

Is it okay to switch exercises if I can’t finish my reps?

This is just a bandaid for a bigger issue. For instance, if you want to improve your squats but you cannot finish your reps, doing leg presses as a substitute will not help you as much as staying persistent with doing squats. Leg presses can help you in some way, nobody can disagree with that. But if your primary goal is to increase your squat max, there is no better and efficient exercise than to do the big and boring squat.

It is tempting to try something new especially if you are failing and stalling at a certain exercise. If this is the case, you need to go back to the drawing board and think critically about your goals, workout program, and lifestyle. Have your goals changed or are they still the same? Is your workout program effective for your current level of fitness? For instance, if you are stalling on your beginner workout program and it has been 3 years, you may want to follow an intermediate program so that you can continue building more positive training momentum. How is your lifestyle outside of the gym and is it congruent with strength training and muscle building? Be honest with yourself and many answers will be revealed to you.

Final Takeaways

For some lifters, they will stall faster than others. It is important not to get caught up in the nuances and minor worries of strength training. One of the most important things about lifting weights is that you are in the gym and that you are staying consistent. Yes, you need to address your issues if you cannot finish your reps for many workouts. But if you just had a bad day or two, take it in stride and stop worrying so much.

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