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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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