The advice “leave a rep in the tank” is one of those pieces of advice that is absolutely 100% true and will totally ruin a new lifter. Following this advice kept me from achieving my goals for a long time, and it’s not because the advice is bad; it was because I was unable to effectively utilize it. This was because I did not have a fundamental understanding of what my limits REALLY were. I did not understand how many reps I actually had in me in the first place to be able to understand just how many reps would leave “one in the tank”. Exploring this idea and the ramifications of the misunderstanding is helpful if one wishes to know how to effectively employ this advice, along with when to ignore it.
Like here, you should leave ALL reps in the tank
Keep in mind; when receiving this advice, it tends to come from accomplished lifters. That is, of course, barring the instances when it is parroted by unsuccessful lifters who just want to mimic the greats rather than experience things for themselves and draw their own conclusions, but this is another topic. Accomplished lifters have been through the trenches, tested their limits, reached failure on many occasions, and know what their threshold is. Consequently, they also know the consequences of surpassing this threshold on a regular basis, as it tends to result in overreaching, overtraining, stagnation, regression and injury. The body has limits, the body CAN be pushed beyond said limits, but when it does so, the body fights back by crashing hard. This is where “leave a rep in the tank” comes into play, because you want to avoid constantly overreaching in your training. Remember, we are training, not testing.
This is all well and good when you’ve taken the time to LEARN your limits, but when you’re a new trainee, you have no real understanding of what you are capable of. A trainee that spend their formative adolescent years playing World of Warcraft and eating Cheetos has no idea what their body is REALLY capable of, and they’ve encountered so little pain and hardship during their time on earth that they are unable to properly interpret the signals of exertion that their bodies sent. When left to their own devices, these trainees convince themselves that they are approaching the threshold of failure MUCH earlier than they truly are, for they are interpreting the sheer presence of discomfort and exertion as signs of impending failure. In truth, where these trainees believe failure resides is simply where training STARTS.
If you ever saw this video, you know the guy had like 2 more reps in him
With this understanding, having this trainee “leave a rep in the tank” sets them up for total failure, as said trainee is going to stop their set short of the point where the actual work BEGINS. They’ll feel the sensation of exertion begin to loom and decide THAT is the point to cease training. They’ll take their 3-5 minutes of rest and then perform another no-effort set, continuing this way through the rest of their workout. After several months of “training” in this manner, they’ll reflect on their lack of progress, blame it on genetics, and go back to the destructive lifestyle they once lived.
Knowing your limits require constant exposure TO said limits, and for most people, this requires an external driver to arrive there. Most of us who played sports remember our coaches pushing us well beyond what we once thought were our limits, and it was there that we discovered where our true threshold resided. We’d tap into our inner reserves and resources and TRULY push ourselves to our limits, and get to know that feeling of total exhaustion and fatigue that accompanies such action. This wasn’t a place we’d ever want to push ourselves to willingly, but when forced to exist there, we got to learn about it, and it reset our baseline. Some of us became psychotic enough to push ourselves here without a coach or cheerleader, and through constant exposure in training, we learned the consequences of doing it too much, which is what led to “leaving a rep in the tank”, but once again, we had to KNOW these limits first.
If you had a coach like this, you most likely grew up awesome
The other benefit of this constant exposure is gaining a knowledge and appreciation of just what your body is capable of surviving. I am constantly baffled at the inane “snap city” comments people make whenever they witness ANYONE exerting just the bare minimal amount of effort necessary to actually progress in training. Any sort of minor deviation in form makes someone cringe, people complain that their back hurts just from watching the video (which, honestly, if you can’t watch a video without experiencing back pain, it sounds like you have a super weak back and should avoid giving ANY advice on training, but I digress), etc etc, the peanut gallery erupts. This is indicative of people once again NOT existing at the edge of their limits in training and not understanding exactly what they are capable of. These people by DEFAULT are always leaving a few reps in the tank when they THINK they are pushing to the max; telling them that, on top of this they should TRY to leave a rep in the tank results in people accomplishing, at best, half a set.
I’ve of course experienced this phenomenon with people watching my own training videos. This one is a classic
I’ve had people tell me they thought I was done on the 5th rep, and then for SURE on the 6th rep. These same people would have stopped at rep 4 if they were leaving a rep in the tank, barely getting through half the set and leaving a LOT on the table in terms of growth and progress. The last thing they need to worry about is overtraining; they are spending too much time UNDERtraining.
Leaving a rep in the tank is a GOOD idea, once you understand the size of your tank. Until you’ve actually reached your limits a few times, spend more time in your training trying to get there and less time trying to avoid it.