Rate of Perceived Exertion for faster results

Within strength training, it is common practice to lift weights at a prescribed load based on one’s repetition maximum (1RM). This is highly effective, as loads directly correspond with the number of reps and sets, as well as the desired performance outcome. 

A common example for a trainee may be performing four sets of three reps at their 85% maximum load on the back squat. If their 1RM was 300 pounds, they would do four sets of three repetitions at 255 pounds. What this does is allow the trainee to work with loads that they know they can handle for a given number of reps, while developing a specific physiological quality.  

Again, while this is highly effective and convenient, it is only one way to train, and does carry its own cons. 

Mainly, it does not count for daily fluctuations in energy levels, gains in exercise proficiency, or strength over time. If one continuously uses 300 pounds as their known 1RM, they will perform every rep of subsequent sets off that number. Some days the trainee may be fatigued and unable to meet the proposed demands, while other days you may feel fresh and capable of more. Fortunately, there is another highly effective alternative. 

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A different way

Another method to prescribing and performing training loads is through rate of perceived exertion via the CR-10 Borg Scale. The number 1 represents the lowest level of effort whereas 10 represents maximum effort. 

This method has been proven effective since its inception nearly 60 years ago as an alternative method to monitor and prescribe training loads through workouts. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research titled “Monitoring Exercise Intensity During Resistance Training Using the Session RPE Scale” states that the use of an RPE scale prior to a workout allows confidence in exercise intensity without having to test as frequently. 

Essentially, the study concluded that RPE was as effective as training RM percentages when it came to exercise execution. Allowing one to choose a load that is attributed to RPE rather than an exact number derived from testing also appears to alleviate stressful situations where trainees are unsure if they can meet the numerical daily standard. 

Overall, this could equate to fewer injuries, lower levels of burnout, and greater trainee independence via autoregulation. 

It must not go without saying that loads and programs prescribed via 1RM are still highly effective. Often times I will use a blend of both methods when creating training programs, with the understanding that each method has its own time and place. 

That being said, for the novice trainee it would likely be beneficial to use the RPE scale through the first six months to a year of training as they may not know their 1RM on each lift or have any reason to test it yet. 

One should not completely abandon RM prescriptions, or 1RM testing for that manner as they are still highly valuable tools. Instead, two methods should be used synergistically and integrated into programming appropriately. 

Remember that training is a science, thus defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment,” according to Merriam Webster. 

We can assume that different methods will vary in their effectiveness amongst populations and there is no one size fits all. Keep experimenting and seeking better ways to train. 

Building Strength or Testing It?

It is no mystery that in order to successfully gain strength, one must follow a properly periodized program, consistently.

Effort and execution predominately determine the outcome of training, however, too many individuals attempt to test their strength rather than build it session to session.

Attempting to lift the heaviest weight possible day in and day out, week after week becomes detrimental rather quickly. It is a common myth that every time you step into the gym, you must lift heavier in order to get stronger. If that were the case, strength training wouldn’t need any science.

Multiple forms of progressive overload can yield positive strength gains (lifting heavier weights still being one of them when appropriately used), with the intention to build strength over time. Once you’ve surpassed the “beginner” stage of your first 3-6 months of training, you will not see strength day by day, nor week by week in most cases. You will have to put in work, accumulate fatigue, rest, and super compensate to see gains.

HOW HEAVY?

One of the founding fathers in strength and conditioning, Tudor Bompa, wrote multiple books about training athletes for strength, power, speed and endurance. In his book “Periodization of Training for Sports,” he mentions that the majority of “performance enhancing neuromuscular adaptations of strength training occur without concentric failure.” This means that most training cycles occur when athletes are using loads in a range of 70 to 90 percent of their single rep max.

These gymgoers typically use a “buffer” and lift with weights they may be able to execute one or two more reps within a given range and load used. The reason for this is that concentric failure and the use of loads 90-100% of too often can lead to decreased testosterone levels, high levels of fatigue, and increase risk of injury.

There is a time and place for these intensity levels, but they must be used sparingly. In the case of the common gym goer mentioned previously, testing to see how heavy one can go week in and week out will stall strength gains.

Testing one’s strength level should only be done at the completion of a planned mesocycle, approximately every 4 weeks or so, and maximal strength phases using loads in the 90-100% single rep max range should last no longer than 2 to 3 weeks.

OTHER BENEFITS

Other than the fact that such high intensity levels of training (90-100% single rep max) can cause hormonal, neuromuscular, and fatigue issues, using submaximal (70-90% single rep max) loads allow trainees to maintain good form and grease the movement pattern.

Training for strength is as much coordination of the neuromuscular system as it is peripheral, if not more. Training for qualities such as hypertrophy and endurance require less overall coordination and greater accumulation of peripheral muscle fatigue. This is why it is important to allow the body to learn proper movement and execute under load that is manageable, because failure to complete reps will never allow the body to build its movement competency.