RPE System of Training

Discussion in 'Powerlifting Training and Strength techniques' started by PillarofBalance, Sep 26, 2015.

  1. PillarofBalance

    PillarofBalance Strength Pimp Staff Member

    Feb 27, 2011
    Let’s talk about RPE, its benefits and how to program or at least how to transition into an RPE controlled program.

    What is it?

    Getting stronger requires two things; high intensity levels in training, meaning go heavy as well as management of fatigue levels. Some of us have experienced this first hand, seen it happen to someone else, or have at least heard that if you train maximally for too many sessions in a row, you will stop progressing and in many cases start sliding backwards.

    Using RPE allows you to train at high intensity, with volume but to manage your fatigue level using your own intuition. RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion.

    To explain this very generally and in as few words as possible

    - Do a set, whether a single or set of 100 reps, and rate this set on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 would be as easy as possible and a 10 would be a maximal effort. So an RPE value of 9 would mean you have one rep left in the tank at the end of the set. An RPE of 8 would mean two left in the tank and so on.
    Simple enough right? Well it really is. As I stated before you use your own intuition to manage your stress levels per set. So if you wake up and feel like crap, if you missed a meal or 2 that day, if things were stressful at work and you can’t bench 400 for sets of 5 like you did last week that’s fine. You just have to hit the prescribed RPE value.

    Essentially, you hit your target RPE and can walk out of the gym feeling like you accomplished something every single time you train.

    How to Program:

    Most strength athletes are used to training on a program that is based on percents of 1rm. Whether you have trained 5/3/1, westide, cube you have gotten used to squat Monday for speed at around 50 to 60%, bench Wednesday for reps around 70 to 80% and deadlift heavy at 80 to 90%. Rep ranges are typically chosen using Prilepin’s table.

    With RPE you build your volume with reps of course but how would you do this without falling into the programming pitfall of linear progression? Through undulation of the rep ranges and volume. More on this as I explain the transition to RPE.

    There are 4 types of sets you will program. You begin by working up to your “top set.” The heaviest you will go for the day.

    Example: Squat @9 1 set * 3 reps

    So you work up in triples until you hit @9. This is the first type of set.

    From there you build in volume by using repeat sets, fatigue (load) drops, or rep drops.

    Repeat sets give two @RPE assignments. You work up to your first assigned @RPE value and continue performing sets until you reach the second @RPE assignment.

    Example: Squat @8 until @9 1 set * 3 reps

    So you work up to an @8, rest and continue doing triples until you reach @RPE 9. If you do all sets and still feel you’re @8 then you undershot the RPE. If you attempt your first repeat set and are @10 and form breaks down then you overshot your @RPE for the first set.

    For fatigue, also known as load drop sets, you work up to your top set for the day. From there you drop a percentage of the weight off the bar and continue to work as prescribed.

    Example: Squat @9 1*3; fatigue drop 10% 2-4*3

    So you squat triples up until you reach @9. Say that’s 400 pounds. You then strip 10% or 40lbs off the bar and continue doing triples in this case for two to four more sets. Once you strip the 10% off the RPE should fall between an @7 or @8. If you can’t complete one back-off set you overshot the RPE. If you complete all 4 then you undershot the RPE. Once you reach the original @RPE assignment of @9 you stop there even if it’s only set 2 or 3 of a possible 4.
    To complete a rep drop, it’s similar to a fatigue drop. Except that the weight on the bar stays the same, but the number of reps per set will drop. This will drop the @RPE assignment and allow for what are essentially back off sets.

    Example: Squat @9 1*3; rep drop 2-4*2

    So you work up to a triple @9. From there you rest and perform more sets but only for doubles now. If @9 means you have one left in the tank after a triple, then arguably dropping to a double should bring you to @8. So you do the doubles and work up to your original @RPE assignment of @9 in this case.
    Now as I mentioned above, you need to have some undulation in there to avoid linear progression. With linear progression, at some point you’ll stop making progress entirely and turn into an old washed up blow hard like Mark Rippetoe.

    Your undulation can be worked in, in several ways. You can switch out main lifts and use a conjugate method. You can keep the competition lifts in, but change out the assistance work from week to week. The method I prefer is to keep assistance lifts in for around 3 to 4 weeks and always practice the competition lifts. So I build in some undulation by varying rep ranges. In some cases I am pushing the bounds of fatigue, but there is a lighter day each week which generally allows some recuperation and the use of RPE allows the athlete to manage their own fatigue levels. If they can’t complete all sets, they stop.

    I accomplish undulation by having the athlete lift to their top set, but their back off sets are all varying rep ranges. Their back off sets for week 1 may be 9 sets of 10; week 2 may be 4 sets of 5; and, week 3 may be 5 sets of 3. They are not strictly required to get all sets. Simply follow the assigned @RPE values I provide.

    How to Transition
    I have had clients who were given RPE based programs where they had no experience working with RPE. After explaining it all, they were still nervous. They liked the comfort they get from knowing what weight they must hit that day with a program based on %1RM.

    So I began transitioning these clients by using RPE values for only their accessory work. So a sample day might look something like this:

    Bench @70% 5*5
    Floor Press @9 1*3; repeat until @10
    Triceps Band Pushdown @10 5*10
    Barbell Row @8 5*10

    So they do their bench at 70% and are happy. But they have to work to understand the RPE system and get used to it. Then once they have gotten the hang of RPE and stop complaining about it, I pull the rug out of their percentage based programming and watch them smash PR’s left and right by letting them determine their own top sets.

    If you really want to get a much deeper understanding of RPE for coaching purposes, then grab a copy of Mike Tuscherer’s RTS manual. For the trainee, this should be enough for you to understand how to get through a training day using an RPE system and maybe put some sort of a program together for yourself.

    If a properly crafted custom training program that uses RPE values is what you are looking for then shoot me a PM and let’s talk about your goals.

  2. Bullmuscle7

    Bullmuscle7 MuscleHead

    Jun 11, 2014
    I loved RPE and can't wait to get back to it.

    Having done it I'm now doing it in my mind with smolov.

    Smolov is the first program I've ever done where poundages for the day are calculated and assigned.

    RAIDEN VIP Member

    Feb 22, 2012
    Nice write up. I am really digging the RPE method, good stuff coach!
  4. BrotherIron

    BrotherIron TID Board Of Directors

    Mar 6, 2011
    Maybe I like I %'s....

    Honestly though, I think this will be what I eventually go to. I'm going to use RPE for my assisting lifts.
    PillarofBalance likes this.
  5. PillarofBalance

    PillarofBalance Strength Pimp Staff Member

    Feb 27, 2011
    Haha not saying using %1rm is wrong of course. I am very open minded to training.

    Me and halo chatted after his surgery and talked about how some people get paralyzed trying to find a program or bounce from one to another.

    In reality - if you are working hard and pushing yourself you will get stronger.

    But let's look at Go Away as an example. He went back thru his log and assigned an rpe value to his bench work. He found that even though he was using just a % he still managed to hit @10 on either comp bench or every assistance exercise..

    For an advanced or even intermediate lifter that spells doom.

    So this is simply a better way in my opinion to manage intensity levels more closely.

    How many times have you skipped parts of your training day because you felt like shit? With rpe you can still do a movement and just hit your rpe and feel good about it.

    Sport psychology is an important aspect of coaching. So what got me to look closely at this was one client in particular who would miss a lift from time to time and sulk for a week. It would mess with his mindset on his next training day. Now he walks out of the gym with his head on right.
  6. macgyver

    macgyver TID Board Of Directors

    Nov 24, 2011
    Interesting POB. I was just reading about how RPE may not be a good indicator of actual muscle work.

    In a study about using lower weights higher reps (vs heavier wt lower reps), the higher rep group had much higher RPE but did not seem to make any more significant advances in strength. They even went on to say the higher RPE suffered more fatigue and took longer to recover (and again did not make better progress)

    This may be an indicator that RPE is not a good benchmark to run your training by. In personal experience, I have seen this running 5/3/1. I never really felt like I was putting much work in. Even after my workouts, it did not feel like I did much. Yet into my 5th cycle I hit the wall and could not continue to recover from my workouts. (the ones where I felt like I was not doing anything)

    Just something to think about.

    Some interesting points on it made in this article.
  7. PillarofBalance

    PillarofBalance Strength Pimp Staff Member

    Feb 27, 2011
    Read the article and I don't think his ideas apply here. Programming with this method I described in my article has almost nothing to do with hypertrophy.

    Also the author continually lumps "strength and hypertrophy" together as though each goal always goes hand in hand.

    We don't train to failure in PL. Because if you fail you get stapled. Further, EMG testing does not take into account the leveraging of bodyweight.

    So in the example I provide I am using rpe to manage nervous system fatigue not muscle activity or muscle fatigue.
  8. BrotherIron

    BrotherIron TID Board Of Directors

    Mar 6, 2011
    I'm really digging that idea...using RPE for assistance work b/c there have been days when I was dragging ass and I would make myself a deal... Hit the numbers I was supposed to for the main lift and the main assistance lift, I would call it a day (meaning I would ditch 3 more lifts). I like the idea of instead saying... I'm feeling like shit so I'll use an RPE (RPE dependent on the type of lift; strength, speed, or hypertrophy) and then adjusting accordingly so I don't skip out on what I should do. I'm going to use that for my next layout I'll be starting soon.

    And who knows... perhaps in time, I'll switch it to the whole program. I like the idea of a self regulating program.
  9. ChrisLindsay9

    ChrisLindsay9 MuscleHead

    Jun 17, 2013
    I have been explaining the philosophy of RPE to a couple of lifters at the gym, and one of the things that I suggested was that as they transition from a %-based system to using RPE, start recording in their journal an RPE number after they finish a set or an exercise in the %-based program. That way, over a period of time, they get used to seeing/feeling how it's working for them.

    Example: if Joe is doing 300x3 for 3 sets that day, after he completes them ... he can record what RPE level he felt after the sets. He might think the first two sets were RPE 7 and the third was RPE 8 or 9. If he does this for a few weeks, he'll likely gain confidence in programming his lifts around RPE instead of just straight percentages.
    UncleAl and PillarofBalance like this.
  10. ChrisLindsay9

    ChrisLindsay9 MuscleHead

    Jun 17, 2013
    One person told me that he was skeptical because to his mind, it seems like it's a "go in the gym and lift by feel" philosophy. I tried refuting this, but I my articulateness was at an RPE of 2 that day.
    Go Away likes this.
  11. DieYoungStrong

    DieYoungStrong VIP Member

    May 27, 2013
    RPE is great if you can be honest with yourself about your training.

    If someone wants to slack, they'll get nothing out of RPE. On the flip side, if you continually try to push it to hard, you will over do it. I do know some people who just need to be told how much they are lifting, when they are lifting it, and how many reps they have to do...

    That said, I'm a fan.
  12. C T J

    C T J Crossfit VIP

    Jan 24, 2013
    I use % as a guideline but have always gone off of feel when it comes to weight and reps.
    Sometimes I'm under the guideline and sometimes I'm over.

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