So you decided to strength train. You know it will help you to prevent running injuries and make you a faster, leaner runner. If you avoid the trap of randomly chaining workouts together but instead follow a structured training plan (which you should!), you face one question. How to train in a way that allows for optimal progression?
Autoregulation For Safe And Effective Progression
In the article on session RPE, I talked about how autoregulating your workouts’ intensity is an excellent tool for improving your running performance. You do that by rating the effort you put into the workout, using the “Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale.”
You listen to your body and adapt the intensity based on your daily readiness. You avoid doing too much when you are tired, and make sure you push yourself enough when you feel like a million bucks.
The perceived exertion scale rating was initially developed to track endurance exercisers’ training intensity. The first scale ranged from 6 to 20, and the second, also known as the CR10 scale, from 1-10. Lower ratings correspond with lower effort. The CR10 scale is the basis for developing the session RPE and is also used in a strength training context. Hence, I will always refer to the CR10 scale for the rest of this article when using “RPE.”
If you are not familiar with RPE and session RPE, check out my previous article. There I describe the concepts of RPE and session RPE for endurance exercise in detail.
You can apply the concept of autoregulation to your strength training sessions as well. However, the practical application of using RPE in strength training is a bit different from endurance training.
Read on to learn about the why’s and how’s of using RPE in your resistance training sessions.
The Difference Between RPE for Endurance And Strength Training
As opposed to endurance training sessions, you don’t only rate the session as a whole (you can) but use RPE to estimate the effort of every set you perform.
You use it to control how much weight you use for every single set. That means you tune in to your body, and instead of using a fixed weight, you adjust your load on a set-by-set basis if necessary.
For example, if you are a new strength trainee and use fixed weights, you might follow a linear progression scheme, where you add a certain amount of weight to your main lifts each time you hit the gym. As you progress, you might start adding weights in smaller increments or increasing load only every two weeks.
In contrast, using the principles of autoregulation and the RPE scale, you base the amount you lift on your readiness that day. Strength levels fluctuate daily due to life stressors. You will have days when you feel less recovered and days when your strength levels are exceptionally high, and you can perform at a higher level than planned. Using the RPE scale, you can make sure that you don’t trash yourself when your energy is low, and on the other hand, you push yourself enough when your energy is high.
However, merely using the RPE scale you know from your endurance training doesn’t work.
Well, research has shown that the RPE scale was of limited use to rate the effort needed to perform a lift. A study by Hackett et al. (2012) showed that people tend to report submaximal RPE scores even when they completed the maximum number of repetitions. The authors of the study concluded that the RPE scale was of limited use in strength training because exercisers associate cardiovascular effort with the RPE scale’s descriptions.
In the non-scientific literature, however, a solution has already been proposed. The champion IPF powerlifter and coach Mike Tuchscherer modified the CR 10 scale based on how many repetitions an athlete has left in the tank after completing the set. The number of reps you could still do corresponds with a specific number on the RPE scale. Zourdos et al. (2016) explored this concept in a scientific context and modified the RPE scale of Tuchscherer slightly. The scale is known as the “reps in reserve” based RPE scale – or RIR based RPE. You subtract the number of reps you had “in reserve” from 10. That’s your RPE rating. The usefulness of this modified RPE scale was later confirmed in scientific research by Helms et al. (2018). The table below shows the RIR-based RPE scale, as described by Zourdos et al. (2016).
How To Use RPE In Your Strength Training Program
From what we have discussed so far, I think you can already guess how to use the RPE scale in your strength training sessions.
Instead of using a % of your 1RM or continuing to add weight linearly, you can program your workouts using the RPE as a basis for load assignment.
How? Let’s take a look.
Let’s say your training plan has you doing back squats for that day. If your program is based on absolute loads or percentages of your 1RM, then your program might read like this:
Back Squat 50kg X 5 reps X 3 sets or
Back Squat 80% of 1 RM X 3 reps X 2 sets
In an RPE based program, however, the training plan will look like this:
This means the load should be such that you can lift it for 3 sets with 8 repetitions at a 6-8 RPE. Remember, a 6-8 RPE means after completing the set, you could have done 2-4 more repetitions.
While the first two examples call for fixed weights, the latter lets you choose a weight that you can lift for 8 repetitions with 2-4 more reps left in the tank after completing the set. While the first two examples show rigid training prescriptions, the RPE-based example shows a flexible training prescription.
It allows you to pick a heavier weight on days you feel well and lower weights when you feel low on energy. That means you base your load on your strength levels that day and allow for a more optimal weight selection.
Who Can Use RPE Based Training Programs?
Basically, everyone can use RPE-based training programs, and it is handy for strength generalists, like runners.
For us, achieving a maximum strength level is far less critical than for strength athletes, like powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters.
There is one caveat, however.
It would help if you had lifting experience already. If you are starting on your lifting journey, you will find it hard to assess how far from failure you are. You don’t have the body awareness yet to know what getting close to failure feels like.
To use RPE effectively, you need to have a good understanding of your capabilities first.
But even if you have been lifting for months or years already, you shouldn’t jump right into using RPE to design your strength training program. Instead, it would help if you got a feeling for the scale first. You do that by rating each set of your workouts for a few weeks.
You can also do a test now and then: Stop during a set and note down how many reps you think you could still do. Then complete the set to technical failure and see how far off your prediction you were.
With time you will get a feeling for the scale. Then use it to adjust your training sessions and design your program using autoregulation principles.
Using RPE in both your endurance and strength training allows you to adjust your training plan to your individual response to exercise and other life stressors.
That means RPE-based training programs allow you to base your training on daily physiological and psychological feedback. Moreover, it enables you to be more autonomous and develop self-efficacy when it comes to training. Instead of merely following a training plan where loads are preplanned by a coach, you learn to listen to your body and adjust your training to get the most out of it. That way, you can truly optimize your training to be the best athlete you can be.