At a glance, today’s programming methodologies for powerlifting seem to be split into two schools of thought:
(1) Those that use Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
(2) Those that use percentages
Unfortunately, they are positioned as opposites, and we can see many examples of these oppositions. For example, we hear athletes talk in these terms informally, asking each other: “Are you using RPEs or percentages?”. We also have coaches ask in their screening forms whether prospective clients prefer using RPE or percentages.
To make my point clear: if someone asked whether you use RPE or percentages, you would likely pick one of these choices confidently (rather than saying both). But, even more rare than saying “both”, would a third option be asserted, such as velocity-based training or something else. It’s either one or the other.
The problem here is that we begin to think about training principles in binary terms, using either “RPEs” or “percentages” exclusively without the option of crossing programming boundaries.
Importantly, we must stop thinking about RPEs and percentages as methodologies, but tools that can be applied to optimize training. A methodology implies that there is a set of rules, techniques, systems, and best practices that can be applied to training. Certainly, there are programming methodologies that guide our training decisions (a conversation for another time). But, RPEs and percentages are only single training variables that can be manipulated, not the overarching system of designing strength programming.
So, we must view RPEs and percentages as tools.
These tools may be more applicable to an athlete’s needs at a specific time – or maybe not at all. But, what’s key to recognize is that a tool is only as effective as the ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ that it’s trying to solve.
A good coach assesses what tools should be implemented when trying to construct a program that maximizes benefits/reduces risks in the context of an athlete’s needs. To achieve this, using one tool over the other might be advantageous, but certainly this is not true for all athletes. We must also recognize that there may be situations where borrowing tools, and using them in conjunction with one another, is a valuable proposition for athletes.
This article will explain three ways that RPEs and percentages can be used together.
To provide context, I will detail a real coaching example where I thought it was necessary to combine these tools to create more successful training outcomes. This article is not supposed to be a guideline of what “good programming” looks like, but rather show a clear example of when using RPEs and percentages proved valuable.
The nature of my coaching practice, like many others, is structured online. My programs are designed into 4-week training blocks where athletes check-in weekly by submitting both written and video feedback. This is important to note: I’m not coaching athletes in person, and set-by-set modifications are not achievable in the moment – this is one of the reasons why the approaches I detail later become effective.
To keep this athlete anonymous, let’s call him Diego. I have been working with Diego for one year and together we’ve gone through three competition cycles. His technical limitations are very specific, with his ‘sticking points’ being razor thin, which either ‘make’ or ‘break’ a successful lift. We decided to do a lot more beltless training in order to overcome this limitation. We had three squat days; the first day prioritizing higher reps/volume in the competition form (belted), with two other squat days targeting ranges of motion to break through his sticking points (beltless).
Overall, the training intensities prescribed for squatting beltless should reflect a minor reduction to accommodate the method. From my experience, a reduction of 3-8% has been appropriate when compared with the same rep ranges during a belted squat.
Even when programming these normal reductions in intensity for the beltless squat days, Diego found the workouts much more challenging than I would have preferred when originally designing the program.
Below is part of a weekly check-in where Diego expressed concerns around the almost impossible nature of the beltless training protocols:
"This workout left me incredibly frustrated. I followed your instructions on the beltless squats and used 72.5% again but with the added rep. Every rep until set 4 was rpe 10 and on that set I almost got buried on rep 3. I got pissed off, took 10 lbs off and did that set on video just to get it over with…I know I can always take weight off the bar and I know I struggle with doing just that…”
We can see the effects of mismanaged training protocols – athletes become frustrated and fixated on ‘getting the work done’ at all costs rather than maintaining quality of movement. Furthermore, athletes get demotivated, especially when there is confusion around the intent of a method if it’s viewed as impossible to achieve. Even worse, the result of continuously mismanaged training variables is a lack of trust between athlete and coach, which is why comments like this need to be addressed immediately.
Certainly, when designing the protocols for beltless squatting it was not to yield maximal, near-fatigue efforts. Therefore, as coaches we need to equip athletes with various tools to know what our expectations are when designing the program and ways to modify if they get into trouble. We can clearly see in this example where Diego wanted to modify the workout to be successful, but didn’t know how to do so in the heat of the moment when it mattered.
With Diego in mind, the following will detail three ways we combined RPEs and percentages to help produce more effective training outcomes.
The “Last Set RPE” approach is when the last set of a workout should fall within a specific exertion level. The RPE for the last set is communicated to the athlete to allow him or her to modify the load on the last set as needed.
Let’s take the workout: 5 sets of 5 reps at 75%. This would be considered a workout with an adequate amount of volume for most athletes at an intensity that should induce some fatigue, but not enough to risk failing.
When programming a workout like this I might assume that the last set should feel like RPE 8 with 2-3 minutes rest between sets (this is not accurate in all cases but rather an example to explain my point).
In designing the program, a coach would indicate that the last set (#5) should feel like “RPE 8”. Therefore, an athlete starts the workout and over the course of each set they evaluate their exertion levels. Following the 4th set, they would then ask themselves if they are on track to reach the 8RPE on the last set, or if they need to increase or decrease the load effectively. Some possible scenarios are:
• The 4th set felt like RPE 7 or below: The athlete would choose to go up.
• The 4th set felt like RPE 7.5: The athlete might keep the same weight because they would anticipate the last set would accumulate enough fatigue to reach RPE 8, or they might increase the weight if they have a superior work capacity.
• The 4th set felt like RPE 8: The athlete might keep the same weight if they have a superior work capacity, or they might choose to reduce the weight if they know that the last set would accumulate enough fatigue to overshoot the RPE.
• The 4th set felt like RPE 9 or more: The athlete would choose to reduce the weight.
• Set 1-3 felt like RPE 8 or more: The athlete would choose to reduce the weight for the following set.
You can see here that there is no option for athletes to increase the weight before the 4th set. The only option to modify the weight prior to the last set is to reduce the load. Some coaches might allow for an increase in load early in the working sets, but my training philosophy is two-fold:
(1) Unless you’re dealing with an experienced or elite-level athlete who has thousands of reps evaluating RPEs, most athletes misjudge an increase in load and what that means for their RPE (or they lift with ego)
(2) An athlete who undershoots their RPE has less of a negative consequence than overshooting.
Whatever feedback you receive from athletes, whether the workout was over or under how you expected the athlete to perform, you can use that information to adjust future workouts.
The purpose of implementing a “last set RPE” is to offer an athlete limited ways to adjust load, specifically to avoid failure, and provide feedback to the coach for future training sessions.
An intensity bracket is another term for an “intensity range”. For example, rather than programming 60%, an intensity bracket could include a range of 60-65%. When an intensity range is combined with a specific RPE it allows an athlete to modify within the bracket to find the prescribed RPE.
This method is usually programed during harder workouts (either through high volume, high intensity, or high relative intensity) to avoid failure. The purpose of an intensity bracket is to give the athlete an opportunity to scale the load up or down as needed to manage fatigue. However, it’s important that an intensity bracket targets the same adaptation or quality of training. Therefore, the intensity bracket can’t be a large range or the adaptation intended will not be achieved.
Take the workout: 5 sets of 5 reps at 60-70%. Here we have a 10% intensity bracket, and lots of room for the athlete to modify the workout up or down as needed. However, sets of 5 reps at 60% has a vastly different training effect than sets of 5 at 70%; possibly the difference between volume that creates a de-load effect and volume that creates a sufficient stimulus for new adaptation. As such it’s important to have strict constraints on the bracket to ensure the intended adaptations are achieved.
From my experience 5% intensity brackets are effective for workouts between 65-85%; and, 2-3% intensity brackets for workouts above 85%.
For example, the following workout may be programmed: 5 sets of 5 reps at 70%. If programming an intensity bracket, the intended percentage would serve as the midpoint, allowing for a 2.5% increase and 2.5% decrease on either side – the workout then becomes 5 sets of 5 reps at 67.5-72.5%. A similar workout at the higher intensity ranges could transform from 4 sets of 2 at 90% to 4 sets of 2 at 89-91%.
When an athlete uses an intensity bracket the intention is to start at the low or mid part of the bracket and work up to the top end if they are feeling capable on that given training day.
The question becomes: how does an athlete know when to modify or go to the top end of the bracket? This is where the combination of RPEs is important, and the concept of “most sets should feel like ‘X’ RPE”.
Most sets should feel like “X” RPE
This approach literally means that ‘most sets’ should feel like a prescribed RPE.
For example, let’s take the workout 5 sets of 5 at 75%. The first set might feel like RPE 6, set 2-4 might feel like RPE 7, and set 5 might feel like RPE 8. Most sets in this case would be 3 out of 5 sets – so most sets felt like RPE 7.
Now, let’s consider a workout with both an intensity bracket and RPE combo. For example: 5 sets of 5 reps at 75-80% with ‘most sets’ feeling like RPE 8. There are several outcomes depending on how an athlete feels this particular day.
One outcome could be an athlete completing the first 4 sets at the lower intensity bracket (75%) feeling like RPE 8. The athlete would then have the choice to go to the top end of the bracket (80%) for the last set even if he or she predicts it would yield a higher RPE – this is because they have already achieved ‘most sets’ at the prescribed RPE.
Another outcome could be an athlete doing their first 2 sets at the top bracket (80%) feeling like RPE 9. Since most sets should feel like RPE 8, they would then reduce the weight to the lower-end of the bracket to bring the remaining 3 sets within the prescribed RPE.
Some of the limitations of this method are:
1. An athlete might be at the top end of their bracket and be under the prescribed RPE. In this instance, an athlete has undershot their RPE. The consequence here is low risk – the athlete has a bit more recovery. However, an athlete might go above the bracket if you don’t communicate the expectations effectively.
2. An athlete might be at the low end of their bracket and exceed the prescribed RPE. In this instance, an athlete has overshot their RPE because they theoretically can’t go below the bracket. The consequence here is that they might accumulate fatigue that persists for more days than anticipated (impacting future workouts) or they might risk failing within the training session.
The general way of dealing with these limitations is to get the athlete to complete the workout as prescribed regardless (i.e. staying within the bracket). However, following feedback from the athlete, modifying future training days as needed, especially if you thought it was a trend that could continue.
With that said, the 2nd limitation has more of a negative consequence. To handle the 2nd limitation more directly, I have implemented a “No RPE 10” rule with my athletes. So, if an athlete rates a set RPE 10 then they stop and move to the next exercise. For example, if I’ve programmed 5 sets of 5 at 70-75% and the first set is RPE 10, then they would stop and not complete the remaining 4 sets. There are exceptions to this rule, but in the case above it would be concerning if 70% for 5 reps yielded RPE 10. As such, the athlete would likely be better off to stop after the first set.
If you’ve worked with an athlete for many months or years then prescribing intensity brackets and RPEs should be more precise than working with a brand new lifter.
With this method, the workout begins at a fixed percentage, and over the course of several sets the athlete builds up to a specific RPE. This method allows the most flexibility for an athlete to increase bar load within a workout.
Take the workout: 3 sets of 5 reps. The starting point for an athlete could be 70% (set 1). Over the next two sets, the athlete would be required to build to a RPE 8.
Typically, “ramp up RPEs” are used to evaluate an athlete’s strength. But, the set typically has a safety net for failure by using a RPE boundary. So, instead of getting an athlete to ‘build to a max’ for any number of reps, a RPE is prescribed to avoid failure or manage fatigue within the training cycle. I find this especially true for training cycles that have peak intensities above 85% for multiple weeks in a row. For these higher intensity training cycle, the idea of ‘capping’ the top intensities with a RPE is effective for balancing fatigue and adaptation.
More specifically, I have implemented this method on three occasions:
(1) when an athlete has become significantly stronger within a training cycle and I need a ‘controlled test’ to adjust his or her Rep Maximums.
(2) When an athlete is performing a new variation in a training cycle in which we don’t have a prior context for their strength levels.
(3) during a competition peaking cycle to understand possible attempt selections for meet day.
Another reason to implement this method is when an athlete expresses the desire to lift maximal loads in a training phase where higher intensities aren’t necessarily part of the plan. From my experience, if an athlete wants to lift heavy, and you suppress this urge, they will likely do so anyways and probably not tell you. If they choose to disregard the planned training variables, they risk negatively impacting the overall goals of the program. Therefore, it’s better to accommodate a ‘planned heavy lift’ than have an athlete do a ‘random heavy lift’ to satisfy their psychological desire to lift heavy.
Over time, enough data might be collected to suggest what rep ranges and RPEs yield a particular RPE. So, the “top set” becomes much less a guessing game than using prior information to make informed decisions. While the “ramp up RPE” approach is widely used as an overarching training philosophy, I’ve suggested reasons why it would be a valuable tool to use more broadly.
I’ve just detailed three ways where RPEs and percentages can be combined to produce more effective training outcomes: (1) last set RPEs, (2) intensity brackets and RPE combos, and (3) ramp up RPEs starting at a fixed percentage.
Some of the athlete benefits are:
• Through the process of assessing performance (as a rating of RPE) the athlete becomes more engaged in the training process.
• The athlete has clear ways to manage fatigue inside a workout, which is incredibly useful for an online coaching context when the athlete and coach aren’t working together in the moment.
• The athlete feels ‘in control’ of the training process. For instance, if an athlete needs to reduce weight within a workout, they know that they can do so and still have a successful workout.
• The athlete trains in a much ‘less risky’, more sustainable environment by managing day-to-day fatigue.
Some of the coach benefits are:
• The coach receives more meaningful feedback of the specific circumstances within a workout because you’re empowering the athlete to communicate their performance.
• The coach begins to understand the tolerances of their athletes – especially by recognizing patterns and trends with how an athlete modifies their workouts.
• The coach has an opportunity to adapt the training program on a week-to-week basis based on the modifications that were made by the athlete.
So, what happened to Diego?
We used a combination of the methods above. It’s important to mention that we didn’t use all these tools for all his movements. For any competition-specific movement he continued to use straight percentages with no RPE modifications However, when implementing a new squat variations that specifically targeted his sticking point, or programming beltless squat movements, then combining RPEs and percentages allowed Diego to find success within the workout.
Remember, this article was not to suggest one programming approach or tool is better than the other. Every tool has strengths and limitation and a coach needs to assess an athlete’s needs and create a program that maximizes benefits and reduces risks. There may be situations, like described above, where using programming tools in conjunction is a valuable proposition for athletes.
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