RPEs are a popular topic in the fitness industry at present, popularised by Reactive Training Systems, they provide an abstract method of planning and auto-regulating your training. We asked Bryce if he’d be interested in writing an article covering the practicalities of the approach. As my former coach, I’ve learnt first hand that Bryce is both a fantastic coach, now friend, and athlete with an uncanny ability to distill complexity into simplicity. Below is a summary of Bryce’s achievements from his website www.thestrengthathlete.com, we strongly recommend checking it out:
Bryce Lewis is a competitive, drug-free, elite powerlifter in the 181, 198 and 204 pounds weight classes. He holds records in both the USA Powerlifting federation (USAPL) and American Powerlifting Association (APA), and strives to promote the comprehension and love of powerlifting training throughout the world. Through his success as an elite lifter, Bryce’s dream is to pass on his knowledge and skills through The Strength Athlete (TSA) powerlifting coaching services online in addition to his popular YouTube Channel and Facebook fan page. By these efforts, Bryce hopes to help raw, drug-free powerlifting gain more prominence and acceptance internationally. His best lifts are as follows:
In short. In an IPF meet in the 93kg weight class, Bryce would beat Jonny’s best lifts by just hitting openers. That’s one fat piece of humble pie!
Without further or do, here is your 101 guide to using RPEs in your training:
You’re just about to start warming up for bench press on a Tuesday, but it’s been a long night of studying and you just don’t really feel up for the task. Instead of calling it a night and going home, you drop the weight you usually use by 10kg, finish the session, and head home. Congrats! Whether or not you know it, you are autoregulating your training. Autoregulating in strength training refers to the practice of adjusting some parameter of training to accommodate your present condition. Often times the training load (weight on the bar) is the autoregulated parameter, but we can autoregulate for pain, total number of sets, total volume, number of repetitions, increases in load week to week, etc. One can both up-regulate training (performing better than you normally would), or down-regulate training (where a lifter performs less work than they normally would). The goal is to get the most out of every session, just like the theoretical “you” did a moment ago in finishing the bench session instead of going home and calling it quits.
Before we go on, we need to understand that whatever program an athlete is using, exercises, sets, and reps, and especially loads are chosen to produce a specific training effect, which is a desired outcome of training.
There is however, a more structured way to autoregulate your training, and it involves using the RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion), originating in medicine and subjective experience of pain, but adapted to strength training and popularized by Michael Tuchscherer. The RPE scale is simply a scale from 1-10 that rates subjective or perceived effort, and it is a very powerful tool in training. You see, we consciously or subconsciously rate RPE all the time…we just use subjective and relative terms. “That set was pretty heavy”. “I could have gotten 2 more reps, why did you rack the bar?”, and “Damn I’m good for 10lbs more” are each sentences where the speaker is rating a set’s difficulty. Here and going forward, we will use RPE to refer to number of repetitions in reference to difficulty. Once we establish this, we can link the numerical scale and the more objective number of repetitions left in reserve (RIR) to form a simple chart that pairs an RPE number (5.5-10) with a sentence description of a set’s difficulty:
This chart allows us to bridge the gap between our natural intuitions in judging the difficulty of a set and a numerical system we can put to use. You could have definitely done one more rep? That’s an RPE 9. Note that the language of “definitely” and “maybe” really helps to hone in on the actual RPE. “Definitely’s” and “maybe’s” are the language of our intuitions, so having a system that mirrors those intuitions really makes sense. This chart is useable too, its not just for reference. The athlete begins at the top and keeps asking and answering questions until they have assigned the right RPE to the set in question.
Judging RPE correctly takes time; it’s a skill, just like great deadlifting is a skill. What exactly does “correctly” mean anyway? These are questions we’ll revisit in the section on “Is the RPE method for you?”.
Again, its important to remind ourselves why autoregulating training using the RPE scale is even a worthy pursuit: autoregulating training theoretically allows you to get the most out of each and every session whether you’re feeling great and ready to smash some PRs, or whether you had 2 hours of sleep and your dog just died (sorry Fido). You simply adjust the load based on perceived difficulty as opposed to fixed percentages or some other system of managing loads.
Here is the most basic way of implementing RPE. This is how a session of squats could be planned:
Squats 3×5 @8 RPE
Paused Squat 3×4 @7 RPE
RPE is added to sets and reps to dictate the load used. In this example the athlete (Jane) does her warmup, followed by a set or two that test the waters for the day. After her warmup, Jane does 1×5 at 320 lbs. She rates the set @7 RPE. The weight is too light for a work set, since the plan calls for a top set @8. So she adds 15lbs and performs the next set. She rates set 1x5x335 @8. Bingo! This is her top set (first work set or highest load training set), and she performs the remaining sets with the same load.* Its presumable and even expected that the next set Jane performs is higher than RPE 8—she has accumulated fatigue, so the set will feel more like an @8.5 or @9.
*(I have left out fatigue percents, load drops, and set caps to focus on autoregulation. Please refer to The Reactive Training Manual (link) for a more complete description of these related training methods.)
Implementing the RPE scale is as simple as using it in addition to your already existing training. There is no need to hop on some fixed RPE program…in fact there is no RPE program. it is simply a training tool that allows for more customization and variation in training load—often described as a “scope on a rifle” of your training program. The problem in implementing RPE widely in your program lies only in making sure that you’re using the correct RPE for a particular training movement. Just like choosing 85% 1RM in a specific circumstance, choosing an RPE means that you are targeting a specific training effect, or specific quality we are after building.
A Practical Guide (Step by step guide to using RPEs)
1) Observe, Understand.
To start, you don’t need to do anything fancy. Simply try to familiarize yourself with the RPE scale and rating sets without changing anything about your training. Rate the RPE of sets during your current training, and keep notes of these. Do you notice any patterns in your training? Is most of your work @7-8, or do you find yourself training mainly in @8.5-@10, or is there a mix? The longer you practice rating sets, like any skill, the better you’ll get at it. What used to be sometimes an RPE 7 and sometimes an RPE 9 is now settling on an 8. In fact, I’ve found that there are often “recalibration moments” in beginner and intermediate athletes who really push themselves here and there and find out that the load and reps they normally call an @9 actually is a 7 or lower…they can end up getting out far more repetitions than they previously thought. These moments happen in everyone’s training, and since RPE deals with your subjective rating or how hard a set feels to you, your rating of sets will change as you psychologically become a more mature lifter.
Take these tracked observations and understand what they mean. On days you trained three days in a row, your RPE on that third day is higher than it normally is, isn’t it. That might be a place where actually changing the load in an autoregulated system would benefit the lifter. Or, maybe you just push through it. Things that are tough are not always places to back off, just because the RPE ends up higher than you are targeting.
2) Add RPE Guidelines to assistance work
The next step I would instruct lifters to do is to autoregulated their assistance work. First, these aren’t SO important that missing an RPE or pushing way too hard are going to negatively impact your training, and I think generally this is a great way to find RPE 9’s, since most assistance work is done near failure (1 or 2 reps shy in my experience). In fact in many training systems, assistance work is just listed as “3×8” without any guidance on load selection. It is assumed you take loads near failure. Now instead, you can assign your own assistance work as “3×8 @9” or “3×12 @8” We’ll see in a little bit that ratings of RPE tend to be less accurate in higher repetitions, but this is nevertheless a logical second step.
3) Modify main movement loads away from percentage-based prescriptions
Now that you are familiar with the system, have rated RPE on everything for a few months, have transitioned to utilizing autoregulation on assistance movements for another few months, you are ready to modify the main movements. It’s important to consider the desired training effect one is trying to achieve with a specific exercise and location in one’s training year, but for the time being a simple conversion with some data Mike as collected with his athletes is a good place to start. This is a practical chart as well, and it is extremely important to mention that this is a guideline—a good place to start. The chart below has restrictions…I cannot perform a triple @8 and look up the percentage of 1RM that combination converts to. There is just too much variability between lifters for that to be possible. However, Mike encourages customization of a chart like this to your specific strength curve, and I suggest you head on over to the RTS forums (link) for a more thorough understanding of that process.
This will give you a good place to start. Here’s a day from my own training:
Bench Press 3×3 at 85% 1RM
High Bar Squat 3×3 at 85% 1RM
Sumo Deadlift 3×3 at 85% 1RM
Using the chart below, let’s just see where 3 reps and 85% line up. That should put the set for the average lifter around an RPE 9. Let’s now prescribe the training as:
Bench Press 3×3 @9
High Bar Squat 3×3 @9
Sumo Deadlift 3×3 @9
There we have it! As mentioned, the conversions here are for an average lifter in all senses, and you may experience that your subjective RPEs are higher or lower than what can generally be described here. This is a starting point from which a more thorough understanding of effective training for powerlifting is probably needed
Is the RPE Method Right for You?
Should you actually use this? That’s a complicated question, and like I mentioned above, we ALL autoregulate our training. Its just the degree of autoregulation and usage of the scale and RPE that is in question.
RPE caters generally to people who love data, or who can simultaneously be the coach and the athlete. If this is you, you’re going to love the feeling of control and precision you have over training that can often have peaks and valleys in performance that you normally can’t do anything about. It allows you to get the most out of every session, and to not simply hit dictated loads because they are on a piece of paper. YOU get to decide what you’re capable of, and in many athletes that means progressing faster than a prescribed program might have you performing. For instance, you might notice that you are hitting heavier and heavier loads, but they are all still an RPE 7. Awesome!
Autoregulation might lead to less stress as well, and I don’t just mean training-induced stress. Detaching oneself from fixed loads and fixed linear progression schemes means that you have a little more freedom to make decisions in the moment. That doesn’t mean hitting an RPE 10 every session, but it does mean that on days you are more rested you are probably capable of higher volume, better technique, and heavier loads. On days you are worse off, you can simply get the important stuff done and move on.
Autoregulation involving the scale also works extremely well for people whose estimated 1RM changes rather frequently, notably beginners and intermediates. Personally, my estimated or actual 1RMs only change by 5-10lbs over the course of 6 months to a year of training. For athletes with a lower training age, RPE is a loose enough guideline that you can increase training load on a weekly basis and still be within the suggested RPE. Its like sneaky linear progression.
Ultimately, using RPE is about flexibility and control.
It takes time to hone the scale. For a while, you may be working with training loads that are too heavy, too light, or too consistent to really get the most out of your training until you are able to make more fine-tuned adjustments. Many athletes can take six months to a full year to feel fully comfortable tracking and rating RPE, but report that the experience is well worth it.
This is a cerebral, coach-like approach. While this can clearly be listed in the “pros” section, if this isn’t your type of personality, you might be the kind of person who just likes things laid out for you. You might not want to choose loads on a daily basis and have to modify loads every single time you train. Additionally, rating each set may take you out of your training element (even though you may subjectively rate things already). If you just want to see a number on a page and squat that number, there may be other solutions to bring autoregulation into your training besides RPE.
The scale itself is not well suited for low intensities or high-repetition sets. We’ve all had the experience of finishing a set of 10 and not been sure if you could do 1 more rep or 5 more reps. At lower intensities required with higher repetition work, the scale becomes both less useful and less accurate. At least, your rating of the RPE becomes less accurate. You could have one rep left, or you could bang out another three. If this characterizes the majority of your training, you may be better suited for other training methodologies.
In the end, autoregulation and tracking the RPE of sets that are at least useful training concepts, and if you work with a coach or need to relate perceived difficulty of a training set to someone else, it allows for a common ground that is far more objective than anything else that’s been presented, to my knowledge. Most lifters don’t have the option of tracking bar speed on a per-set basis, and in most cases RPE ends up being a very effective tool. You can tell me you did a triple at RPE 9, and I have a pretty good mental image of what that set looks like. If you are at least curious in the system and its utility, head over to the Reactive Training Systems website and learn some more!