barbell and plates on gym floor

RPE and percentage-based training are two popular approaches people enjoy using these days.

But what are they, how do they differ, what benefits does each offer, and is it possible to combine the two?

Let’s find out.

What is RPE Training?
RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion and is a simple scale you can use to gauge the effort you put into individual sets. An RPE of 10 means that you can’t do any more reps; a rating of 9 means that you can do one more rep; 8 means you can do two more reps; 7 means three reps, and so on.

Using RPE is a practical way to keep yourself honest, but it requires a fair bit of training experience to gauge accurately.

What is Percentage-Based Training?
Percentage-based training prescribes weights based on an athlete’s one-repetition maximum (1RM). Unlike RPE, which focuses on effort, percentage-based training emphasizes various intensity ranges for the exercises in your training plan.

For example, if your 1RM squat is 140 kilos, prescribed loads might look like this:

  • 90 percent - 126 kg (140 * 0.9)
  • 80 percent - 112 kg (140 * 0.8)
  • 70 percent - 98 kg (140 * 0.7)

You should have a fair idea of your one-rep maximum for this to work. There are various calculators you can use to determine that.

Can We Mix RPE and Percentage-Based Training?
Yes, you can, and here is the surprising bit:

You’ve been doing it so far, whether consciously or subconsciously. For example, let’s say that you’ve been following a linear model of progression:

Week 1: 5x5 with 70 percent

Week 2: 5x5 with 75 percent

Week 3: 5x5 with 80 percent

You might not have thought about RPE during your training, but you’ve had a feeling that with each passing week, your training would become more challenging, and you would train closer to failure. In such a case, most trainees exercise common sense and autoregulation. For example, if the third set brings you too close to failure, you would drop a few kilos off the bar for the remaining two sets.

The decision signifies that you’re mixing some form of RPE into your training. In other words, RPE is not some independent concept but a tool that integrates into your training program and fits almost any context.

We can also say the same, even if you mostly care about RPE. For example, let’s say that you’ve decided to bring most of your training sets to an RPE between 7 and 9, but you also have some idea of how heavy you want to train. In that case, you would use your best judgment to prescribe loads for yourself and adjust based on how your workouts go. You might not think, “I’ll train with x percent of my max today.” but you will still arrive at that number, so long as you have some experience and common sense.

The RPE scale is simple to grasp and highly effective once you get used to it. It also works great for prescribing effort and keeping you from slacking off. Percentage-based training is also beneficial because it is simple, practical, and, for the most part, accurate. You can prescribe loads across most compound exercises using percentages to keep yourself in the correct intensity range for your goals.

March 04, 2022 — Daniel Felstein

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