How Many Reps To Leave In The Tank? | Programming Tips
May 30th 2020
I often wondered if you should leave any reps in the tank when lifting weights in the gym.
When you first start an advanced training program, you might find that rather than having a set amount of reps to perform such as 5x5, your program might have you adjust intensity through a system known as RPE.
RPE or rate of perceived exertion is identical to how many “reps you are leaving in the tank.”
To those who are just hearing this phrase for the first time, how many reps you have left in the tank refers to how many more reps you are capable of performing with good form.
To give you an example:
If you lift 315 lbs for 3 reps and you feel you couldn’t lift it anymore with good form, that means you have 0 reps left in the tank.
But if you lift 250 lbs for 3 reps and you think you could have gotten 5 more reps, then that means you have 5 reps in the tank.
How many reps you have left in the tank is a measuring tool you can use to see if you are training at an optimal intensity.
If on your working sets you feel that you are leaving 3 or more reps left in the tank, that means that you could be training harder by either increasing the weight or increasing the number of reps performed.
On the other hand, if you feel that during every workout you leave with 0 reps left in the tank, then that might mean you are using a weight that is currently too heavy for you to handle.
RPE or gauging how many reps you have left in the tank is a very useful tool you can use to gauge whether or not you are training at your best capacity.
During your working sets, you should only be leaving 1-2 reps left in the tank which we will explain why further on.
But before we get into the details, I wanted to give you a more practical example of how many reps you have left in the tank could translate to your strength training.
How many reps should you leave in the tank, using a one rep max?
Let’s say your max bench was 315 lbs and you are currently lifting 285 lbs.
Using an online calculator, we estimate that with 285 lbs, you should be able to perform at least 4 reps.
While you are training, you can figure out if your 1 rep max is increasing by either testing your 1 rep max or by testing how many reps you can perform with a sub-max amount of weight.
If you’ve been doing any type of strength training, you know that testing your 1 rep max often is not efficient.
For one, you are wasting an entire workout testing your max rather than training at your working weight and getting stronger.
And two, you are increasing your chance of injury as 1 rep max is something that requires you to push yourself to the limit.
So, before anything else, make sure you are preventing injuries from occurring.
In fact, learn how to stop getting injured altogether before you are plagued with a vicious cycle of recovering from an injury only to get injured again.
1 rep max testing procedure
Although testing your 1 rep max is important for those interested in powerlifting, doing it too often will decrease your program’s efficiency.
Here is a video on how to test your 1 rep max:
Instead, you can better estimate your 1 rep max while simultaneously not hindering your training by gauging how many reps you can achieve with a sub-max amount of weight.
Going back to our example, if you are able to hit 4 reps with 285 lbs, with 0 reps left in the tank (meaning you are unable to perform anymore), then you know you hit your limit and 315 lbs is an accurate 1 rep max.
On the other hand, if you are able to hit 4 reps with 285 lbs, and you know you have 1 or 2 reps left in the tank, then you know that your 1 rep max has increased and is at least greater than 315 lbs and you are making progress.
By developing the ability to accurately gauge how many more reps you have left in the tank, you are better able to track your training progress without having to manually test it time and time again.
How many reps to leave in the tank on your working sets?
While performing your working sets, you will want to leave between 1-2 reps left in the tank.
This is the most optimal intensity that you should train in that will make you stronger while preventing you from injuring yourself.
Now keep in mind that this guideline is for 1-2 reps left in the tank per set.
If you are following a proper weightlifting program, you should be training at your working weight for at least 2-3 sets.
This is how you get stronger, by lifting a sub-max weight close to your maximum capacity and doing it for multiple sets.
With 1-2 reps left in the tank, you are better able to recover in order to finish the next set.
On the other hand, if you train to leave 0 reps left in the tank, you will more than likely be unable to complete the rest of your sets which results in decreased strength and muscle gains.
That is why you do not want to train to failure and instead, should primarily focus on training at your sub-maximum weight.
Cons of leaving reps in the tank
As with all things good, there are some negatives with gauging how many reps you have left in the tank.
This is where the debate of training to failure versus submaximal training comes into play.
Let us review why you might not want to leave any reps in the tank.
Beginners do not have enough training experience to gauge their progression
The first downside is that it is kind of hard to do.
After all, how would you know if you only have 1 rep left in the tank if you just started weightlifting?
Just performing an exercise might require all of your focus, how could you lift while simultaneously predicting how many more reps you can perform?
This is why counting the number of reps you have left in the tank is a technique reserved for more advanced lifters.
Though, many early intermediate lifters can develop this skill after learning and analyzing their emotions and training patterns.
Advanced lifters are those who can perform the exercise without having to worry about their form and have a general sense of how many more reps they can perform.
If you think you are good at performing the lifts with proper form but have a poor ability to gauge how many reps you are leaving in the tank, don’t worry.
It is a learned skill that comes with experience.
The more you practice it, the better at it you become.
With time, you will be able to recognize how many more reps you have left in the tank, regardless of how many reps you are performing or what weights you are using.
Which leads me to my next point.
Analyzing your “feelings” is tricky
Another negative regarding estimating how many reps you have left in the tank is that it is susceptible to being swayed by your emotions or ego.
Although you might develop the ability to accurately judge how many reps you have left in the tank, your ego might get the better of you and you might go against your program and try to lift more than you can handle because either you are close to breaking a PR, or because you are lifting a weight you have already lifted previously.
In that case, there is not much you can do other than recognizing that by following your program properly, you will make better progress in the long run rather than by forcing it and pushing yourself when you should not be.
Despite these downsides, estimating how many more reps you have left in the tank is a very useful tool to use in order to gauge how hard you are working.
Training intensity is something that is difficult for beginners to understand.
By training with a weight you are not capable of handling, you are at risk of injuring yourself.
By training with a weight that is too light, you will not achieve optimal progress in the long run.
This is why we use to gauge how hard we are working by the number of reps we have left in the tank.