How I learned to progress with RPEs

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NOTE: I wrote this article as a resource for those of you who want to venture into autoregulation and are familiar with the concept of RPEs but might have questions and/or problems with progression. Programming itself is out of the scope of this article and I will probably do a follow-up on that topic.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with autoregulation, I have written a short explanation of its theory and practice for your benefit in the “SUPPLEMENTAL READING: WHAT IS AUTOREGULATION?” section at the bottom of the page. I strongly encourage to read it and/or Mike T’s pretty recent article linked in the second paragraph before continuing.

In May last year, I wrote myself an 8-week autoregulated cycle. It was a fresh change for me as I had gotten to the point where cookie-cutter programmes based on hard percentages like 5/3/1 had gotten stale.

I had already been exposed to the concept by Mike Tuchscherer through his articles. If I wanted to write my own template, however, I had to familiarise myself with his concepts. I got my hands on a copy of his Reactive Training Manual, read it cover-to-cover twice, then set about programming for myself.

Despite RTS’s unquestionable success with multiple World Champions employing their methods, I found no joy. As progress stalled, I concluded that perhaps autoregulation just wasn’t for me.

Since working with Eric, we have re-introduced RPE-based work into my training – mainly for assistance work but also for deadlifts in this current training block. My ensuing success has helped me to critically analyse why I failed in the past and make RPEs work for me.

I hope that by failing forward and sharing my experience, you will be able to pick up some tips that can help you construct a successful RPE-based template, complete with progress and PRs!

  • THE PROGRAMME

Having gone off 5/3/1 but with only 3 days per week to train, I adopted some principles from The Texas Method and Chad Hydro’s articles to create this programme. It followed basic linear periodisation principles, with the intensity increasing and volume decreasing over the 8 weeks. Week 1 looked like this:

Day 1 – Volume

Squat x6@8-9, 5%

2-count paused bench x6@8-9, 5%

Paused deadlift x4@8-9

Day 2 – Technique

Paused squat x4@7, 5%

Spoto press x4@7, 5%

Rows, rotator cuff and posterior chain work 3×15

Day 3 – Intensity

Squat x5@9, 5%

Bench x5@9, 5%

Deadlift x5@9

  • PROGRESSION

My main problem with the system was that I didn’t see any progress in terms of load, which is crucial for powerlifting. We should strive for rep PRs over time, which will translate into new 1RMs on test day. When rating my sets, I would often end up using the same weight. 120kg x5 for squats would always feel like @8. I felt like I was spinning my wheels incessantly and going nowhere.

I’ve realised that the main reason was because I was not increasing the weight on my initial set every week. For me, a range of weights usually falls within the same RPE – for example, in my case, 120-125kg feels like RPE 8. However, I would usually stop at 120kg once I reached RPE 8 without continuing to increase the weight because I was afraid that I would end up with higher RPEs than planned.

Now, after finding my RPE for the first week, I increase my upper and lower body lifts by 2.5kg and 5kg per week respectively from the previous week up to a point where I’m 0.5-1 RPE above the prescribed rating. When that happens, I will either drop the weight by 2.5kg or retake the same weight next week.

Example:

Programme calls for Paused Squats 4×5@7

Week 1: 120kg x5@7 – remain with 120kg for the other 3×5

Week 2: 125kg x5@7 – remain with 125kg for the other 3×5

Week 3: 130kg x5@8 – drop to 125kg for the other 3×5

Week 4: 127.5kg x5@7 – remain with 127.5kg for the other 3×5

Week 5: 130kg x5@7 – remain with 130kg for the other 3×5 and walk away with an all-time paused squat PR!

This approach has reframed RPEs for me as a tool that governs an intensity range. It allows me to select practical weights in the first week and then push my boundaries week on week to achieve progressive overload without excessive fatigue.

Over time, you will notice certain RPE trends. In the example above, I dropped the weight by 5kg when I went 1 RPE over what was prescribed. I’ve found that 5kg usually corresponds to a 1 RPE difference on a typical day (and 2.5kg corresponds to about a 0.5 RPE by proportion). Of course, this will fluctuate according to the level of stress you’re accumulating and dealing with and this number might be different for you.

  • INITIALS

The caveat with the strategy above is that it only works well when you’re training in the lower 7-8 RPE range. When you go above that, there is less margin for error. If you were supposed to hit 1×5@9 and ended up with 1×5@10, it would have a different and more fatiguing stimulus on your body because this essentially means you’re maxing out.

Mike has come up the concept of initials to help you accurately rate RPEs. I usually employ this tool at loads above 8 RPE. An initial is a weight that is about 1 RPE lower than your projected working set, which you should work up to in every session and use to select your actual working weight.

You can progress by simply adding 2.5-5kg to your initial every week to start with if your working set is higher than your initial and then adjusting the frequency of increment based on your progression and response. If you find that your initial is above your prescribed RPE, the best solution is to drop it by 5kg the next week and start increasing again from there as you don’t want to overreach your RPEs and get excessively fatigued.

On a bad day, your initial might be closer to an @9 so you will be able to adjust the load accordingly without going beyond. This is why it is crucial to rate your initial regularly and keep it near that 1 RPE guideline so that you’ll know when it starts to get too heavy and fatiguing. You also don’t want your initial to be too light because you don’t want to waste time and effort doing more work-up sets. By the same token, you shouldn’t have your initial at too close an RPE to your working weight as well.

Example:

Programme calls for squats 1×5@9

Week 1

Initial: 130×5@8 – I know that a 5kg jump will usually lead to an increase of 1 RPE for me

Set 1: 135×5@9

Week 2

Initial: 132.5×5@8 – adding 2.5kg from last week

Set 1: 137.5kgx5@9

Week 3

Initial: 135×5@9

I will stop here because on this particular day I may be fatigued from stress and my initial @9 has become my working weight for this particular day. In this situation, I will usually keep the initial at 135kg for the following week. I may even only increase my initial every other week as fatigue climbs and it gets harder to progress weekly.

I don’t normally use initials for RPEs lower than 8 because it’s not easy to rate anything lower than 7 and I wouldn’t be able to find a practical initial. I also find that there’s a greater range of weights in the RPE 7-8 range than above 8 for me, so I’m able to progress in the manner I laid out in the previous section pretty smoothly. If you find that you can effectively use initials for the lower RPEs, then feel free to use them across the board. You should find what works for you, not copy my experiences wholesale!

If my first set RPE is too high, all I have to do is drop the weight accordingly for my ensuing sets. If it’s too low, I will usually just see it as an unplanned initial, add weight accordingly and I’m all set.

My mistake, as with the previous section, was that I didn’t track or increase my initials systematically over time. Instead, I saw them as merely a glorified warm-up set. As a result, I was not progressing or learning how the different RPEs felt. And that is why I failed.

Image credit: imgflip.com

Image credit: imgflip.com

I want to reiterate the importance of tracking and increasing your initials over time, much as you would track your working weights in the previous section. It is a pretty solid indicator that you’re getting stronger overall.

  • FATIGUE REPEATS AND PERCENTS

I had an extremely tough time with this. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, the RTS Manual used to employ fatigue percents and repeats instead of a prescribed number of sets to autoregulate training volume.

Fatigue repeats are pretty easy to understand. If the programme calls for Squats x5@8-9, that just means that you start your working set with x5@8 and repeat subsequent sets with the same weight until you reach @9. On lower stress days when you’re less fatigued, you’ll be able to perform more sets.

Programme calls for Squats x5@8-9

Set 1: 130kg x5@8

Set 2: 130kg x5@8.5

Set 3: 130kg x5@9 – final set

Fatigue percents are a bit more complicated and can be implemented in several ways. The following example was my method of choice:

Programme calls for Squats x5@8, 5%

Notice that there are no sets prescribed. The lifter will perform the movement until they reach 5% fatigue.

Set 1: 130kg x5@8

The lifter then drops the load on the bar by 5% to 122.5kg. This is known as a fatigue drop.

Set 2: 122.5kg x5@7

Set 3: 122.5kg x5@7.5

Set 4: 122.5kg x5@8

Once the lifter has reached @8 after the fatigue drop, they are done for that lift.

On a good day, a lifter will be able to recover better and perform more sets and vice versa. Mike also used time limits for consistency. Typically, you had 20-25 minutes from your first working set to complete all sets required. This prevented ridiculously long rest periods that would enable the lifter to recover better and perform more sets.

Personally, it was a struggle to use these methods in my training.Because of the time limits, I often either rested too much and couldn’t fit my working sets into the allotted time or rested too little and saw my RPEs jump over what was prescribed.

There were also days when I was doing a ton of sets and reps and others where I felt like crap and only did a few. My volume fluctuated so much that it was hard to track progress in any meaningful fashion and I often got bogged down in overthinking. After a while, my technique started to falter because I was trying to cram too much into a specific timeframe.

Although still an excellent resource, the Reactive Training Manual was written about a decade ago. The RTS coaches have since moved away from some of the principles like using fatigue percents and time limits to autoregulate volume. They might plan a definite number of sets like 4×5, as seen in my example in the”Progression” section. Lifters are allowed to rest sufficiently to recover for subsequent sets and maintain a high quality of work. They may also use back-off sets to regulate fatigue.

Example:

Programme calls for Squat 4×5@8, 5% backoff

Set 1: 130kg x5@8

Subsequent sets: 122.5kg 3×5

Programming has become more straightforward without the fatigue repeats and percents and time limits. It is also possible for me to discern directly how effective the training stimulus is in the form of a specific amount of sets. The first set’s RPE controls for load and ensures that I can select a weight at the right intensity for the day. Through the subsequent sets, I can increase the volume if I find the stimulus insufficient for progress. If I have trouble recovering, I can decrease the volume.

Once again, fatigue repeats and percents were originally a tool to regulate volume. If you would like to try them out and find that you do well on them, feel free to keep them in. Just be sure to include time limits so that you’ll be able to control for rest time. An alternative way of using time limits is creating uniform rest periods for all your working sets – for example, 3 minutes of rest between all working sets.

  • IS AUTOREGULATION FOR ME?

It is true that full autoregulation is not for everyone. Even Mike concurs that autoregulation serves the “controlled aggressive” personality type best as they are constantly hungry for PRs yet able to discern their capabilities.

I admit that I was too quick to jump to the conclusion that autoregulation was ill-fitted for my personality type. I am a passive lifter under a heavy load and returning to a percentage-based programme under Eric really helped to kickstart my gains last year. I learned to overcome bad days and grind out heavy loads – something I am bad at.

However, returning to some RPE-based work and being exposed to how the system has evolved over the years has allowed me to hit PRs and succeed where I failed in the past. It has also reframed the way I see RPEs and allowed me to push their boundaries while being mindful of the intensity range it governs.

127.5kg 3×3 paused #squat fsRPE 8 and lsRPE 8.5 (on video here) after 4×6 comp squats. I'm pretty stoked at this RPE PR although there's still a lot to work on, especially with being patient with my hips out of the hole. So many friends in da house today 😁 You may have noticed that I've stopped uploading weekly vlogs on YouTube. There's just not much that I can't post on Instagram instead for @eric_tsa to refer to during our consultations with their new 60s uploads. I've also been pretty busy these past few weeks. However, I'll still make videos whenever I'm going for any benchmarks at the end of a training block or cycle. And hey, I know my little channel doesn't get much traffic anyway but if you do follow it, I really, really appreciate the support!

A post shared by Clement You (@clementyou) on

As Mike has often said, RPEs are just another tool to be used in varying capacities according to different individuals. I wouldn’t rule out another stab at a predominantly RPE-based cycle, but at this point in time I’m happy with the nice blend of percentages and autoregulation in my programme. I hope my experiences also help you to find what works for you.

  • SUPPLEMENTAL READING: WHAT IS AUTOREGULATION?

This segment is meant to provide a background for those of you who are not familiar with the basic concepts of autoregulation or would like to refresh its principles.

The theory behind autoregulation is that it adjusts your level of preparedness based on how fresh or fatigued you are on a specific day. Rather than base your training upon hard percentages, the concept recognises that your performance fluctuates day to day. 75% of your training max is only 75% on one particular day under certain conditions.

If I came into the gym fresh from a period of sufficient sleep and low stress, I might have the potential to lift more weight than the 75% for 3×5 written in my programme. 75% might only be 70% on that day and I would be doing my progress a disservice by sticking to hard percentages.

However, if I were working long hours in a stressful environment, that same 75% might feel like the weight of the world on my shoulders. Grinding through these lifts for an extended period of time would only lead to injury or ingrain bad technique.

The reasoning is as simple as it sounds – on days where you feel good and the weight moves quickly, lift more. On bad days, you should downregulate your training load. It will allow you to understand your body better and know when you can use a heavier weight (there is a PR up for grabs) and when to use a lighter load to help recovery so that you can come back stronger next time.

Without a structured way of measuring what load you should use on a given day, this could potentially be messy. Mike Tuchscherer from Reactive Training Systems has created an effective system to address this by basing load selection around the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale.

rpe-flow-chart.png

Image credit: Reactive Training Systems

He has also created a chart to approximate the percentages to which each RPE value corresponds.

chart-2.jpg

Image credit: The Strength Athlete

So, instead of writing a programme for squats at 75% of your max for 4×5, you would write 4×5@8. On a good day, or if you’ve gotten stronger over time, 75% for that day could be something like 80% of a max which you may have tested 6 weeks ago.

I like to rate RPE based on how my bar speed looks in videos. When bar speed noticeably slows from the previous rep, it is usually an RPE 8. When it’s a struggle to keep the weight moving at the same speed as the previous rep, it’s an RPE 7. Sometimes, I may feel that a rep is harder than it actually looks on camera and I usually rate the set based on the latter. It will take time to find out how different RPEs feel for you.

Another important point to note is that technique also needs to be taken into account when rating RPEs. You should maintain good technique for all reps. If you are squatting with your knees almost touching each other, you should lower the weight and rate your RPEs based on your ability to maintain technique as well as bar speed.

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Author: Clement You

Clement You, CPT is a writer, YouTuber and former personal trainer based in Singapore. He believes in heavy lifting, flexible dieting, psychology of fitness and the League of Assassins (in no particular order). His previous struggles with depression and bulimia have helped his expertise and successful work with clients with eating disorders. They influence him to look deeper than exercise programming and into the intrinsic determinants of psychology and motivation on fitness success.

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