Programming—What is it?

There are myriad ways to program strength training. The main variables that a coach or therapist will manipulate are exercise selection, frequency of training, volume, and intensity. Exercise selection is simply what exercises you pick, frequency is how often (how many times per week) you do them, volume is how many sets and reps you do, and intensity is the percentage of your 1RM at which you do that volume.

Two ways of writing a training program are “top down” and “bottom up.” Top down programming plans out training in a more structured and static way, with the coach or PT telling the trainee the exercises they will do, how often they will do then, for how many reps and sets, and at what percentage of 1RM. Bottom up programming takes feedback from the athlete and uses that information to inform future training decisions–in that particular session and going forward in a training block. Intuitively most people who train long enough realize they have good training days and bad training days. Some days the squat weight you did two weeks ago feels twice as heavy today or you’re only able to do half the amount of pull-ups you can normally do. Fluctuations like this happen for many reasons—soreness, sleep, nutrition, hydration, life stress, etc.

These instances are why we prefer using something called RPE for our athletes. RPE, or Rating of Perceived Exertion, is a method of autoregulation–the practice of adjusting training variables in response to athlete feetback. The RPE scale is an easy, practical way to measure how difficult an exercise or training session is.

RPE for Strength Training

You can use RPE in your strength training by using the RPE scale to rate the effort of an individual set. You would simply do a set of an exercise and after the set is over rate the effort of that set on a 1-10 scale. A 10 on the scale means you could not have done any more reps–that is a true max effort set. For instance if you did 1 rep at an RPE 10 that is your 1 Rep Max. If you did 10 reps at an RPE 10 that is your 10 Rep Max. The lower the number on the RPE scale, the more “reps in the tank” you have left. A 9 on the scale is 1 rep in the tank, 8 is 2 reps left, 7 is 3 reps left, and so on.

How to use RPE in your training

Now that you know what RPE is and how it works, I’m sure you want to know why you want to use it in your training and how to use it effectively.

The goal of any training session is to impart the desired amount of stress to an individual to elicit a positive adaptation. If you don’t apply enough stress (i.e. the training is too easy) no positive adaptations will occur. Conversely if you consistently apply too much stress, positive adaptations are unlikely and many times overuse injuries will crop up. Knowing how to find that “sweet spot” is challenging but using RPE is one of the best tools we have.

Practical Tips

To build muscle or cause other positive changes in their structure or function, exercises need to be taken to at least an RPE 6 (4 reps from failure). There are benefits to pushing closer to RPEs of 9 or 10 but they are mostly specific to maximal strength athletes like powerlifters or strongman competitors. Strength trainees that are not interested in 1RM strength can stay within the 6-8 RPE range and reduce their risk of injury while getting almost all of the benefits. Single joint exercises like biceps curls or calf raises are typically “lower risk” and can be taken closer to failure (RPE10) while compound exercises like squats or deadlifts should be taken to failure much less frequently because the fatigue cost is typically much greater.

In summary, RPE or rate of perceived exertion, is a tool that helps pick training loads that are appropriate for an individual on that particular training day. An athlete will make better progress if the majority of their training lands in the 6-8 RPE range with occasional exposures to higher (over 8) RPEs. We hope this helps you understand the RPE scale, why and how we use it and gives you some practical takeaways to implement it into your training.