In the course of trying to help athletes find the best training cycle on our Program Library, we get the following question a lot when recommending a RPE-based program:

“I’m familiar with RPE training but am still quite new at it.  Is there anything I should know in terms of implementing it into my training?”

While we’ve discussed RPE as a training tool in more detail previously, we’ve had to think about the main principles athletes need to know in order to be successful when using RPE.

So, we’ve come up with a list of 3 rules to follow.

Before going any further, you should know that…

In most programs, RPE is used when building to a ‘top set’.

A top set is a set that signals the heaviest weight lifted for the day, which is usually conducted first in the exercise order.

For example:  starting the workout with 3 reps @ RPE 8, typically followed by some prescribed amount of volume or ‘back-off sets’ that relate to how well the athlete performed on the top set.

We have several coaches who design training programs using this approach (Bryce Krawczyk, Brett Gibbs, and Kelly Branton).  Therfore, the rules that we cover below relate specifically to using RPE when building to a top set.

Without further delay, here are the 3 rules you should follow.

 

1.  The Purpose of “Week 1” is to Establish Your Baseline

A program will include several weeks of training that utilize building to a top set based on RPE.

Therefore, you’ll want to take the opportunity on week 1 to determine your ‘baseline’ level of strength.  A ‘baseline’ level of strength is equivalent to your starting strength.  You’ll use these starting points to stage your progressions over multiple weeks of the program.

You can assume over the training cycle that the numbers achieved in the final weeks will be stronger than what you achieved on week 1.

This is important to acknowledge because the approach you want to take is to build your top sets over time.

In establishing your baseline strength on week 1, you’ll want to remember two things:

  • Be conservative.  At the start of a new program, you should not expect to ‘pick up where you ended off’ during your last competition peaking cycle.  So, if the workout asks you to do 3 reps @ RPE 8, don’t think that you’re going to lift the best triple you’ve ever done on week 1.  If you do, you might overshoot your RPE, and that doesn’t leave much room for progression over the rest of the training cycle.

 

  • You likely won’t be totally accurate in your RPE rating on week 1 (that’s okay).   The goal on week 1 is for athletes to simply get within the ‘ballpark’ of their RPE.  Whether or not athletes are bang on doesn’t really matter — athletes just need to get  ‘close enough’ and not split hairs over the difference.  You may slightly undershoot or overshoot the RPE, but the key is simply to establish a starting point, which you can then adjust the progressions, and increase accuracy, over subsequent weeks.

 

2.  Set Targets Each Week — The Target Should be a Range 

Now that you have established your baseline numbers, you should be able to set a target for the next week of training.

We mentioned you can assume you’ll be stronger by the end of the program.  So, set a reasonable target that exceeds the weight you achieved the previous week.

If during week 1 you slightly undershot your RPE, then you might stage a bigger progression for the next week (10-20lbs).  If you slightly overshot your RPE, then you might either plan the same weight (and try to execute it with a lower RPE) or add a smaller progression (5-10lbs).

Either way, your targets should be optimistic and include some level of incremental progression.

In setting your targets, they should include a range rather than a fixed number.  For example, rather than setting a target of 300lbs, athletes should set a target of 295lb-305lbs.

There are two reasons for this:

  • It will allow you to be flexible in how you are performing throughout the workout.  There are natural fluctuations in how you feel within a given day.  Maybe you feel better than the previous week, maybe you don’t, but the range will set you up to account for those daily differences.  Then, once you’re executing on your warm-ups for the day, you can fine tune exactly within the range you’ll end up.

 

  • It will allow you to find success and build momentum.  This is more of a psychological point.   Success hinges on our own expectations of performance, and building momentum relies on consecutive wins.  So, if we rigidly define our target with an exact number (i.e 300lbs), we are limited in our opportunties for success.  Instead, if we set a range for our progression (i.e. 295-305lbs), success can then be found within a gap of margin.  What we’re trying to do is increase the size of the bullseye at the centre of the target, so that even if we’re slightly underperforming for the day, we can still feel like we’ve reached success (i.e. you can still lift 295lbs and still be successful).  In this way, we can build momentum easier week to week, which is a strong source of motivation for athletes.

What athletes should avoid altogether is not having a target for the next week of training.

One approach to using RPE is that you should ‘go by feel’ as you build to the top set.  The ‘going by feel’ approach would view each workout as a blank slate, and not take into account what athletes did the previous week.  However,  this is not optimal because it doesn’t allow for a well structured workout based on prior training evidence.  Training evidence is the weight we’ve lifted previously in the context of the program, which is a strong compass for how we’re going to perform in subsequent weeks.

 

3.  Look at Trend Lines Not Individual Workouts

We’ve already said that you should expect to be stronger in the latter parts of the training cylce, and that your targets should naturally be higher week to week.

However, it’s equally important to recognize that:

  • Progress isn’t linear.  For example, athletes can’t add 20lbs per week for infinity.  The actual increments will differ on a weekly basis.  So while some weeks you might progress 20lbs, other weeks will only be 2lbs.

 

  • In the pursuit of progress there are natural periods of regression.  On paper you can plan forward progressions, but inevitably there will be circumstances that will lead to lifting lower weights than the previous week.  These situations should be a ‘one-off’, and not the majority, but expect some backward steps throughout the training cycle.

The key is not to look at the individual workouts, but zoom out and look at the training cycle as a whole (several months of training).  If you plot your peak weights on a graph, the trend line should be moving some degree of up and to the right.  So, when you are in a situation where you didn’t progress with the same increment than the previous week, or have a regression in weights, remember that on a long term basis your trend line will be positively adapting.

This mindset will keep you sane, allow you to shake-off the bad workouts, and maintain focus on the bigger picture.

A Few Final Notes

If you can implement these three rules then you’ll be in a good position to use RPEs effectively when building to a top set.

While not important for this article, RPE can actually be used in several other ways outside of a ‘top set’ protocol.  Learn different methods of how RPEs can be implemented in training.

Further, we mentioned above that progress isn’t linear.  This is actually a topic that was discussed in more detail in our three-part Progressive Overload series:

Part 1:  Training Programs Must Evolve

Part 2:  Planning for Effective Progressive Overload

Part 3:  Tracking Metrics for Long Term Strength Gain

Finally, to access our Program Library where you can get top powerlifting programs designed by elite coaches and athletes, sign-up for a FREE TRIAL and then download our mobile app on iPhone or Android.

You can get both RPE and percentage-based programs that offer different training splits and frequencies.

About The Author

Avi Silverberg is the Co-Founder of MyStrengthBook.  He holds a M.Sc in Exercise Science, and has been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting through 7 World Championship cycles.  He’s also a bench press specialist with a career high 300kg equipped bench and 227.5kg raw bench @ 120kg bodyweight.

Intelligent training data.
Expert-Designed Programs.

Sign up for a 21-day free trial.
All the tools necessary to get stronger.

Start Your 21-Day Free Trial

Free Trial Login Pricing Product Programs Coaching About Blog Contact
Privacy Policy Terms and Conditions