MASTERING THE RPE SCALES

When it comes to optimising performance in Olympic lifting, understanding and effectively utilising the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale can be a game changer. Whether you’re pushing through a heavy squat or grinding through a set of strict presses, knowing how to gauge your effort can make a significant difference. This blog will delve into what the RPE scale is, the differences between its application in resistance training and cardiovascular training, and why you might choose to use RPE over traditional percentage-based training. We will also explore research-backed evidence supporting the efficacy of the RPE scale.

WHAT IS THE RPE SCALE?

The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is a subjective measure that athletes use to rate the intensity of their exercise. Originally developed by Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg in the 1960s, the scale helps athletes and coaches understand how hard the body is working during physical activity. Borg’s original scale ranged from 6 to 20, with numbers designed to approximate heart rate (when multiplied by 10). However, a more straightforward and widely used version today is the modified Borg scale, which ranges from 1 to 10.

THE MODIFIED RPE SCALE (1-10)

1: Very light activity

2-3: Light activity (easy to maintain, little effort)

4-5: Moderate activity (breathing harder, can still hold a conversation)

6-7: Vigorous activity (becoming uncomfortable, short of breath)

8-9: Very hard activity (very challenging to maintain, difficult to speak)

10: Maximum effort (hardest you can go, no longer sustainable)

This scale allows athletes to gauge their effort and adjust their training accordingly, which can be particularly useful for managing fatigue and optimizing performance.

RPE IN RESISTANCE TRAINING VS CARDIOVASCULAR TRAINING

While the RPE scale can be applied to various forms of exercise, its use and interpretation differ between resistance training and cardiovascular training.

RESISTANCE BASED TRAINING

In resistance training, especially in the context of Olympic lifting programming, the RPE scale helps lifters gauge the intensity of their sets based on how many reps they feel they have left in the tank. Here’s a typical translation of RPE for resistance training:

This scale allows lifters to adjust their load dynamically based on how they feel on any given day. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated that using RPE to guide training loads can be as effective as percentage based systems for strength gains, with the added benefit of better managing fatigue and reducing injury risk.

CARDIOVASCUALR BASED TRAINING

For cardiovascular training, the RPE scale focuses more on overall effort and how the exercise feels in terms of breathlessness and fatigue. For instance, an RPE of 5 might indicate a moderate pace you could maintain for a long duration, whereas an RPE of 9 would suggest a pace that is very hard and could only be sustained for a short period. Research has shown that RPE correlates well with physiological markers like heart rate and lactate threshold, making it a reliable measure for regulating cardiovascular intensity.

WHY USE RPE INSTEAD OF PERCENTAGE BASED TRAINING

INDIVIDUAL VARIABILITY

One of the primary advantages of using RPE over percentage based training is its accommodation of individual variability. Lifters are not machines; their performance can fluctuate daily based on numerous factors like sleep, nutrition, stress, and overall fatigue. RPE allows for adjustments based on how you feel in the moment, rather than sticking to a rigid percentage that may not be realistic on a given day. A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that RPE-based training can account for daily variations in performance more effectively than fixed-percentage training.

AUTO REGULATION

RPE facilitates auto regulation, a method that lets you adjust your training loads based on current performance capabilities. This approach can help in managing training stress and reducing the risk of injury. For Olympic lifters, whose sport requires a delicate balance of strength, power, and technique, auto regulation through RPE can be particularly beneficial. Research indicates that auto-regulated training can lead to similar or even superior strength gains compared to traditional methods, with improved recovery and reduced overtraining.

ENAHNCED TRAINING PRECISION

Using RPE can also enhance training precision by helping lifters tune into their bodies more effectively. This awareness can improve the quality of your lifts and ensure that you’re training at the appropriate intensity to drive progress without overreaching. A study published in Sports Medicine emphasized the importance of subjective measures like RPE in fine-tuning training loads to optimize performance and prevent burnout.

FLEXABILITY & ADAPTABILITY

Finally, RPE offers flexibility and adaptability, crucial for long-term athletic development. Training isn’t always linear, and the ability to adjust intensity on the fly can keep you progressing even when conditions aren’t ideal. Lifters who use RPE often find they can maintain consistent progress and avoid plateaus more effectively than those who strictly adhere to percentage-based programs.

IMPLEMENTING RPE INTO YOUR TRAINING

To successfully implement RPE in your Olympic lifting program, start by familiarising yourself with how different effort levels feel. Keep a training log to note your RPE for each set and how it corresponds to the weight lifted and the number of reps performed. Over time, this will help you develop a more intuitive understanding of your exertion levels and how to adjust them to meet your training goals.

One thing I would like to add is that it may not be useful to use this for the classical lifts (Snatch and Clean & Jerk), because the Olympic lifts are highly technical and require precise form and technique. The snatch and clean and jerk involve multiple phases and intricate movements that demand consistency and precision. Basing load purely on perceived exertion can sometimes lead to variations in technique, which can increase the risk of injury and potentially lead to inefficient lifting.

Using the RPE scale may be more beneficial to accessory based movements such as squatting and/ or variations for example. Objective measures for the Olympic Lifts, such as percentage based training, can provide a more consistent approach to ensuring that the technique is practiced under varying loads, helping to refine and perfect the movement patterns.

PRACTICAL TIPS

Start Conservatively: Begin with lower RPEs to ensure you’re accurately assessing your effort.

Be Honest: RPE relies on self-assessment, so honesty is key. Overestimating or underestimating your effort can skew your training.

Use RPE in Conjunction with Percentages: For those transitioning from percentage-based programs, combining RPE with percentages can provide a smoother shift. For example, you might aim for a certain percentage range but adjust based on your RPE.

Regular Feedback: Regularly review your training logs and adjust your RPE targets as needed.

Consult with a Coach: If you’re new to RPE, consider working with a coach who can help you accurately gauge your effort and integrate RPE into your training program effectively.

CONCLUSION

The RPE scale is a versatile and powerful tool for Olympic lifters, offering a nuanced approach to training that accommodates individual variability and promotes auto-regulation. By understanding and utilizing RPE, you can fine-tune your training, enhance your performance, and achieve your lifting goals more effectively. Research supports the efficacy of RPE-based training in managing fatigue, optimizing performance, and reducing injury risk. So next time you’re in the gym, consider letting your perceived exertion guide your lifts – you might be surprised at the gains you’ll achieve.

REFERENCES

Zourdos, M. C., et al. (2016). “Auto-Regulation Training for Strength and Hypertrophy.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(5), 1196-1205.

Helms, E. R., et al. (2018). “RPE and Velocity Relationships for the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in Powerlifters.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(2), 409-417.

Eston, R. (2012). “Use of Ratings of Perceived Exertion in Sports.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(2), 175-182.

Mann, J. B., et al. (2014). “The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(11), 2966-2972.

Hackett, D. A., et al. (2018). “The Effects of High-Load vs. Low-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men.” Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(1), 1-8.

Halson, S. L. (2014). “Monitoring Training Load to Understand Fatigue in Athletes.” Sports Medicine, 44(2), 139-147.

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