RPEs, an acronym for Rating of Perceived Exertion, are an awesome training tool. Unfortunately, outside of a relatively small group of lifters that are familiar with Mike Tuchscherer's Reactive Training Systems, the overwhelming majority of lifters do not understand how to use them. My goal is to expose more lifting enthusiasts to RPEs and the variety of ways that they can be applied to training. Rather than waste my time writing about the basics of RPEs, I am going to refer you to an excerpt from Mike Tuchscherer's Reactive Training Manual. Mike is an amazing powerlifter and a true student of his sport. RPEs, as they relate to lifting, are his baby; it would be foolish of me to try to explain exactly what RPEs are when you can get that information straight from the horse's mouth. What I want to do is go beyond the basics and show some of the cool things RPEs allow you to do. This is a big topic (and one that I am very passionate about), so this will likely turn into a series of articles about all things RPE. My goal is that this information will cause more lifters to adopt RPEs into their own training and, in turn, lifter bigger weights.
Using RPEs to Control Intensity, Part 1
Okay, so you read Mike's article and you get the just of RPEs. Immediately after your set you rate how hard that set felt. If you rack the weight after a set of squats and you think that you would have gotten only one more rep in that set, then you would classify that set as a 9 RPE. Reading that article, you also noticed that certain rep-RPE pairings (roughly) correlate with certain intensities, as see below.
Just so everyone is on the same page, intensity, in lifting terms, refers to a percentage of your 1-rep max (not how much pacing, seething, and heavy-metal listening you are doing). So, let's say the most weight you can lift for one rep in the bench press is 300 pounds. 300 pounds is 100% of your 1-rep max and, therefore, when you bench press 300 pounds you are working at 100% intensity. If, sticking with the example of a 300-pound bencher, you are doing sets on the bench press with 255 pounds, then you are working at 85% intensity (255/300=.85).
Intensity is an extremely important variable when it comes to lifting weights. This is because lifting at different intensities is going to cause different physiological effects. Coaches who understand the effects of different intensities often write programs that call for doing certain numbers of sets and reps at certain percentages of a lifter's 1-rep max. This is all well and good, but it does not take into account a lifter's bad days and good days. Sometimes, you go into the gym feeling absolutely terrible and 80% intensity feels like 95% intensity. Contrarily, every once in a while you have a day where 95% intensity feels like 80%. Furthermore, percentages often fail to take into account strength gains during a training cycle. While 255 pounds may have been 85% of your max at the beginning of your cycle, it might be only 80% as you get stronger.
Utilizing RPEs, we are able to sidestep the deficiencies of traditional percentage-based training while maintaining the original intention of percentages, which is controlling training intensity. Being able to control training intensity more precisely allows us to more efficiently induce the adaptations that we need to induce to get stronger. In other words, if you have a strength objective, and you know the adaptations you need to induce to achieve that objective, and you know which protocols cause those adaptations, and you have tools that allow you to consistently and precisely complete those protocols, then you will get stronger.
When it comes to protocols, Mike Tuchscherer is fond of saying that there is good, better, and best. Given what we know about physiology, we know that certain protocols address certain objectives most effectively. However, that doesn't mean that other protocols don't work at all. For each strength objective, there is a sliding scale from what is most effective to what is less effective. Below is a table that I created to organize training objectives and training protocols. Percentages are across the top, number of reps is along the left side, and the colored cells are RPEs (for example, "@9" means working at a 9 RPE). Green cells denote protocols that are the "best" at promoting the adaptations that allow you to reach that particular objective. As we go from green to yellow-green to yellow to yellow-red, we are sliding down the scale from "best" to "better" and, finally, to "good". I don't claim that the tables are perfect (yet), but they can give you a general idea about how to use RPEs to control intensity.
(Note: You can click on the picture to make it a little bigger and a little clearer)
The tables are very powerful, and I plan on elaborating on them, and other RPE-related things, in the coming weeks. But, for now, contemplate the RPE basics, intensity, and the objectives and protocols in the tables. Things should start to click, and you will likely begin to see training in a whole new way.
If you have any questions or comments don't hesitate to let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!