We use RPEs in training to define the effort. The last rep of each set is proximal to some level of your fatigue. Let’s say you maxed out and didn’t leave any reps in the tank. This means you reached your fatigue limit and would call it a RPE 10. In powerlifting, it’s commonly not prescribed to train at this level of exertion for every set. You would run out of gas pretty quick, and likely fail to recover and adapt. But what about other levels of exertion, like RPE 7, 8, or 9? How should you split your time between these exertion ranges?
The distribution of RPEs means how much volume (tonnage or number of lifts) you’re doing at various RPEs. For example, if 100% of the reps you do in training are at RPE 8, then there is very little distribution. You’d be training with the same exertion all the time (minus your warm-up sets). Therefore, your relative intensity would always be 2 reps below your max capacity.
So, how much volume should you do at RPE 7, or RPE 8, or RPE 9, over the course of the training cycle? Do you want to undulate your distribution so that some weeks have more volume at the higher end of the RPE scale, and some weeks at the lower end? Or should there be a consistent split between your RPE distribution?
I guess the answer is always: it depends. Obviously, any training concept or application doesn’t exist in a vacuum where all inputs equal the same outputs for every athlete and situation. Training for high performance is complex and nuanced, and there are likely more ‘it depends’ answers to the questions we ask.
To further complicate things, there isn’t a lot of written on the distribution of RPEs in powerlifting. My hunch is that RPEs are prescribed with a mix of (1) a coaches’ intuition on what he or she believes will yield the greatest results, (2) whatever the most common practice is at any given time (i.e. the most popular thing athletes are broadly doing on the internet), (3) whatever an athletes believes he or she will respond favorably to, and (4) whatever emerging literature or research is being published (which is not a lot compared with other areas of study).
These heuristics for programming are totally fine. But, this is why a lot of answers to questions are ‘it depends’.
Put simply, distribution of RPEs measures how much volume we’re accumulating as it relates to our fatigue limit. This is the idea of relative intensity. Remember, there’s a difference between intensity (% of 1RM) and relative intensity (how close you’re working to fatigue). Even if you’re lifting lower absolute intensities (60-65% of your 1RM), you can still achieve higher RPE ratings if you’re performing these intensities for higher repetitions (if you want a quick primer on “relative intensity”, which is what RPE measures, then click HERE).
So, when we look at how we’re distributing our volume across various RPEs, we’re actually trying to see how much work we can do at or close to our fatigue limit, and still recover and adapt positively. Of course, there may be periods within the training cycle where you might be able to handle a lot of volume at higher RPEs because in the short/medium term you’re able to recover and adapt. However, what are the implications long term of always training at the higher end of the RPE spectrum? Are you still able to recover and adapt adequately? Do periods of higher RPEs need to be coupled with periods of lower RPE work? And if so, how low in order for us to still achieve a training effect?
It seems like we’ve already asked more questions than answers. So, it may be easier to look at an example to work our way back to an effective understanding. Let’s see how Bryce Krawczyk of Calgary Barbell designed the distribution of RPEs between the volume and strength phases in the 16-week “Meat and Potatoes” Training Cycles.
This phase of training is focused on hypertrophy adaptations through higher overall volumes, mostly as a result of higher rep ranges being prescribed (between 5-10 reps). The average number of total lifts each week is 179, with the highest being 210 and the lowest being 140. In terms of exercises, while there are training days that incorporate the competition movements, over 50% of the volume is accumulated with secondary movements (variations of the squat, bench, and deadlift).
Within the first four weeks, the distribution alternates between RPE 9, RPE 8, RPE 7 accordingly. On weeks 1 and 3 the distribution is 5% (RPE 9), 45% (RPE 8), and 35% (RPE 7). This switches on weeks 2 and 4 where the distribution is 15% (RPE 9), 35% (RPE 8) / 45% (RPE 7). On average, there is more volume accumulated in the RPE 7-8 range throughout the first 4 weeks of this training cycle. However, the distribution never swings more than 45% for either of these ranges — it’s balanced by other levels of exertion.
On weeks 5-8, the distribution begins to shift toward the higher end of the RPE spectrum. On average, the distribution is split between 20% (RPE 9), 60% (RPE 8), and 20% (RPE 7). Whereas in the first four weeks there was more of a balanced distribution between RPE 7-8 work, we begin to see the majority of the volume accumulated in the RPE 8 range later in the volume cycle.
This phase of training is focused on strength adaptations and peaking your competition lifts for a 1RM test. It also includes a ‘taper’ week, which is the conclusion of the full 16-weeks of programming. The rep ranges drop compared with the last phase, and stay between 1-5 reps. The average number of total lifts each week is 79, with the highest being 126 lifts and the lowest being 3 lifts (on the de-load week). This is almost 100 reps less total reps on average compared with the volume phase, and you’ll notice each week has a step-by-step reduction in number of lifts. Each workout is characterized with 1-2 top sets based on RPE, and finish with several back-off sets that add additional training volume.
Within the first four weeks, the distribution favors the RPE 9 and 8 ranges. On weeks 1 and 2 the distribution is 27% (RPE 9) and 57% (RPE 8). There is also a relatively small percentages of volume in the RPE 7 and 6 range — 12% and 4% accordingly. The shift to the strength phase is already characterized by a greater percentage of RPE 9 exertion when compared with the volume phases.
On weeks 5-6, the distribution continues to favor RPE 9 and 8 ranges — 32% and 55% accordingly. On week 7, the number of total lifts for the week drops to the lowest out of the training cycle (23 lifts); however, the distribution swings favorably to RPE 9 with a program high of 65% of total reps being accumulated in this range. This is characteristic of an ‘over-reaching week’ where the majority of the volume is accumulated at peak intensities. On week 8, only 3 lifts are performed in the competitions movements (3 reps at RPE 7.5), which represents the de-load week before testing.
Using this training cycle as an example, we can see some obvious patterns and draw important conclusions.
In the volume phases, there is a trend to favor RPE 7 and 8 ranges, which aligns with Bryce’s philosophy of ‘easing into the training cycle’ and increasing technical prowess.
Bryce explains, “The volume phase starts with a low stress introductory week, which could be run immediately post-meet or after a gym-test…The program has a great deal of reps in sub-maximal zones to cultivate technical perfection in the competition movements”.
While there are several reps being accumulated in the RPE 8 and 9 ranges, they are not heavily distributed, and balanced with a majority of RPE 7 or lower work. We can assume that the specific goal of the program should dictate the distribution of RPE. If you’ve just finished a period of high stress, over-reaching, then it should likely be followed by lower RPE work. This is the idea of a ‘sustainable training design’, balancing high stress and low stress. In addition, if the goal is to improve the technical components of the lift, then a valid process would be to start with relative intensities that allow you to maintain perfect form, and increase intensity alongside the skill acquisition.
Additionally, we must also think about how much volume spent in higher relative intensity zones is enough to create the desired training effect. In other words, what is the threshold that we need to cross in order to see a positive adaptation? Clearly, we don’t need 100% of our reps being accumulated in the RPE 9 and 10 zones to create an effect. This is where I find it helpful to use the ‘high bar analogy’. In track and field, you want to jump high enough to clear the bar, but any effort you exert that allows you to jump way higher than the bar is likely wasteful.
In the volume phases, we never see more than 50% of the reps being accumulated in RPE 8 or 9 zones. What this means is that half of the training is done in RPE 7 zones or lower in the volume phase, and half is done in RPE 8 zones or higher. It can be concluded that Bryce has set up this training cycle so that the bar, the threshold to positively adapt, is a 50/50 split between higher and lower RPE zones. Obviously, this threshold will vary for most people, but understanding your baselines, your starting point, will allow you to optimize this distribution over time.
In the strength phases, there is a higher distribution on RPE 8 and 9 ranges. For example, we see between 25-32% of the total reps being accumulated in the RPE 9 range. This is a significant increase in distribution from the volume phases. With that said, the strength phases have almost 50% less total number of lifts as compared with the volume phases. Therefore, it can be assumed that at lower overall number of lifts being performed an athlete might be able to tolerate more lifts at higher ends of the RPE spectrum.
Why might this be the case?
High volume training programs elicit greater metabolic stress. As a result, athletes might require more reps at the lower end of the RPE scale in order to recover and continue to adapt. When volume begins to decrease in the strength phases, especially by a rate of 50%, an athlete should be in a good position from a stress-recovery standpoint to handle higher RPE work.
As we begin to peak for competition, reps will drop between the 1-3 range. Both the absolute intensity (% or 1RM) and relative intensity (RPE) should increase. The idea behind increasing these variables is to facilitate neurological adaptions that involve a more efficient activation pattern of the specific muscles involved in powerlifting. You can only do this with high-intensity training. Put simply, the goal of powerlifting is to move as much weight as possible for 1 rep, and at some point you will need to have a stimulus that works toward this end goal.
How do we work toward this end goal to peak on competition day?
You will notice that only on weeks 5, 6, and 7 of the strength phase that the RPE distribution is heavily favoring RPE 9 (32-65%). Through these last final weeks, an athlete should positively adapt to higher intensity (gain strength), and begin to assess their upper capacities (set attempts for competition).
Bryce explains, “the lifter should not only be good at heavy singles, but also be able to make excellent attempt selections based on the trend of estimations throughout these blocks”.
However, an athlete can only linearly progress their top sets in the 1-3 rep range for so long before they’re unable to add weight. For example, an athlete will not be able to continue to add 10lbs each week forever and ever. The goal here is to get enough heavy work in this phase, but ensure that plateaus don’t occur before the competition. You want to put your best numbers, your heaviest singles together on competition day. That’s the benefit of swinging your distribution to the higher RPE range for a span of 2-4 weeks prior to the competition. The exact number of weeks where you’ll train at the higher RPE range will vary, but by trying out different lengths leading up to competition, you will find an optimal peaking strategy.
Through this example, I hope to have convinced you that RPE distribution should change. There are several general principles we can learn from this article, including how volume and intensity over the training cycle should impact our RPE distribution. However, our original assertion of how it should change ‘depends’, especially when we’re looking at individual cases. The best way to start learning about your individual differences is to establish a baseline by using best practices. What this means is taking the general prescriptions that exist, such as the Calgary Barbell Meat and Potato cycles, and after running through several peaking cycles, assess your performance. You might realize small changes that you can make in order to continue to add more kilos out of your training inputs. #TrackAnalyzeTrain
Want to start establishing your baselines and understand which peaking strategies work for you? Try the Calgary Barbell Meat and Potatoes training cycle on MyStrengthBook. You can track your training metrics alongside each phase of the program.
Most athletes pay over $150-200 for online coaching, but Bryce’s training cycles are available on MyStrengthBook for only $29/month. You’ll also get the benefit of being able to track his programs using the MyStrengthBook analytics platform to better understand what you do in the gym.
To get started sign-up for a FREE TRIAL, go to the Program Library, and add Bryce’s training cycle you’re your calendar.
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