Even if you’ve never used the term, you’re probably familiar with forced reps. These attempts to move beyond strict form to build more muscle can have a bad reputation, but they’re not unequivocally terrible. If used strategically, there’s nothing wrong with using a little body English on a barbell curl or having your training partner assist with those last few grueling reps.
And it’s tempting to take this effective technique and overuse it. Extreme body swaying and heaving, having your partner assist on too many reps, and using forced reps too often with too much volume are just a few examples of gym-goers often use and abuse this otherwise useful training method.
This article will serve as a primer on forced reps — what they are, some benefits, and how you can program them into your workouts in the most effective possible way.
What Are Forced Reps?
Forced reps are repetitions that you perform with a little bit of help — either from a partner or self-imposed momentum — to push you beyond normal muscular failure.
One of the most popular forms of forced reps is receiving assistance from a training partner. On the bench press, for example, your spotter will help you pump out a few additional reps after you’ve already performed your prescribed rep count. These additional reps force more muscle fibers to be recruited and induce more fatigue to the muscle fibers, helping to stimulate more muscle growth.
Forced reps are a great asset to your program when you incorporate them strategically. When used correctly, they can help maximize muscle growth and make your training overall more efficient and effective.
How to Perform Forced Reps
When you’re performing forced reps on your own, it’s safest to do isolation exercises where you can control the weight. Barbell curls and leg curls are good examples. When you’ve hit near muscle failure in your regular set, kip very slightly as you start to lift the weight to begin each new rep. Be careful to avoid hyperextending your back. Instead, generate momentum using a quick and slight lean.
How to Perform Forced Reps with a Partner
Performing forced reps with a training partner is a productive (and safe) option, though communication is to find the right amount of help. If the partner taps gently tap the bar, the lifter may find themselves fighting to escape the clutches of a fully-loaded barbell. On the other hand, some training partners are too eager to help, ad end up robbing the lifter of any real benefit.
There is a sweet spot when it comes to assisting with forced reps. Follow these guidelines to ensure proper forced reps for better gains.
- Communicate with your partner on when to assist with forced reps. Tell them how many forced reps you’ll be doing. Two to three forced reps at the end of a straight-set are typical. Remember, the lifter should already be quite fatigued from their unassisted set.
- The goal of forced reps with a partner is for them to provide a small amount of assistance to help you perform the same movement as before. You should be continuing the set with the same cadence as you were performing on your own — just with a little help from your friend.
- As a training partner assisting with forced reps, be sure to keep your hands wrapped around the bar to guide the bar in the proper path. This will ensure proper safety in case the lifter fails too soon or loses control of the weight.
When to Program Forced Reps
If forced reps are such an accessible and surefire way to eke out more gains, then there’s no reason not to do them after most of your sets, right? Hold up. Forced reps can become a slippery slope regarding the dangers of overtraining, compromising your form, and stifling your recovery ability. When it comes to building muscle and strength, more isn’t always more.
As a general rule, perform forced reps during the last set of one exercise per muscle group.
Avoid applying forced reps to smaller, more isolated exercises such as flyse, dumbbell curls, cable work, and lateral raises because kipping during certain movements can throw your form completely out of alignment. Additionally, many movements are so dynamic that forced reps are nearly impossible and potentially dangerous such as deadlifts, bent-over rows, and any power movement (such as clean & jerks and snatches).
The Best Exercises for Forced Reps
When you’re ready to integrate forced reps into your program, you first have to choose which exercises to perform them with. Normally, these can include barbell presses, machine work, and most arm training. A short list may include:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Seated Barbell Shoulder Press
- Machine Chest Press
- Lat Pulldown
- Machine Row
- Barbell Curl
- Lying Triceps Extension
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Leg Press
- Hack Squat Machine
- Leg Curl Machine
- Leg Extension Machine
Examples of Forced Rep Programming
Check out these examples to get a better idea of what forced reps can look like in your program.
Chest Forced Reps
- Barbell Bench Press: 3 x 6-10 (last two sets, three forced reps each)
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 4 x 8-12
- Machine Fly: 3 x 15
Back Forced Reps
- Wide-Grip Pull-Up: 4 x as many as possible for each set
- Bent-Over Barbell Row: 4 x 6-10
- Close-Grip Lat Pulldown: 3 x 12 (last two sets, three forced reps each)
Legs Forced Reps
- Leg Extension Machine: 3 x 15 (last two sets, three forced reps each)
- Barbell Squat: 4 x 8-12
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 8-12
Arms Forced Reps
- Barbell Curl: 4 x 8-12 (last set, two forced reps)
- Lying Triceps Extension: 4 x 8-12 (last set, two forced reps)
The Benefits of Forced Reps
- Expose Your Body to More Load
- Break Plateaus
- Increase Muscle Fiber Recruitment
- Strategic Overreaching
Expose Your Body to More Load
Sometimes, and especially if you’ve been lifting for many years, your body needs to be exposed to a higher level of load to stimulate growth and change. With forced reps, you can introduce more load on the specific muscle group you’re targeting. Assuming your recovery is on point, your body will respond to the additional challenge (forced reps) by growing larger.
Also, forced reps allow different parts of your body more access to very heavy training. Since you can perform forced reps with certain single-joint moves like leg extensions — which can’t be loaded nearly as heavily as compound exercises — you can overload smaller muscle groups for maximum effect.
Even when you train your hardest, the body will eventually adapt to stress (which is what it does). This is one reason lifters tend to plateau and gains start to stall. Forced reps are an excellent way to push your muscles beyond what they are accustomed to and expose them to a new level of load.
Forced reps provide you with a new threshold of failure. With the help of a training partner or a bit of momentum, you can progressively overload your lifts for greater increases in muscle size. Used sparingly, forced reps can help you blow past plateaus, especially for exercises that may tend to lag in the gains department.
Increase Muscle Fiber Recruitment
Because they push you past the normal limits of muscle failure, forced reps allow you to recruit more muscle fibers. If you have muscle groups that are particularly resistant to growth, these kinds of reps may be uniquely suited to help.
When traditional sets taken to failure aren’t helping your calves and forearms grow, for example, you may benefit from more stimulation and neural activity. Forced reps can take a normal set to new levels by forcing the fibers to activate more than what they’re accustomed to. And more fiber activation can lead to more muscle growth.
Precisely because the body is amazingly adaptive, you sometimes need to shake up your training routine. Strategically overreaching by deliberately increasing muscle fatigue with intensities you don’t normally use is a great way to do this.
Overreaching is not a sustainable strategy, however — after integrating forced reps into your program, you’ll need a backoff period of extra rest and recovery. The good news is, that the recovery period will likely help you truly see the gains made during your forced reps training.
Forced reps can be a vital intensity tool when you use them sparingly and with strict adherence to execution. This is because they can help you overcome plateaus, improve weak points, and drive up progressive overload in your current training program. Implement some of the examples above and blow past your previous best. Just beware of overdoing it.
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