Why and When to Use Which Tools & How to Read Your Program
How To Use It
From a glance, programming with RPE can seem lazier than percentages or load prescribed programs. However, if a coach truly knows how to use RPE and knows the athlete they’re programming for, RPE can become hugely advantageous. Programming with RPE can take many forms and include many different things. Oftentimes programming with RPE can even include percentages. This might take its place as percentage-based drops for back off sets.
For example, a set of 4 reps on deadlifts @RPE 7 might be followed by an additional 2 sets of 4 reps @10% drop from the above. This use of percentages within an RPE based program allow for even better fatigue management and an effective way to accrue more volume without pummelling the lifter into the ground with hard work.
Using ascending sets can be very useful in many cases within a program, if lifters feel rusty and like their technique isn’t up to scratch but eventually find their groove towards their last set or two this is a great move to employ. Depending on how you use RPE for these ascending sets, you might technically just be giving the lifter more warmups than normal, thus giving them more time to dial in their tech. You can again start thinking about the individual in front of you, if the lifter is a super heavy weight male who gets tired very easily, maybe ascending sets aren’t for him as he might become tired before he even reaches his top set. However, you might have a middle weight male or female who gets better the more they squat and giving them ascending sets really helps them get the most out of their squat by the time they reach their top set.
The opposite can be true for descending sets, and you may use these to be sure the lifter isn’t doing too many hard sets, or if the lifter doesn’t handle volume well/gets tired very easily (super heavyweight example used previously).
Straight sets are common practice amongst many programs but can often be thrown in without thinking about whether this is optimal for the lifter. I personally like to use straight sets in two situations. The first being at the start of a training block where all sets will be very submaximal and no drop in load is required after a hard set has been done. The second occasion is if I’m just trying to stack up more weekly volume for a lifter without the work being strenuous at all. The first example that comes to mind is an U59kg lifter of mine who squatted 4x/week. I used 1-2 sessions/week of straight sets with very low load (or at a very low RPE). These sessions weren’t there to progress upon or work hard in, they were just in the program because as a small individual he could recover from a ton of training stress.
Let’s dissect the program below and examine what components of the above are included. On low bar squats we have a top single at RPE 5, this single has a prescribed load which requires the lifter to load 100kg for this set. The back off set of 4 is also at RPE 5 but has a load cap of 90kg. The distinct difference between a prescribed load and load cap is that a load cap is a maximum ceiling that the lifter cannot go past. However, they are able to take load below the cap in order to hit the prescribed RPE (RPE 5 in this case). Knowing the difference between these two can be important when reading your program. The following back of sets of 4 have a percentage drop after what was taken for a set of 4 at RPE 5. This is commonplace in a lot of PerforMotion programming and as mentioned earlier in this blog, allows for better fatigue management.
Next we can see straight sets used for all of the accessory lifts, what’s important to note is that a lot of these accessories have prescribed load attached to them (excluding lat pulldown and tricep extensions). This can be done for many reasons such as preventing over or undershooting or to simply prepare a lifter for their next training session without fatiguing them too much.
The second example we’ll look at has a mix of percentage drops, ascending and descending sets. The deadlift sets are similar to the example used above, however we see the use of ascending sets for the bench press here. This is particularly useful for this particular lifter who struggles to get his arch after having his back rounded during the deadlift. This easier RPE 6 and 7 sets allow him more time to spend getting his arch back and having the best possible position by the time he hits his top set. We know this lifter can handle a lot of volume but by the time they reach these high bar squats he will be rather taxed, this is the perfect time to use descending sets to account for this intra session fatigue and ensure we are not taxing him too much in any one session. We still have 4 sets of 6 reps total here to keep volume high but the RPEs are very low and descend to account for the fatigue accrued.
Ultimately, any program will work and get you strong, however, the intelligent use of the RPE system will typically get you stronger, faster and with less niggling injuries than most other load prescribed programs. Now that you know what you’re looking for within a program and the thought that goes into choosing ascending sets, descending sets, percentage drops or even just selecting the RPEs you can be sure there is a why and a reason behind every exercise, set and rep range put into a program.