What does RIR (Reps In Reserve) mean?
RIR means "Reps in Reserve" = how many more reps could you do before failure (technical failure OR actually missing a lift). For our purposes, we use RIR in reference to technical failure.
3+ RIR (or RPE < 7) = More than 3 Reps In Reserve = more than 3 repetitions away from (technical) failure
3 RIR (or RPE 7) = 3 Reps In Reserve = 3 repetitions away from failure
2 RIR (or RPE 8) = 2 Reps In Reserve = 2 repetitions away from failure
1 RIR (or RPE 9) = 1 Rep In Reserve = 1 repetitions away from failure
0 RIR (or RPE 10) = 0 Reps In Reserve = 0 repetitions away from failure/max effort
Where does RIR come from?
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) was a concept initially developed by Gunnar Borg to quantify perceived exertion of (conditioning) exercise. The original scale was based on heart rate (60 to 200bpm → RPE 6 to 20). This scale evolved to the now commonly used 1 to 10 scale which is based on a subjective perception of exertion (we use this scale in TTP conditioning sessions periodically for similar reasons we use RPE/RIR in lifting).
Mike Tuchscherer introduced and modified this scale for use in powerlifting. Here the RPE represents how many more repetitions you believe you could do before reaching failure within a set. Reps In Reserve (RIR) is simply a variation of this concept (with the upside of being more intuitive).
RPE 8 and 2 RIR are (for our purposes) the same thing. In fact, the prescription of “RPE 8 (2 RIR)” that we sometimes use, can be seen as a bit redundant (as it’s saying the same thing twice) and is interchangeable with AHAFA (2 RIR) = As Heavy As Form Allows (2 Repetitions in Reserve).
Why do we use RIR?
We know that training close to failure is important for strength development and muscle hypertrophy (“Hard training is smart training”). Whereas staying further away from failure can be useful for getting used to a new movement or to develop power.
RIR gives you an opportunity to personalise the prescription in each session to meet your demands. Due to differences in preparedness (general strength levels, technique and experience), daily readiness (recovery status) and neuromuscular efficiency, there can be big differences between athletes on how hard a given %1RM is going to be in a given training session.
RIR is also useful when you don’t know your 1RM for a given lift (if you haven’t tested it for a while or it’s a movement, such as “single arm DB row”, where testing 1RM isn’t meaningful). See the next section for examples on how to read the RIR to find the right weights/reps for you.
Most importantly, RIR gives us a structured way to teach you how to train hard (while keeping effort appropriate to the stimulus we’re looking for), and train smart (to auto-regulate by adjusting your training to your current level and daily readiness, influenced by stress levels, sleep, nutrition, overall training volume, recovery practices etc.)
How to read the RIR prescriptions?
All the RIR examples are based on weights you could lift today (based on your daily readiness), not on what you think you “should” be able to lift or what you might have lifted sometime in the past.
1. Back squat - 5 x 5 @ 80-85% (2 RIR on 1st set)
= Do the 1st set at a weight between 80 and 85% of your 1RM that you could do seven (7) repetitions with (5 + 2 RIR).
Then, based on how the 1st set went (how good an estimate of 2 RIR it was), you can either
stay at the same weight (if the set was @ 2 RIR)
move up on weight (if the set was easier than 2 RIR)
move down on weight (if the set was harder than 2 RIR)
As long as you were within the % range, you can count the 1st set even if it was easier than 2 RIR. The remaining sets might become harder than 2 RIR (as you accumulate fatigue) but should not be to failure.
2. Back squat - 5 x 5 @ 80-85% (1-2 RIR)
(this is very similar to the above example, the only difference is a more specific RIR range)
= Do the 1st set at a weight between 80 and 85% of your 1RM that you could do 6-7 repetitions with (5 + 1-2 RIR). Considering this is 25 total reps, it is likely a smarter choice to do the 1st set @ 2 RIR then work up to @ 1 RIR through the remaining sets.
3. Back squat - 5 x 5 @ 80-85% (2 RIR) or (2 RIR on all sets)
= Do all the sets at a weight between 80 and 85% of your 1RM that you could do seven (7) repetitions with (5 + 2 RIR).
Based on how each set goes, you might need to move up and/or down within the % range to meet the 2 RIR on the remaining sets.
4. Back squat - 3 x 5 @ 70% (3+ RIR all sets)
= Do all the sets at 70% of your 1RM and should be at a weight you feel like you could do for more than eight (8+) repetitions.
“+”/AMAP (As Many As Possible) sets and RIR
1. Strict pull up - 3 x AMAP (1-2 RIR)
= Do as many pull-ups as you can while staying 1 - 2 repetitions away from failure on each set
2. Deadlift - 1 x 3+ (2 RIR)
= Do a set of more than 3 deadlifts while staying 2 repetitions away from failure.
What if my RIR doesn’t fit within the prescribed (Rx) % range?
The % ranges we use are designed to match the assigned RIRs for most athlete's. However, It is completely possible that, relative to you and your daily readiness, the Rx % range is lighter or heavier than the RIR allows. In this case, you should adjust the weight to match the RIR, rather than forcing yourself to stick with the %s. When this happens, consider the following:
If you’re having a great day and are able to go much heavier than the assigned %s, look at the training week as a whole to avoid digging yourself into too deep of a hole (reach out to us if in doubt) in a single session.
If you need to go much lighter than assigned %s, consider that you might not be recovering well from your training. Check that your sleep and nutrition are in good enough in order to recover. If you run into this problem more than once, reach out to us and we can work it out together.
This is hard, I'm not sure how many more reps I could do
You’re here to grow and we are here to guide you. The struggle is an integral part of the process. With deliberate practice and by paying attention, you will develop your awareness of how close to failure you are. As you get better at auto-regulation of your training, you will be rewarded with better results.
If you have questions, don’t hesitate to think about it for yourself first, then (once you have thought about it), reach out to us and we’ll be happy to guide your journey.
Can’t you just tell me exactly what weight/percentage (%) to do?
We could, AND here’s why we think it would be a mistake:
1) You would learn less about yourself and training. Helping you develop self-awareness and ability to “auto-regulate” (adjust training to you and your daily readiness) is important to us as we want you to be(come) a thoughtful, independent athlete.
2) We would be more likely to get the prescription “wrong” (or let’s say “less right”) without the use of RIR (or RPE). Using RIR makes the program adaptable and more personal to you.