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.
Stop blaming muscles, start blaming your movements
Your scapulars have 17 muscles connected to each of them. Your pelvis is connected to over 30 muscles. Over 100 muscles are connected to your foot. Reducing your movement down to muscles can get very messy very fast. You have over 600 muscles in your body and only about 206 bones in your body. Start giving more love to the movements of your bones. It will make your life easier.
So when breaking down a human movement remember to always start proximal before moving distally (I explained this in my previous blog). So for movements involving your hips we always look at what the sacrum and spine is doing.
Is it tucking/Counternutating enough while squatting (posterior pelvic tilt)? Is it extending/ Nutating the right amount during a hinge (anterior pelvic tilt)? Is your hips and ribs stacked through the whole movement? These same principles apply to your sternum and scapula but will be talked about on a later date.
Remember….. strength IS a Skill
What is Strength?
Strength is all about force production. In the world of barbell sports it is about how much weight you can lift, squat, snatch, clean and/or press. In the physiology world it is about how well your Central Nervous System (CNS) can stimulate the most amount of large muscle fibres in the least amount of time. This means there are two major factors: your CNS (coordination) and the size of your muscles.
This is where the difference between strength building and strength expressing exercises become really important.
Let’s use my favourite lift as an example. We use Low Bar Squats to express our strength but High Bar, SSB and Front Squats to build it. The reason why is because the more upright your squat is the more force is going through your legs and less through the muscles around your spine. Your legs (quads and glutes) have a much larger capacity of growth compared to your erectors.
This is where the fun part comes in: training. Just like every other skill that you do practice indeed makes perfect and the cool thing is that this practice, especially when done right will also help grow these important muscle fibres. So if you want to get better at squatting, yes you do want your quads to get bigger but only doing leg extensions isn’t the best way to get there, doing more squats is.
Most of us use exercise as a method of maintaining our mental health. If we start experiencing pain in our back when we run, squat, do push ups, pick up our kids of the canine, feline, and primate variety; we tend to not want to do those things anymore and our mental health can suffer from that.
So I’m going to paint a word picture for you:
“But Michael, I like doing group fitness because it takes my mind of things and I don’t have to think about what I’m doing”
I hear this one a lot. What I also hear a lot is….
“I don’t do squats, it hurts my knees”
Okay, so you enjoy the group-based environment but you are unable to partake in certain exercises because of knee pain? Why don’t you get someone to have a look at those knees, hips, ankles, back or whatever else could be the cause of that knee pain?
“Use it, or lose it”
“Motion is lotion”
Your body is a lot to think about. You do enough thinking during the day when trying to organise meetings, projects, kids, clients, orders. Why should you add something else to the mix and stress you out further?
Moving efficiently is all about making small wins for yourself and changing your mindset about movement-based challenges. Once we’re able to get a roll going with these small wins, the fundamentals are going to feel so much better and you’re going to experience far less stress. Couldn’t feel your hamstrings during a deadlift but now you can? You had back pain but managed to feel your glutes firing and that back pain has disappeared? That’s a success right there. It gets you pumped. It gets me pumped. These wins will echo into your daily routine, reducing the stress and anxiety of your daily grind.
My biggest challenge in the mental health field is trying to get people to care about how their body moves and have fun while doing it. If your body moves well, you’re much less likely to end up in pain. If you’re not in pain, you’re going to want to keep moving. You keep moving, you hit your health and fitness goals, your brain will thank you for it.
Strength training and moving well is not just good for your pain, it’s good for your mind.
We all grew up being told to ‘stand up straight’ and to ‘stop slouching on the chair”. Nowadays sitting has been described as the new smoking and stand up desks are selling out faster than hot cakes.
What if I told you that these beliefs are possibly causing more harm than good?
Stop labeling your posture as good or bad
Posture only matters when load is involved
You are the only person in control of your body (hopefully)
Okay before I do a deep dive into this topic, let’s define posture.
Posture is the default movement patterns and positions that your body likes going into.
Everything in nature is inherently lazy. Your body prefers to be in certain positions because it is comfortable, and that is completely normal. So labeling a posture as good or bad could be leading you into something called “guarding behaviour”.
What is guarding?
We all have seen those videos of cats overreacting when jumping onto alfoil on the kitchen bench (if you haven’t, stop what you are doing right now and look it up). From now on that cat is going to expect a rude shock whenever it jumps on the counter top – and actively avoids it. You are the same. You learn that a particular movement may cause discomfort so you actively avoid doing it. Let’s use pushing your knees over your toes as an example. The problem lies in the fact that you are not made of glass, you are not fragile and you ARE MEANT TO MOVE.
“Motion is lotion, rest is rust”
Dr. Anne Schuchat
By not moving your knees over your toes what happens is that the muscles in this case your quads atrophy (shrink) and sensitize. This means that when you go to use your knee – your muscle fatigue quickly and starts to hurt. Due to this extra sensitization, what would normally be a 3/10 pain ends up being a 10/10 pain; Unfortunately this can spiral. That is when a good health professional (like one our amazing EP’s) educates you on how to desensitize this area.
When does posture matter?
When force transfer is involved. Be it running a marathon, squatting 300kg or simple picking your kid off the floor. These are times when having a stacked neutral posture matters. If you are able to properly load the prime movers of the exercise it means that you are able to do the activity more efficiently without overloading the secondary/ supportive muscles. There are people who are naturally flexed AKA kyphotic, others who are extended AKA lordotic, and some who are both. The first step is to figure out what posture you have. A good way to know this by looking at your lifts. If you are good at squatting chances are you are probably flexed. And if you are good at deadlifting you are probably extended. After you have figured out what posture you have the next step is to learn how to stack, breath and brace. This is a whole other can of worms that needs to be opened on another day.
So why am I telling you this?
To empower you to take control of your body. At the end of the day you are the only person who can make positive changes to your life and body, our job is to facilitate this positive change not do it for you. If you are struggling with any of these topics send us a message or comment below and one of our exercise physiology brisbane coaches we’ll be in touch.