How to Count Reps and Sets in an Exercise When Your Brain Just Isn’t Paying Attention

It’s hard to count. Yes, it was easy enough when we were in kindergarten, but fast forward a little and suddenly you become an adult who can’t count more than 10 with a kettlebell in your hand. You’re not alone! Especially if you are doing something for more reps or more than a few sets, sometimes you get discounted. Luckily, we have some tips to help you stay on track.

Mark the sets in your notebook

Do you have a training diary ? (If not, I highly recommend that you consider one.) If your program installs a specific number of sets that you need to run, write it down, and then check off each set as you run it. For example, if my coach wants me to do four doubles at 80% of my maximum, my notebook will have this line at the end of the workout:

4×2 @ 80% ✔️✔️✔️✔️

This way I don’t get confused about whether I was about to do the third set, or I just did the third set, which is something I found that I can easily lose track.

Use counting labels

If I do many sets, the checkmarks can get out of hand. For a while, I followed a program in which, on a typical day, you could do 100 modified pull-ups, 100 belt pull-ups, and 100 push-ups. You can do them in any number or a small number of sets, and I usually divide them into 10 sets of 10 reps.

Not only did I have to keep track of many reps, I alternated the exercises with each other (or even worked them between my main exercises of the day) which meant a lot was happening. Counting marks solved the problem: each series of 10 was one mark, and when I had 10 marks on each line, I knew I had finished this exercise. By the end, my notebook will look something like this:

100 pull-ups 卌 卌

100 belt stretches 卌 卌

100 push-ups 卌 卌

Use physical tokens

I first saw this idea in CrossFit class when the coach pulled out a box of poker chips to guide us through a 10-round workout. One chip per round, and when you have 10 of them in a small pile, you know you have completed your entire workout. Since then, I’ve used this idea to count sets of pebble pull-ups and kettlebell swing sets with a combination of poker chips and board marks:

Ten swings were a chip, six chips brought me a mark on the wall, and five marks meant I was finished.

I recently saw a clever variation on this: Someone did many sets of kettlebell swings, and before starting, they lined up a bunch of small objects on the floor – I think most of them were barbell collars. After each approach, he kicked one leg.

Follow with your eyes

Now that we’ve covered a few ways to count sets where you can stop and use your hands, let’s look at a few hands-free options. One of the ideas I came up with during a tiring kettlebell training session was to watch my eyes. Do you know how you end up staring at the same place on the wall for a while? My big brain moment was this: what if I look at a different spot on the wall every ten reps?

I have a board in the gym in my garage, so I wrote a small symbol for each set. I alternated between my right and left arms every ten reps, so my board looked like this:

L – R – L – R – L

P – L – P – L – R

While making each set, I kept my eyes on the corresponding letter on the wall. (Switching hands also helped me track: if I stretched out and forgot if I was fourth or fifth, I could tell which hand I was using.)

Use your fingers

Alternating hands means I have a free hand, even if I cannot reach that hand to mark or move the poker chip. But I can count on my fingers!

For kettlebell swings, I did 10 swings on the right, then, passing the bell to my left hand, I counted “one” on my right hand (holding all fingers except one in a fist). After I switched back, I counted “one” on my left hand. After the third set, the bell will again be in my left hand, and my right will count as two. Basically, the number of fingers on each hand tells me how many sets that hand has already taken. The last time I pass the kettlebell from my right hand to my left, my right has five fingers open; Once I finish the last set on the left, I know I did 100.

He did the same while running in circles: on the first circle, his hands were spread or clenched into fists. After the first circle, I place my finger on my thumb, like the letter “T” in sign language. After the second circle, I make two fingers, like the letter “N”, and after the third circle, I make three. When I finish on the fourth lap, I know I’ve driven a mile and can start over (or mark the mile with another counting method, such as moving the pebbles into a heap).

Make mental pieces

Okay, we’ve discussed tracking sets, but what if you pause during repetitions of one set? Here’s my recommendation – mentally break it down into chunks.

If you’re doing 20 reps, that’s four sets of five. This can help to think that each five has its own personality or place in the universe. For example, 1-5 repetitions are hardly counted; you are just getting started. Repetitions 6-10 will lead you to double-digit numbers. Reps 11-15 are the first half of the climb, and 16-20 will take you to the top. If I do a set of 25, I think of the first 20 in the same way, and reps of 21-25 are a bonus because I’m doing great. (Yes, I probably feel like I want to die at this moment; never mind.)

Or take the 10 squat set, for example. I like to think about it in pairs or threes. I will try to do the first three reps in the same breath (since I need to purposefully breathe and strain between reps). Then the next three, if I can. If the weight is heavy, I may have to breathe during the second triplets, but I will keep this drop as fast as possible. Now I’ve done six reps and can take a few breaths while I decide if I want to split the rest into another triplet and a single, or if I want to do two doubles, or more likely a double and two singles. This mental math keeps me on track, and I find it inspires me to keep going. “You’ve come more than half the way ,” I tell myself after the second leg of three. Another hard rep, and one more gravy , I tell myself after eight reps.

Surrender

This may sound like heresy, but you may not even need to count the repetitions. After all, your lungs and muscles only know how much stress has been put on them. As long as you do a good and challenging workout, you are doing the work necessary to achieve results.

When you look at it this way, you don’t need to count every rep, you just need to make sure you are doing enough work. One way to do this is to set a timer and just work until the time runs out. Maybe that means 30 seconds of each exercise in the cycle, or maybe you set a 7-minute timer and do as many biceps and triceps curls as you can in that time, resting just as much as you need to continue your workout. Or take a page from dance classes and tune your movements to the music. This works especially well for cardio – just ask anyone who has taken peloton lessons.

If you are preparing for a competition in which you need to do a certain number of repetitions in a certain time, then in any case, count! But even here, there is a way to give your brain a break: record your approach on video, and then count the repetitions.

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