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Are Percentages Better than RPE?

If you’ve participated in any of our group training programs, you may have noticed that we like to prescribe percentages when it comes to our lifts. Outside of our gym, depending on which coach you hear from, you may hear that “percentages are STUPID,” and the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or reps in reserve (RIR) are better ways of training. Let’s explore the issue from both sides.

What are the arguments against using percentage based training? There are two main ones. The biggest argument against it is that percentages don’t allow for self-regulation during training. What is self-regulation? It means that you back off on your training if you’re stressed, sick, or just generally feeling like crap. And, if you’re feeling good, you can push things a bit. This argument only works if we treat percentages as a rigid assignment, rather than a guide for the day.

The second argument against percentage based training is that it’s inapplicable to beginners. As beginner lifters train, they’re learning the proper motor patterns, and are heavily limited by technique. Trying to max out is a waste of time, because it won’t accurately display their strength until motor patterns are fine tuned. So, any corresponding percentages will likewise be inaccurate. For example, if we’re performing cleans, and an athlete struggles with the timing, 80% isn’t going to mean anything to them. And, in these athletes, once the pieces click, we see MASSIVE increases in a very short amount of time. Overcoming a mobility restriction can also have the same effect.

What advocates of RPE and RIR fail to consider, is that this second limitation can also apply to their styles of training. If you’re just starting out in your fitness journey, there is NO WAY you know yourself well enough to determine what an 8 RPE is, versus a 10 RPE.

Even with advanced trainees, we often see a disparity between perception and reality. They may consider a working set to be an 8 out of 10, or that they have 2 reps in reserve, but then when we push, it turns out they had 5 reps in reserve, and it was actually an RPE of 6. Or people overestimate what they’re capable of, and instead of 2 RIR, they hit a max set – an RPE of 10, instead of 8. For either of these scales to work, you need to test yourself to find what you’re capable of, and you need to know yourself as an athlete.

Know what else requires this? PERCENTAGES! In our programs, we treat them as guidelines, not absolutes. If you didn’t sleep, you’re stressed at work, and your kids are driving you nuts, you’re probably not going to hit 95% if that’s what’s prescribed. So, what do we do? We SELF-REGULATE and lower our percentages for the day. On the flip side, if you’re supposed to hit 90%, and it floats up like nothing, your coach may encourage you to go for a small PR that day.

Percentages

At the end of the day, any of these systems can work. They’re all trying to get us to do the same thing – apply the appropriate amount of effort to our training, so that we can make long-term progress. The key is to not be rigid in any approach, and to lean a little more heavily on the FEEL of things with beginners. Whether we describe it as an RPE, a percentage, or RIR, is ultimately irrelevant. Pick the system that makes the most sense to you. And to see how it applies to conditioning, click here! See you in the gym.

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