The biggest problem with Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is understanding how to start using RPEs, especially for those that typically use percentages to guide their training intensities.
The concepts of using RPE might be easy to understand on paper. For example, someone might understand that RPE 8 means ‘leave 2 reps in the tank’. However, how does someone begin to identify what that fees like in practice? Especially if they’re not used to assessing performance in this way. More importantly, how does someone use that information to development a meaningful training experience that encourages long-term progression. Ultimately, investing in training methods need to foster a higher purpose that allows an athlete to realize greater results.
Let me explain why it’s difficult to implement RPEs for those that use percentages.
Using percentages to guide training intensities represents an objective value, a concreate load that no matter how you feel is always going to be the same. There is something satisfying about knowing that on a specific day and week of your training program that 80% for 5 reps (500lbs) will be lifted – all of which was part of a pre-planned system of progression. Whether you’re excited or nervous about lifting 500lbs doesn’t change the fact that you know exactly what load and number of reps is expected. You don’t need to think twice about managing your training intensities, and it’s easy to go on auto-pilot once you get to the gym.
For better or worse: It’s neat, tidy, and expected.
Implementing RPE protocols stands directly in the face of training being predictable. This uncertainty causes both coaches and athletes who use percentages to feel anxious about implementing RPEs. Coaches may feel anxious because their athletes could ‘overshoot’ or ‘undershoot’ their RPEs and fail to achieve the expected outcome. What this means is that a coach must trust that an athlete can accurately gauge their performance so that the integrity of the program is not compromised. Similarly, athletes may feel anxious because they have more of a decision-making role in the training process. They need to know ‘how the weight feels’ in relation to ‘how many more reps’ they think they could do following the completion of a given set. As a result, they might not trust their own assessment of performance, and are left wondering ‘was that RPE 8 or RPE 9’.
If you’ve read this far, you might identify with the narrative above.
One of the issues is that it’s extremely hard to create a bridge of knowledge going from percentage-based training to using RPE protocols. In other words, taking an athlete from predominately using percentages their entire training career, and teaching them how to effectively analyze their performance to achieve the exertion levels within a program. We need a two-sided solution: one that gives coaches the ability to set their athletes up for success by not overshooting or undershooting their expected RPE, and one that gives athletes tools to define how their performance is being experienced throughout the workout.
Earlier this year I was invited to speak at a coaching summit alongside some of the best powerlifting coaches in the game. One of these coaches was Mike Tuchscherer, considered to be the earliest adopter of using RPE protocols in powerlifting. More than anyone in the sport, he has moved the needle on what we know and understand about using RPE’s to manage training intensity, volume, and fatigue.
Let me explain what we should all know about RPE and some of the benefits.
The “basics” of RPE have been widely talked about for many years. The concept that an athlete’s perception of their performance within their workout, as a function of how ‘close’ they’re working to fatigue, can be used to regulate training broadly. As Mike himself says, using RPE is a way for an athlete to put the ‘right weight on the bar’ for the ‘right number of reps’. With this definition, the ‘right weight’ and ‘right number of reps’ depends on an athlete’s state of fatigue. If an athlete is well recovered, the RPE will allow an athlete to lift heavier absolute loads; however, if an athlete is under recovered, the RPE allows the athlete to lift lighter absolute loads.
The key benefit to using RPE protocols in powerlifting is that training becomes ‘auto-regulated’. This term is used almost synonymously with anyone implementing RPE-based training. Essentially, it means that training will ebb and flow based on an athlete’s current stage of fatigue. Sometimes an athlete will lift more weight, or less, for the same RPE and rep range, but performance over time will generally trend in the right direction. This is because fatigue is being managed based on the performance of the lifter within a given training session. The idea behind using RPE is that we can push athletes when they’re in an optimal state of readiness to perform, but pull back when there are lingering signs of fatigue.
For any training methodology, training is the most effective when we can catch the ‘right’ balance between:
• The optimal training stimulus – the right weight for the right number of reps;
• An athlete’s current level of fatigue – the training stress caused by a combination of volume, intensity, and frequency; and,
• An athlete’s ability to recovery – the rate at which training stress can be offset
Now, I’m not suggesting that RPE is the most effective way to accomplish these goals. In fact, in a recent article I suggested that RPE is one of many tools that can be used to structure training stimulus and manage fatigue. However, when I sat through the practical portion of the coaching summit where Mike Tuchscherer explained the RPE scale and how it’s used within his system of coaching, there were still athletes who missed the mark on assessing their own RPEs.
What we must recognize is that RPE training has a different language and set of tools to define load and progression. When athletes confront RPEs for the first time, they are doing so from the lens of what they have already established in their mind to be an effective means of progression. If an athlete is building to a top set of 80% for 4 reps, they might do 60% for 4 reps, and then 70% for 4 reps, before reaching the target weight. Athletes are not expected to gauge their exertion in the process, nor take jumps based on the performance of their previous set.
To effectively teach athletes how to use RPEs, coaches need to provide a familiar reference point for athletes. So, rather than expecting someone to know what RPE 8 feels like, or the weight and rep range that might yield RPE 8, the goal is to structure the program that guides someone to that eventual conclusion. The bridge between taking someone from a percentage-based system, and teaching them how to use RPEs, relies heavily on the heuristic methods used to onboard athletes during their first encounters with RPE training.
Below I will suggest three methods I’ve used in athlete’s programming that takes them from never using RPEs to feeling confident in their ability to assess performance. As you’ll see, these methods use both RPE and percentages in order to let the athlete discover their exertion level through a language that is already familiar.
Week 1: 1 set of 5 reps @ 75%
Week 2: 1 set of 5 @ 8RPE
Week 3: 1 set of 5 @ 80%
Week 4: 1 set of 5 @ 8RPE
For each week on this program, the athlete is building to a top set of 5 reps. On week 1 and 3, the athlete is using a percentage to determine their top set. On week 2 and 4, the athlete is using a RPE to determine their top set.
When using this method, it’s important that:
• The athlete starts on week 1 using a percentage, which is a loading parameter that is already familiar to them
• Over the weeks the reps for the top set don’t change – so that athletes have a common reference point when they start to compare percentages and RPEs.
During the first week of training, the athlete is going to build to a 75% load for 5 reps. While this is a predictable load, the athlete should be asked to assess their performance as a RPE following that work set. The 75% load for the number of reps prescribed should yield a meaningful exertion level of which a 6RPE or higher should be given. The reason why we want to have a RPE higher than 6 is that the further their exertion is from their fatigue limit, the harder it is going to be to rate. This stems from the premise that RPE is based on ‘how many more reps are left in the tank’, and so sub-maximal work is much harder to determine, for example, whether a set was 10 or 11 reps away from fatigue is difficult to differentiate.
During the second week of training, the athlete is going to build to a set of 5 at RPE 8. The athlete is going to have a baseline of their performance from the previous week in order to predict what they might be capable of lifting using the RPE protocol. For example, if they performed 75% for 5 reps at RPE 6 on week 1, this would be good evidence to suggest that another 5% might place them within the ballpark of RPE 8.
It’s important that athletes take this opportunity to overshoot or undershoot their RPE, and not get discouraged about the accuracy of hitting their RPE. Remember, the goal of alternating between percentages and RPEs over the weeks is not to add progressive overload, but rather to teach the athlete how to assess performance.
At this point, week 3 and 4 become more predictable in its loading outcomes. Athletes would build to the fixed percentage on week 3 – in this case 80%. They would be asked to rate their performance during this set and compare it with the performance from week 1 and 2. There might be a good chance that the load on week 2 and 3 are the same, and so now the athlete can rate their RPE using the same load and rep range. This is a good learning opportunity to show athletes that even under similar loads and rep ranges RPE can change based on how things ‘feel’ for that particular day. On week 4, the athlete repeats the protocol on week 2, but uses the combination of the weeks leading up to that workout as evidence to suggest what load might yield the RPE rating.
If you use MyStrengthBook, then it will be important to track your RPE once the top set is completed. Over time, these RPE ratings will be cross referenced with your reps and loads to adjust your personalized RPE table to fit your levels of strength. The personalized RPE table allows you to look up the RPE prescribed, and number of reps you need to complete in the program, and view a percentage that should yield the exertion levels. The personalized RPE table will change over time as RPE ratings are tracked.
Week 1: 4 * 6 @ 70% (RPE 7)
Week 2: 4 * 6 @ 70% (RPE 7)
Week 3: 4 * 5 @ 75% (RPE 7)
Week 4: 4 * 5 @ 75% (RPE 7)
For this protocol, weeks 1-2 and 3-4 have the same sets, reps, percentage, and RPE. The only changes between the first two weeks and the last two weeks is a small reduction in reps. Again, it’s important to have some controlled variables over the weeks so that athletes develop the skill of rating performance within the same parameters.
You can see that the loading parameters include both a percentage and RPE. For this method, athletes will prioritize the percentage on the first set. For example, on week 1 and 2, athletes will lift 70% for 6 reps on the 1st set. From there, athletes will assess their performance with the prescribed RPE in mind by asking a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question after each set: “am I above or below the RPE?”. If they are below, athletes will add weight to the next set. If they are above, athletes will remove weight. This process will repeat after each set that is completed. If an athlete assesses their performance as the exact RPE prescribed (i.e. not higher or lower) than they would be instructed to keep the load for the following set, and ask themselves the same question again.
What athletes are trying to do is continuously assess their performance with a benchmark in mind. Athletes might have a difficult time rating their RPE as a standalone measure of performance. However, when a benchmark is given, and they only need to assess whether they’re higher or lower than the benchmark, the task becomes much easier. For this method, it doesn’t matter if an athlete is always above or below the benchmark, the key task here is that there are measuring their performance set-after-set and adjusting the weight accordingly
If you’re an MyStrengthBook user then assigning a RPEs to each work set helps build your personalzed RPE table. The sets that are assessed and assigned over time makes the table evolve into something relatable that can be used to predict levels of exertion across a number of rep ranges.
Secondary Exercise: Dumbbell Bench Press
Protocol: 4 sets * 8 reps
Load: Find RPE 7 on first set, then maintain load for all sets
Percentages are used with exercises that have a 1RM, which include the competition squat, bench, and deadlift, and some close variations of those exercises. However, assistant movements that include dumbbell or cable movements don’t typically have a 1RM. As such, these exercises provide a low-risk learning environment for using RPE. This is because the consequence of overshooting the RPE during an assistant lift won’t contribute significantly to overall levels of fatigue.
In this example, a dumbbell bench press is programmed with the same number of sets, reps, and RPE over the four weeks. An athlete might already have a context for what they can do for this movement for the prescribed number of reps. They would be instructed to use that prior knowledge to understand their top end strength, but as they warm-up they are assessing their performance against the RPE. The goal is that the athlete finds their working weight when the first set becomes RPE 7. At this point, they would maintain the same load over their working sets and continue to evaluate their RPE as it relates to the number of sets completed. The athlete would not change the load over the sets, but simply assess RPEs and notice whether they’re going up or down.
What this teaches athletes is that a RPE is dependant on levels of fatigue. So, when an athlete is fresh on their first set a load might yield a lower RPE, but as number of sets increase, the RPE might also increase. Another benefit is that athletes learn about their work capacity as it relates to a particular exercise. For example, an athlete might be able to complete multiple sets with the same load without their RPE increasing for one exercises, but on another exercise fatigue could set in within the first couple sets and the RPE would go up.
It’s important that when programming a ‘first set RPE’ that a lower RPE is prescribed (typically RPE 6 or 7) so that they can maintain the load over throughout the workout. Athletes need to have the ability to complete the prescribed number of sets without failing, and therefore, it should be anticipated that fatigue will increase over the sets. The risk is that if a ‘first set’ RPE is higher than 7 that an athlete could fail after several sets of this protocol – if failure does happen then the athlete would be instructed to drop weight in order to complete the number of sets and reps prescribed.
With the first two methods described, they both use a percentage and RPE to guide athletes in assessing performance. The percentage acts as a familiar reference point to compare with the RPE. However, the ‘first set RPE’ method does not include a percentage as a reference point. Therefore, I would use this method with athletes who have shown a growing ability to assess RPEs, and as a means to transition athletes to more traditional RPE programming for the primary powerlifting movements.
It’s hard to teach someone how to use RPEs, especially when they’ve been trained to use percentages throughout their lifting career. We need methods that help onboard athletes into using RPEs effectively. What I’ve suggested in this article are ways for athletes to use a framework they already know, and encourage them to rate RPE in a low risk setting. The goal here when athletes are learning how to use RPE is not to program for the sake of progressive overload, but to increase the skill of assessing their performance.
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