Like many issues that we come across in life, there are two camps and people will stake their flag on one side and fight incessantly with the other. We saw this most vividly this past year- can I get an "amen!" that it's mostly over?- and if people thought the political arena was divided, they should step into the fitness world.
Fat vs. Carbs! Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding! Barefoot running vs. shoes! Crossfit vs. Everyone Else! (kinda kidding about that last one...) Mention any of those topics and you're sure to see a strength coach's flag come out.
Another debate, albeit not as volatile as the ones above, is percentage-based training vs. RPE-based training.
First off, what does RPE mean? Well, I'll tell you, it stands for:
Rate of Perceived Exertion.
RPE-based training is training that is founded on the principle of auto-regulation. It's a subjective measurement of your strength on a given day, how "difficult" does an activity feel. For example, depending on the circumstances of a particular training session- accounting for factors such as stress, nutrition, sleep, etc.- one day 185lbs might feel like a feather and other days it might feel like 385. RPE-based training allows for you to push the weights up on the days you feel like Superman and pull back on the days you feel like you've been beaten up by Superman.
I might program 3x3 reps with an RPE of 8. When prescribing RPE loads, here is a handy chart to explain what I mean:
In the case of the 3x3 for RPE of 8, the load should be one that the trainee could have theoretically moved for 5 reps.
Second off, (side note: why doesn't anyone ever say that after they've said, "First off..."?) percentage-based training is a more commonly used training method of working off a percentage of your max effort in a certain lift. For example, you might work at 80% of your one-rep max for squat in a session. The theory is that, because your level of strength is X, as represented by your 1-rep max (1RM), you should be able to do a certain number or reps at a given percentage of 1RM since it's a sub-maximal weight.
The aim of this post is, actually, NOT to plant a flag. I like both types of training and I think they're both equally useful and effective. I've experienced personal success as well as seen the people I've trained thrive with both methods. Like most things in the training world, it depends.
The point of this post is to explain the pros and cons of each and let the reader decide which method to follow.
- Concrete number to use in training
- Decent assessment of how many reps to shoot for based on a certain percentage (thank you Prilepin's Chart)
- By having a specific number to work with, it keeps you honest with your training. Sometimes you just need to grit your teeth and grab the bar and go.
- Doesn't allow for alterations in weight based on how you feel, good or bad (and I'm not talking about "not feeling it today" but coming back from an illness or rehab-ing an injury or mega-life stress such as big family/work related events)
- At the risk of sounding like a broken record, allows for fluctuations in training weights based on physiological and psychological readiness (being Superman or being a minion that got punched by Superman). You can push it or pull back depending on the day
- Teaches auto-regulation and how to be more in-tune with your body. Auto-regulation can help stave off overuse injuries or overtraining in general because you're NOT pushing it when you're too fatigued.
- No concrete number to train with (which can be a problem for very data-driven folks)
- There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to judging how your body feels both during a lift and within a set even. Sometimes I think I've got a few reps in the tank only to be stapled by the next rep.
What do I do with this information?
So how do we apply this? Pretty easily: try it. Try both methods. Give yourself 8-12 weeks of training both ways and see which one works better for you, or which one you simply prefer. I've trained people who absolutely hate RPE because they don't have a specific number to use; I've worked with other people he hate percentage base because they never know how they're going to feel walking into a training session and the RPE gives them the freedom to adjust as needed.
Personally, I currently use the RPE system. I have some health issues that affect how I feel on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis and one day can differ wildly from the next. I've literally squatted a weight one week for 5 reps only to get crushed under the same weight after 2 reps.
After you've tried both ways, choose the one that works best and stick with it. And then keep sticking with it...
In the end, however, the biggest factor in training is not, which method of training you use; the biggest factor is being consistent. Consistently show up and magical things happen. Just choose a method, train consistently, the method is a tool to get you towards your training goals.