Training In Percentages vs. RPEs: Observations & Opportunities

In preparation for writing this article, I started, as usual, with skimming research articles and brushing up on the philosophies of other coaches and mentors in the field. I am a die-hard realist by trait, but a highly adaptable one; as a young(er) coach, I always aim to incorporate others’ expertise, results and experiences into my practice and content.

As the Percentage vs. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) debate is not limited to the strength and conditioning realm, I jumped into the bowels of the internet to acquire some thoughts from the general fitness world (note: when doing such “research”, one will always somehow end up on Reddit). I hoped to gain a non-S&C perspective of effort measurement and workload management, and perhaps some insight into whether or not the benefits and down-sides of each tool were the same as in the performance world. Needless to say, this was an abruptly short journey down the noxious, arbitrary rabbit hole of the (hopefully) well-intentioned and (possibly) semi-informed fitness population.

What I discovered from these bipartisan pursuits is that the patterns of debate and use are nearly identical. Though applied in vastly different ways, several similarities stood out to me. Before delving into patterns, let’s quickly review each metric.

Percentages.

Oxford Dictionary deems these “the rate or amount of each hundredth”. When an athlete has set a One-Rep-Max (1RM), training zones can be based off this max number, depending on the effect the coach wants to elicit through said movement. Think 1970s-esque Soviet weightlifting halls.

Personally, I am a fan. I prefer the confidence of set numbers based on athlete data points. Linearity. Structure. The ease of measuring progress. Remember, I love realism.

Managing Training Effects. When prescribing a percentage-based program to my athletes, I tend to walk them through each step with a straight-forward, “this 5×5 at 80% is going to be tough, but let’s do this” mentality. The numbers are set according to the athlete’s maximum capacity (thanks, data!), as well as the desired intensity and load with each piece of the session. Training zones are easily monitored. Thanks to the best invention of the 21st century, the smartphone calculator, the coach can spend more time developing the quality of movement and facilitating the session as a whole rather than running between platforms with the 1RM percentage table.

So, an athlete comes in very motivated, feels exceptionally healthy this morning, and wants to go heavier on his 5×3 deadlifts? “Sure, let’s bump it up 2.5%. No more than that; remember, you’ll be back here in 23 hours!” The next athlete has poor sleep quality and high stress due to an exam period and her movement quality is suffering? “Hey, let’s drop it down to 77% today. I want you to get through all of these presses with your best form, and we can check in again tomorrow.” The coach can limit and adjust the load as needed with a tangible metric. Everything can be managed and tracked accordingly.

Structure vs. Autonomy. Percentages are a useful tool for beginner lifters, especially young athletes or those being introduced to their first real S&C program (hello, freshman camp). This metric helps us, as coaches, build an athlete’s body awareness, proprioception, and even mental toughness. Athletes gradually learn what 50% feels like on the back during jump squats and how heavy 90% is when it’s in your hands for two reps. It is a blueprint for each movement of each session, with just enough space for adjustments on those days when 80% feels like 90%.

As is the case with paradox, the advantage of structure also negates the benefit of autonomy. It is awfully difficult to help athletes, especially as they gain experience with training, take ownership and create buy-in when the program leaves minimal room for alteration and input. Depending on a variety of factors, the percentage metric can prioritize measuring progress over actual realism; rarely is a session absolutely ideal. The hunt for perfectionism or the ego boost of pontificating why our program is the Mona Lisa of strength and conditioning may come at the cost of losing athlete interest, trust, respect, or even interaction. In my experience, there is (perhaps deeply) a part of each athlete that does want some level of ownership and accountability in their training. This is not an inanimate conveyor belt.

But, as always, there are exceptions, differences, and in-betweens.

RPEs.

The Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale is a 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest) ranking metric, on which athletes notate how much effort was required to complete any given rep, set, or movement. Ideally, the scale is intended to match the percentage points; a 5 might translate to “it feels like 50%”, and so on.

Managing Training Effects. The use of RPE, like all self-report metrics, is multifaceted and complex. Its use is generally introduced beyond the “Intermediate Lifter” threshold, after the athlete has acquired significant training experience, body awareness, and some level of active engagement with their training environment. For an athlete who has not yet gained some amount of knowledge and self-awareness in that space, the implementation of RPEs will be complicated and progress potentially limited.

Firstly, the RPE scale makes load assignments easy to give and simple to adjust. While a coach can prescribe a number or range of numbers (let’s say, a 5×5 deadlift, RPE 8), an athlete can report back that the assigned work felt like a 6 and the weight goes up. The reverse is also true. And, although it is rated on a scale, RPE does not sacrifice LL progress measurement and linearity. The weight on the bar should still be noted along with the effort ranking. The coach now gets an extra data point; not only “how heavy was it?” but also “how hard was it?”.

Another interesting aspect of RPE use, from a coaching perspective, is the more fluid interaction of load and volume. As opposed to with percentages, where an athlete might note that 85% felt great for the first two reps and difficult on the third, RPE is a report of an assemblage of the performance. That set of 3 at RPE 8 just felt like an 8. In a way, it streamlines athlete feedback into a more accessible, immediately usable data point.

Structure vs. Autonomy. Contrary to the percentage measurement, RPE is based on autonomy. Because of the self-report nature of the scale, athletes must use their own awareness to rate their experience. Again, it is important for an athlete utilizing RPE to be experienced and self-aware, lest they over- or under-estimate themselves, and progress goes to the wind. On the other hand, this scale can also be a great tool to build investment and accountability into the program, since it, by nature, is much more athlete-dependent.

Again, there are exceptions and solutions to all aspects of RPE usage. These simply depend on the situation and the pattern.

Patterns.

Firstly, the usage of measurement tools is context-specific.

As is the case in all areas of the performance world, it is vital to take account of your audience and your stage.

Who are you training? Is this a sports performance training session or a personal training session? Are you working one-on-one or with teams? Are you on-ramping your athletes into their first focused and regulated strength protocol or are they weight-lifting veterans who are used to periodized training? What phase of the season is the athlete in? How much time do you have with the athlete, and how often? What is the athlete’s total training load?

While these questions are likely all taken into account in the initial program design, their answers can also help a coach determine which metric strategy might is the most efficient or, at the very lowest level, cause the least amount of chaos for most gain.

The decision to use a certain metric is also personality-specific.

We, as coaches, can write what we consider to be the most extensive, realistic, and science-based program, but it is ultimately for the betterment of the athlete to which is is prescribed. If those you coach are not sold on the idea of putting out their best effort into each movement of the session you created or they lack focus or fortitude when it comes time to touch the barbell, then your masterpiece is essentially useless.

Very early in my career, I worked one-on-one with an individual-sport athlete in her off-season. She was physically gifted for her sport, had the talent capacity to compete, and previously trained with a strength and conditioning coach. After our first six weeks of working together, I felt she was ready to move on to RPEs for her next cycle. It took ten days to realize that, yes, we were getting in the volume every session, but the load was decreasing steadily. We talked about it; I wanted to, in a way, recalibrate her RPE scale with how the rankings relate to max lifts. But the result never changed, and excuses started to pop up about why 65% was a 8 for a 5×2 back squat. After shredding my program and second-guessing every number I had ever written, I came to understand that, when the mental game in the training hall is not there, neither can the effort or outcomes.

However, depending on your coaching strategy, the usage of either metric can be a great tool for teaching mental toughness. Perhaps one athlete needs more guidance from his coach and could benefit from the prescription of percentages only. Another athlete could gain courage by working strictly on RPEs, learning to push herself past the tedious barriers of the brain’s Fight-or-Flight response during heavy squats. These are case-by-case decisions that may not be possible in some scenarios but ideal in others. The impact of personalities on performance are laborious but fascinating opportunities.

Measurement selection is, lastly, coach-specific.

We all have different preferences and biases. We each have different techniques. Some of us fundamentally promote one metric over the other, while others of us switch back and forth, depending on the need and situation. I have worked alongside some coaches with moral oppositions to one versus the other, whether due to research or past experiences. Still others have found ways to employ both at the same time to compliment the other’s weaknesses.

As The Greats in and around our industry have preached for decades (Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, Gray Cook, and Brett Bartholomew all come to mind), one of the absolute keys to being a successful and impactful coach who produces effective training plans and develops strong athletes is adaptability. No two athletes, scenarios, programs, or needs can or, truly, should be the same. And that’s what keeps us pragmatic and realistic.

 

Whatever you are, be a good one.
Julia Eyre, CSCS/FMS-2/USAW