How many reps?
I have been asked this countless times over the years when teaching JEMS courses. What is the answer? Well, it depends……
What is your objective?
When aiming for strength and power, the number of sets and repetitions have reasonably consistent guidelines relating to specific goals, and we understand that largely predictable physiological effects can be achieved by following a well-planned programme for this purpose.
When it comes to motor learning however, the game changes. Dancing with the nervous system is a highly individualised process, and it is affected by numerous factors. Some people need a certain amount of time to become sufficiently relaxed and self-aware during an exercise to recognise their habitual strategy, and then to relax into an alternative pattern. We will structure the experience for these people such that they feel that it is part of their process to focus on what is truly happening in these early movements, rather than worrying about it being “right”. We may agree together for example that the first five repetitions will be for settling into the movement, and then a certain number can be performed after this.
The next patient may for a number of reasons experience neural fatigue very quickly. They may perform the first five repetitions very well, but their technique may start to erode progressively from this point, making subsequent attempts non-productive. In the case of neural fatigue, if a short duration pause is introduced between small numbers of repetitions, the patient can often continue to perform multiple sets. If the number of repetitions is too high, the patient becomes unable to reproduce the movement with sufficient quality in subsequent sets, even after rest.
Sometimes the primary issue to consider is the patient’s context. What is realistic for them in their daily lives? Is it a small amount, done calmly with focus because not too much is asked, slotted in before the children rise or before bed? Or is it a lengthier programme, suiting the patient who is anxious to exercise and for whom a more substantial programme fulfils their psychological needs?
In the case of motor learning, it is not so much a case of “giving exercises” as providing meaningful movement experiences for the patient, experiences which introduce an extra piece of information to the nervous system such that new, relevant possibilities can emerge. This creates the potential for a collaborative process with the patient, one where they are able to contribute their own discoveries about themselves and their movement, and where progression then becomes exploration.
This perspective, along with a willingness to adapt the programme to individual needs, invites the patient to practice mindfully, rather than rushing through repetitions to get to the end of their exercises and get on with their lives. When considering mindful, meaningful movement, the concept of a standard number of repetitions fades away, leaving us with the freedom to truly connect with our patients’ experiences.