How Not Counting Reps Helped Me Break Through My Workout Plateaus

Woman working out on stadium bleachers

I feel like it wasn’t too long ago that I wrote this piece about working out every day for two months, and now it’s time once more to follow up on that.

I’m proud to announce that I’ve yet to break the chain, and I’ve now reached the five-month mark of working out every day. And this is coming from someone who much prefers sports to plain ol’ exercise.

I’ve learned so much about myself thus far, the main lesson being how much I hate exercise. But I’ve also learned that I can do hard things, especially on the days when I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve discovered is that I don’t work out for weight loss anymore, nor am I looking to break any records. All I want these days is to feel the post-workout high, to know that I’ve done something good for the day.

And because of that, I’ve also stopped measuring my progress in terms of reps or time. Sure, I might give myself an hour to work out, but I no longer follow a specific routine.

So what I do is determine a few types of exercises I want to do, and I rotate through them when I reach the pain point. Sometimes it could be a circuit of six exercises. On other days, it could be just an hour’s worth of stair running.

I’d heard about this method somewhere on YouTube, and was interested enough to give it a go. Now I feel like not counting reps is helping take my workouts to the next level.

Thinking about trying this yourself? Then check out my lessons learned and see if this is something you’d enjoy.

1. I actually work harder

When you don’t count your reps, the only gauge you have on your performance is how much it hurts. Working out this way basically limits you to two options: Can you do the next rep? Or do you want to wait?

No longer do you have to psych yourself up for a long set of thirty. If you’re up for the next rep, then do it. If you need to rest, just do so until you can do the next exercise. You know how much easier things get when you don’t have to think so much?

Maybe this is why people find that sticking to habits become much easier when they prepare everything the night before. When you have time to think, you increase the probability of talking yourself out of something.

And maybe that’s why I always choose to do the next rep, even though I’m gasping for air and am not ready to continue. Because when your choices are that simple, even the harder option becomes easy.

Here’s a real example: I usually do wall sits for one minute. When I keep my eyes on the clock, I barely make it through the minute, but when I go purely by feel, I end up holding the sit for more than two minutes. Weird how the mind works.

Main takeaway: Sometimes you need to simplify things to be able to tackle what’s ahead of you with all your energy and focus.

2. I’ve learned to adapt and improvise

My workout schedule typically involves alternating between kettlebells and calisthenics., with some jump rope and stair runs on the weekends.

While having a fixed programme helps train my resolve, it’s also a pretty terrible way of ensuring that I give my all every session, especially since I exercise every day.

For instance, I sometimes still feel sore from kettlebell squats on Friday, which means that stair runs on Saturdays promises to be a world of hurt.

Before taking the intuitive approach, I’d learn what it feels to be dead inside, and I do the damned stair runs anyway. What usually happens is me running a slower pace (I might as well be walking) and coming out of the workout feeling like I’ve achieved nothing.

After changing up my approach and having no qualms with switching my routines around, I now opt for exercises that challenge my fresher muscles. So if my quads are still shot from the day before, I go heavy on my abs or arms.

What I get is a more effective workout and a happier body. Win-win!

And in the unfortunate case when I injure a certain body part (such as tearing a huge chunk of skin off thanks to kettlebells, or having an aching knee from too many burpees), I will always have something to do if I do them long enough.

That means holding yoga poses, or doing only lower-body routines, or just walking around the living room for an entire hour—there’s always something to do if we set our mind to it.

Main takeaway: Exercise—or anything else in life—doesn’t need to follow a specific path. There are always ways to improvise and do the thing you want to do anyway.

Black and red adapter on a black and red table

Heh, adapt… adapter… get it? Get it? Photo: Anh Nhat

3. My form has improved

Another thing you tend to pay attention to when you’re not counting reps is your form. And since you’re not chasing for time, or aiming for a certain rep count, it becomes much easier to want to do the exercise well.

That wasn’t the case when I wanted to squeeze in a couple more reps just to reach an arbitrary number. In those moments, who cares about form? The main point is to be able to say you did a couple hundred burpees.

But doing that does tend to change the way we look at workouts, which shouldn’t be all about reaching goals. We need to also enjoy the process, do we not?

That’s why my routines now are mostly timed. I just start the stopwatch and do as many reps as possible at a brisk pace. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that my burpees are more crisp now, and I don’t drop my hips as much.

Maybe that’s how I can improve my writing too—by not adhering to word count and just putting words on paper for a fixed amount of time.

I haven’t started on that yet, though. Will let you know how it goes if I do.

Main takeaway: Not making everything about results or end goals tends to shift my attention towards the actual process, and things can be pretty fun when you’re present.

4. I’m more in tune with my body and mind

But Stuart, you say, if you don’t track your exercise, how do you know if you’re improving?

That’s a very good question. Because I don’t know if I’m improving. But you know what I do know? If I’m putting in an honest effort. And that’s an easy metric to measure when you’re looking within the entire session.

Am I really redlining it? Or am I just afraid of pain? Do I really want to end this workout at 45 minutes? Or can I go for an hour? All of a sudden, Muhammad Ali’s quote of ‘counting only after it hurts’ starts to make sense.

I’m more aligned towards my fitness goals too: to gain that extra pep to face the day, and to feel like I’ve pushed through some discomfort.

The reason why this works for me is because I don’t have any goals of growing bigger. Nor do I have a target weight to achieve. All I want to do is to break a sweat, and to feel better once that’s done with.

And that’s exactly how I judge my performance. Because I know when I’m lying to myself. And as long as I stay true to my vision, I don’t need to know how much I’ve improved.

Main takeaway: The real you appears during the challenging moments, and as long as you train yourself to endure, then you need very little else in terms of metrics.

Topless man with beard with closed eyes in contemplation

Not counting reps really does help you connect with yourself more. Photo: Mitchell Griest

5. It’s all about showing up

I like to remind people how I’ve written a few novels on a diet of 250 words a day. What’s important about it is that every time I aim for 250 words, I end up tripling that.

It’s the same for working out. I aim for 70% effort. Nothing too crazy, but not a walk in the park either.

No matter how terrible I feel a certain day, however, I can always do 70%. Sure, my 70% on Tuesday would vary differently from my 70% on Friday, but that’s the beauty of listening to your body. Because 70% is something I can be proud of, and it doesn’t matter if that means doing ten burpees or a hundred.

And oftentimes, it’s having shown up that I feel most proud about at the end of the day. But what’s most important to me is that my 70% today might end up becoming my 20% in my future. And it’s this consistent growth that gives me something to strive for in life.

Main takeaway: There’s value in just showing up. You may not see the fruits of your labour at first, but if you trust in the process, you’ll someday see how far you’ve come.

Sometimes you gotta go slow to go fast

I initially thought that not counting my reps would be a temporary thing, but the more I do it, the more I feel like I’m benefitting from this new method.

Sometimes it’s good to go all out just to see what you’re made of, but there are times when you should slow down just so you could soar ahead with much more gusto and enthusiasm.

But to be honest, I wouldn’t really know. Because I’m not keeping count.


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59 thoughts on “How Not Counting Reps Helped Me Break Through My Workout Plateaus

  1. This was very interesting- I never thought to exercise without counting reps or time but it makes so much sense not to!!!! It’s almost brilliant! I am going to use this method and see if it helps me improve my workouts and if it helps to keep me motivated! Great blog, thank you!

    • Oh yeah, definitely give it a go. I too thought that there wouldn’t be a benefit to this method, but it fit my goals so well. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving this wonderful comment!

  2. Counting reps is definitely one of the biggest reasons, I think, that I’m so inconsistent with my workouts. I always feel like I’m not doing enough if I’m counting, regardless of the burn. I’m going to try my workouts without the reps. 😀

    • We are our harshest critics, and we don’t give ourselves the credit we deserve sometimes. Just getting off our butts and doing something is reason enough to feel better about ourselves. Definitely give it a go and do let me know how it goes!

  3. This is such an interesting and uniquely personal preference. I’ve been working out intuitively but am now going back to reps to stay motivated – I think for me I need to change up my process from time to time to keep having something different to look forward to. Thanks for the workout motivation :)!

    • You know what? I think that’s me. Maybe it’s not the no-counting that’s keeping me interested. Maybe it’s just the novelty. Will have to observe further to find out. Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful perspectives!

  4. I agree 100%. Almost all my workouts are intervals vs. reps and I get so much more out of it. Often, especially when I’m tired, I feel defeated before I even begin if I knew I had to do X number of reps, doing it for time keeps me moving and it’s so much easier to lose myself in the music and movement. My measurement of ‘progress’ these days is how well I sleep and lowering my resting heart rate. :)

    • I’m sure that a good bunch of people would benefit from measuring their progress, but it feels good not to, doesn’t it? Especially when our goals are to feel good and to increase our general fitness.

      That ‘defeated’ feeling is so real. Sometimes thinking about the workout alone is so dreadful. It really is a battle sometimes.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  5. Wow, gland to know that you are so energetic and positive. Wish I have just a little bit of your energy. I know I need to exercise every day, but I just can’t. I am too lazy and just can’t pull myself up from the sedentary life style.

    • I can totally relate! I’m definitely not as energetic as you describe, and dragging my butt to get started with warm ups is a real battle every day.

      Anyway, it’s all in our own time. We all have our personal ebbs and flows to ride through. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I don’t know if this will ever be an actual issue for me, because I’d have to start exercising in order for this to become a question. But your theory, I think, is sound for someone who has advanced past the habit-building stage, who shows up every day and does their counting. Once that is mastered, it seems that someone who’s faithful to it will know their body well enough at that point to keep themselves honest if they’re not counting. I’m try to think how I could apply this theory to other areas of my life. I guess the writing habit is sort of like that. At first we count our words obsessively and then once you have an established habit, you trust yourself to work during your writing time so you know it becomes more about the effort you’re putting into your session and not just filling up words.

    • Oh yeah, I definitely think that most skills we learn in life are transferrable to other areas. But I also feel that this method is friendly to beginner exercisers (is that even a word) too, because even getting tired after a few reps is better than doing nothing. Always great to see your comments, Hetty!

  7. Not counting reps…who knew there was such a thing! But it totally makes sense to me.

    The struggle some days to get those last few reps or minutes can be demoralizing. I usually end up thinking something along the lines of, ‘what’s the matter with me? I should be farther ahead by now!’ But today isn’t yesterday. Available physical and mental energy varies greatly. I think having a goal that takes that into account gives me a better chance of being successful.

    Awesome post. 🙏🏽😁👍🏼

    • That’s EXACTLY what I feel. My performance varies wildly day to day. Some days, yesterday’s 50% could feel like 200%, and I need to judge myself based on my actual effort instead of the arbitrary numbers I’ve set for myself. So yeah, that’s where not counting reps help.

      Thanks so much for your wonderful comment!

  8. Way to go bro! From slow to fast – excellent advice. Now if only it’ll stop raining where I am so I too can go out for a bit of exercise. Meanwhile, thanks as always for generously sharing your life hacks. Here’s to less counting and more breakthroughs for us all yah?!👍🏼

    • Lol, that’s why home-based workouts have been a boon for me. All I need is a 6-by-6 foot space and I’m set.

      Oh yeah, and I’d always welcome a breakthrough or two. Here’s to you finding yours too. Thanks for stopping by, Kelvin!

  9. I love this ❤️ When I first started exercising regularly after I got sick, I adopted this practice only because it seemed to lessen my anxiety surrounding it. I struggled so much in the beginning with not counting! I remember saying random numbers in my head at first so they’d get jumbled and I couldn’t count 😊 Now it just feels natural to move my body until it tells me to stop. You are right on point about the connection between mind and body ❤️

    • I’ve gone so far as to reduce the number of exercises per session too. Of course, everybody’s requirements are going to be different, but it works for me. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Suzanne!

    • I do both! Am approaching 40 but I’d like to think that’s still in the young category, and my rest days are simplified workouts of skipping rope or stair climbs for 30–60 minutes. It’s a pretty cool progress for me, seeing how I couldn’t even skip for 10 minutes at one point in my life. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  10. Exercises are great, but my arm and shoulder is all messed up, so every day is leg day with a side of crunches. I may have skinny arms, but I got some good looking legs!

    I’ll try the ignoring reps counting, though. Just to see how that works. Usually in the morning I do the minimum of 3×10 for crunches and 3×12 for squats, with similar reps for similar exercises. So, it is not like I do a lot, anyway. Its probably muscle memory at this point.

    • Oh yeah, I’m a believer of exercising whatever you can exercise just to keep the body moving. When my legs are injured, I do upper body workouts, and vice versa. It’s cool that you’re finding solutions instead of letting injuries define you. Let me know how not counting goes!

  11. Thinking “I have to do 3 sets of 15” and struggling when you hit rep number 12 is brutal on your psyche. I love the idea of not counting

    • Oh yeah, and by not counting, the ‘brutalness’ sometimes feels like something you can handle. Knowing you have to do 3 more when you’re knackered makes it seem much worse than it actually is. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. Good way to change our mindsets….exercise is not a competition and I find that once I thought this way, I became less eager to check on my km/hr pace, how many km ran, how many steps walked….because I started to care less about measuring my progress, I enjoyed my runs (or trots) more…hahaha…the mind is a funny instrument..

    • Oh yeah. It’s a wonder how we can look at the exact same things from totally different perspectives. This applies to problems as well. Isn’t it weird how just thinking can totally change how we perceive something? Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

    • Oh yeah. We can’t judge ourselves by a certain number of reps because each day is different. But we can maintain a certain percentage of effort, which I feel is much more accurate. Either way, hope this works well for you!

    • And I’ve been pretty mindful of the domino effect recently too. It’s true, one thing really does affect the other, and we need to be mindful not to let little leaks sink the ship. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  13. I am definitely going to try this approach because I feel like I live by the numbers and that takes some of the enjoyment out of it.

    • It’s pretty interesting how things can become more fun—and thus, you do more of it—once you stop keeping count.

      I’m all for measurable goals, but there are times where you just gotta do it.

      Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

    • I don’t even think I can handle 60 seconds straight of anything to be honest (maybe running).

      But yeah, doing more almost always equal more growth. I’ve been trying to do more after the pain kicks in, and not focusing so much on the amount has helped me determine that.

      Thanks so much for commenting, btw!

  14. Pingback: How Not Counting Reps Helped Me Break Through My Workout Plateaus – Yoga By Crystal WPG

  15. This is awesome! I’m a professional soccer player and tend to never listen to my body when doing weights. I’m always trying to achieve a certain amount of reps which leaves me feeling dead and incredibly sore for practice. I am definitely going to try this. Thanks for the awesome idea and post

    • No, thank YOU for stopping by! I’m honoured that a professional soccer player would try this, because I’m pretty sure you have more experience in athletics than I do. Wishing you all the best with your sports journey!

  16. Pingback: How Not Counting Reps Helped Me Break Through My Workout Plateaus - TylerLatvala

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