Counting is hard. Yeah, it was easy enough when we were in kindergarten, but fast forward a little and suddenly you’re an adult who can’t manage to count past 10 when there’s a weight in your hand. You’re not alone! Especially if you’re doing anything for higher reps or for more than a few sets, it’s normal to lose count sometimes. Fortunately, we have some tips to keep you on track.
Check off sets in your notebook
You do have a training journal, right? (If not, I highly recommend you consider one.) If your program sets out a certain number of sets you need to do, write it down, and then check off each set as you do it. For example, if my coach wants me to do four doubles at 80% of my max, my notebook will have a line like this by the end of the workout:
4×2 @ 80% ✔️✔️✔️✔️
This way, I don’t get confused about whether I’m about to do the third set or I just did the third set, which is something I’ve found I can easily lose track of.
Use tally marks
If I’m doing many sets of an exercise, the checkmarks can get out of hand. For a while I was following a program where a typical day might call for 100 modified chinups, 100 band pull-aparts, and 100 dips. You can do them in as many or as few sets as you like, and I generally split them into 10 sets of 10 reps.
Not only is this a lot of reps to keep track of, I alternated the exercises with each other (or even worked them in between my main lifts of the day), which meant there was a lot going on. Tally marks solved the problem: every set of 10 was one mark, and when I had 10 marks on each line, I knew I was done with that exercise. By the end my notebook would look something like this:
100 chins 卌卌
100 band pulls 卌卌
100 dips 卌卌
Use physical tokens
I first saw this idea in a Crossfit class, when the coach pulled out a case of poker chips to lead us through a 10-round workout. One chip per round, and when you have 10 in your little pile you know you’ve completed the whole workout. I’ve since used this idea to count pullup sets with pebbles and sets of kettlebell swings with a combination of poker chips and whiteboard tally marks:
Ten swings was a chip, six chips earned me a hash mark on the wall, and five hash marks meant I was done.
I saw a clever variation of this recently: somebody was doing many sets of kettlebell swings, and before he started he lined up a bunch of little objects on the floor — most of them were barbell collars, I think. After each set, he kicked one over with his foot.
Keep track with your eyes
Now that we’ve covered a few ways to count sets when you’re able to stop and use your hands, let’s look at a few hands-free options. One that I came up with during a mind-numbing kettlebell workout was to keep track with my eyes. You know how you end up staring at the same spot on the wall for a while? My big-brain moment was: what if I look at a different spot on the wall every ten reps?
I have a whiteboard in my garage gym, so I wrote out a little symbol for each of the sets. I was alternating right and left hands every ten reps, so my board looked like this:
L – R – L – R – L
R – L – R – L – R
As I did each set, I kept my eyes glued to the appropriate letter on the wall. (Switching hands also helped me keep track: if I spaced out and forgot whether I was on my fourth or fifth set, I could tell by which hand I was using.)
Use your fingers
Alternating hands means that I have a hand free, even if I’m not able to reach that hand over to make a mark or move a poker chip. But I can count on my fingers!
For kettlebell swings, I would do 10 swings on the right, then, after passing the bell to my left hand, I would count “one” on my right hand (by holding all my fingers but one in a fist). After I switched back, I’d then count “one” on my left hand. After the third set, the bell would be back in my left hand and my right would be counting “two.” Basically, the number of fingers on each hand tells me how many sets that hand has already done. The very last time I pass the kettlebell from my right hand to my left, my right has five fingers open; as soon as I finish that last set on the left, I know I’ve done 100.
I’ve also done this while I’m running laps: during the first lap, my hands are open or in loose fists. After the first lap, I put one finger over my thumb, like a sign language letter “T.” After the second lap, I do two fingers, like a letter “N,” and after the third lap, I do three. As I finish the fourth lap, I know I’ve done a mile, and I can start over (or mark that mile with another counting method, like moving a pebble into a pile.)
Make mental chunks
OK, we’ve discussed keeping track of sets, but what if you space out during the reps of a single set? There, my recommendation is to break it up mentally into chunks.
If you’re doing 20 reps, that’s four chunks of five. It can help to think of each five as having its own personality or its own place in the universe. For example, reps 1-5 barely count; you’re just getting started. Reps 6-10 get you to the double digits. Reps 11-15 are the first half of an uphill climb, and 16-20 get you to the top. If I’m doing a set of 25, I think of the first 20 the same way, and reps 21-25 are a bonus because I’m doing so great. (Yes, I probably feel like I want to die at that point; no matter.)
Or let’s take a set of 10 squats, for example. I like to think of these in pairs or triplets. I’ll try to do the first three reps on the same breath (since I need to breathe and brace purposefully between reps). Then the next three, if I can. If the weight is heavy, I might need to breathe during this second triplet, but I’ll keep that reset as quick as possible. Now I’ve done six reps, and I can take a few breaths while I decide if I’d like to break up the rest into another triplet and a single, or if I’d like to do two doubles or, more likely, a double and two singles. This mental maths keeps me on track, and I find it encourages me to keep going. You’re more than halfway now, I tell myself after the second chunk of three. Just one more hard rep and then the last one is gravy, I tell myself after eight reps.
This may sound like heresy, but you might not even need to count your reps. After all, your lungs and muscles only know what strain has been put on them. As long as you got in a good, challenging workout, you’ve done the work you need to make gains.
When you look at it that way, you don’t need to count every rep, you just need to make sure you’re doing enough work. One way to do this is to set a timer and just work until time expires. Maybe this means 30 seconds of each exercise in a circuit, or maybe you’ll set a 7-minute timer and do as many bicep curls and tricep extensions as you can in that time, resting only as much as you need to keep going. Or take a page from dance classes and set your movements to music. This works especially well for cardio — just ask anyone who has taken a Peloton class.
If you’re training for a competition where you need to do a certain number of reps in a certain amount of time, then by all means, count! But even here there’s a way to give your brain a break: Video your set, and then count reps afterward.