Why Percentage Programs Should Still Track RPE

Why Percentage Programs Should Still Track RPE
By Mike Tuchscherer
Theme:  RPE should be considered a core metric in your training, even if you’re not basing your training off RPE.
I’ve been fortunate to travel the world giving seminars about Powerlifting and I’ve been doing so for kind of a long time – since 2008 or so.  When I first began, most powerlifters were not familiar with the concept of RPE, so I would teach it from scratch.  Since then, it’s become increasingly popular in the Powerlifting community and, to some extent, the wider strength-training world.  How I go about teaching RPE has changed since the beginning.  I think anytime you teach a subjective technique in the face of a changing surrounding context, that has to happen.
I used to teach RPE something like this…  “RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion and that’s basically a rating of how hard a particular set felt to you.”  But I’ve noticed several problems that this explanation doesn’t address.  Probably the main problem is that it emphasizes an emotional quality to the rating process.  The thing is RPE isn’t about your feelings – it’s about your performance.
Fundamentally, RPE is an attempt to quantify how difficult a performance was for you.  You might ask, “How difficult compared to what?”  That’s a good question.  It’s an assessment of difficulty in relation to a maximal effort.  And if that sounds complicated, it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Imagine that you’re in the gym.  You are squatting.  The weight is something that should be a challenge to you.  You get under the bar, take your stance… big breath in… then you proceed to do your required five reps.  The last rep was slow, but not a terrible grind.  You rack the bar.  Now ask yourself…  Could I have done one more rep?  Could I have done two more reps?  Three?
RPE Chart
The way you answer this question is how you determine your RPE rating.  At this point, you may be expecting me to tell you about how you can utilize this rating to automatically adjust your training loads based on the day’s performance (autoregulation).  Or you may expect me to tell you how this rating allows for more precise communication between athlete and coach, especially in a distance-coaching environment.  Although those are all benefits of an RPE driven approach to the training process, I have several other articles that cover those topics.
JQE_9014What I want to say today is this:  Even if you don’t use an RPE driven approach to your training, rating your RPE gives you large and distinct benefits that non-RPE approaches simply can’t replicate.
Before I can make that case, I need to define what an RPE driven approach to training is.  Most of the training I write is RPE driven (or contains RPE driven elements).  This would be where I send you to the gym with instructions to “Squat for 5 reps at a 9 RPE” or something similar.  The training loads would be determined by your RPE rating.  Conversely, a non-RPE driven approach would be where training load is determined by something else – a percentage, a rep max, etc.
Even among people who disagree with the RPE driven approach to training (to which there are valid complaints), one thing we can agree on is that individuals respond differently to a given training stimulus.  This point is so commonly accepted these days that its nearly axiomatic.  If you then make some fairly simple observations in training environments, it becomes obvious that there are different ideal training programs for individuals as well.  Program A might be best for Lifter 1 and Program B might be best for Lifter 2.  Program A and B are likely similar in some key ways – most likely related to their underlying principles, but they are also likely different in some notable ways as well.  They are different in ways that mean that they are NOT interchangeable.  Giving Program B to Lifter 1 would result in less-than-ideal results.  This is the principle of Individual Differences in action.  One real world example of this are two of my athletes – Liz Craven and Mark Robb.  Both are world class powerlifters with several IPF world records to their names.  Liz trains four training sessions per week with insane volumes.  Mark trains three times per week with more modest volumes.  If they were to swap programs, Liz would get weaker and Mark would get injured.
So how is a lifter to know which program they respond best to?  Well at this point, we don’t know.  We can make some assessments of training history, injury history, movement mechanics, etc.  That can allow us to make an educated guess.  But that’s about all we’ve got at this point.  There is no magic oracle that lets us glimpse what the ideal program might be for any individual.  So what’s left?  We can make an educated guess, then measure the results.  Rinse and repeat.  Over time, we can make more and more informed choices and hopefully converge on an ideal training program with a little bit of time (ideal with respect to the individual – even the individual at that point in time).
Think about that method for a minute.  We’re going to guess, try, measure, then guess again (the more educated, the better the guess of course).  This is the ideal.  A great, great number of lifters and a disappointing number of coaches fail to measure.  Without the measuring piece, you’re basically just left with guessing.  Cognitive biases probably help to convince you that what you’re doing is best – the guesses are educated after all and you don’t know what you don’t know.  But you’re blindly groping.  There’s no improvement and convergence.  You’ve got Liz on a 3-day-a-week program and have convinced yourself that it’s all there is.
But assuming you ARE measuring the results from each program, how long does it take to figure out something meaningful?  If an average training program is 12 weeks long, plus a test week and a deload week, then you’re only going to fit in 3.7 training cycles per year.  And that’s if you don’t get sick, take a vacation, have final exams, etc.  Put another way, it’s going to take nearly three years to test ten ideas.  By the time you get done testing just a few ideas, your surrounding context as a lifter will have changed so much, it’s going to cast doubt on what you learned early on in your testing.
RCO_7070“That’s fine,” you may think, “I’ll just test each 4-week training block.”  That does solve one problem.  You do get much more frequent bits of information.  But that may not be appropriate for many lifters.  Actually, in my experience, it seems to be inappropriate for most.  Never mind that most lifters have not fully adapted to a given stimulus after just four weeks, testing with some sort of maximal effort at that level of frequency is a bad idea and affects the training structure itself.  That’s to say that you’re limited in the training ideas you can test to the ones that are available to be tested every four weeks or so.
What you need is a way to measure your progress throughout the training period without disrupting the training itself.  This is where RPE comes into play again.  When used properly, RPE can be used to provide you with fairly consistent assessments of your performance.  Allow me to illustrate with an example.
Let’s say in week one you lifted 100kg for 6 reps.  Then in week two, you lifted 105kg for 5 reps.  Which is the stronger performance?  With the information given, it’s impossible to say.  We can ASSUME that the level of effort was the same in both cases, but if it wasn’t the same, then this assumption will lead to some incorrect conclusions – i.e. you may THINK you’re getting stronger when you actually aren’t.  Or vice versa.
A better way would be to simply track your RPE for each set.  You don’t have to use RPE to determine your training weights if that’s not your thing (an RPE driven approach).  But simply tracking your RPE for each set allows you to calculate an estimated 1RM fairly accurately.  Then we can compare 100kg x6 to 105kg x5.  And if we continue to plot that over three or four weeks, we can typically see clear trends in the athlete’s response.  That allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of the program without testing rep maxes all the time.  The more frequent data points paint a higher resolution picture as well so your decisions won’t be skewed by bad days (or good days for that matter).
RPE Percentage
You might wonder, “But what about volume blocks?”  If you’re doing a block of training where the workload is designed to be so high that your fatigue masks the fitness, that’s fine.  You can understand that and account for that in your evaluation.  But at the same time, if you’re “over-reaching” and your strength is plummeting, then it’s probably still a good idea to change something.
You may also wonder how you can track it accurately, across various lifts, and over time.  First, remember that some data is better than no data so long as you remember it’s limitations.  So if you’re tracking by hand, then you’re not likely to have an RPE chart for each lift and so on.  It’s too much to manage.  But that’s okay – just track what you’ve got, be cautious of how much you rely on it at first, and allow your system to develop.
Similarly, if you want to be as precise as possible, if you want to evaluate training cycles in more detail, or if you just would rather not do all the calculations by hand, you can use the RTS web applications.  They are completely free for anyone to use – just go to www.ReactiveTrainingSystems.com, log in, and click Apps.  An on-screen tutorial will instruct you in basic operations.
Tracking your RPE will allow you to evaluate much more than just estimate 1RM as well.  Do you respond best to programs that contain a large number of easier sets?  Or a smaller number of very hard sets?  Somewhere in between?  Tracking RPE and analyzing your results allows you to see this type of information.  Is your volume of training in the 2ct Pause Bench comparable to the volume of chest-level Pin Presses from last cycle?  To answer that question, you’ll need to look a Normalized Volume (a volume metric that attempts to normalize across movement patterns instead of just looking at tonnage, which skews to certain training parameters).  Normalized Volume would require you to either know the 1RM for each movement (and keep it up to date), or rate your RPE so an accurate estimation can be made.
There’s much more that can be done and determined once you start looking at RPE in your training, even if you aren’t basing your training decisions from it directly.  It helps you evaluate what kind of training you respond best to.  It even helps you to make those evaluations faster and with greater resolution so you can test ideas and converge on the thing program that will be best for YOU.  As lifters, that’s the most important thing to us.

About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.