posted on July 27, 2022
All coaches, athletes, and people in the fitness community have their own philosophies or ideas that they may use for their own training or for training another person that they have established a coach/client relationship with. In the world of powerlifting, one common programming tool that is often utilized is RPE. RPE can be an excellent tool for programming and should be utilized at different times for different reasons all throughout training. For those that do not understand what RPE is, RPE is rating of perceived exertion. Essentially, it’s what the person who is lifting the weight thinks how hard the exercise is and is generally rated out of a score of 1-10. With this being said, the higher you rate your RPE out of 10 then the harder the lift was in your own opinion. However, your rating of RPE also reflects how many more reps that you think you could have done at that specific weight. For example, if I were to do a squat single at 405 lbs and I thought the RPE was a 7, then I should have been able to do 3 more reps at that weight without failing. Another example is if I were to bench 135 lbs for 3 reps and rated it at a RPE 5, then I should have theoretically been able to do 5 more reps at that weight.
As there is with anything in life, RPE also has its pros and cons. One pro is that it can be extremely efficient in managing fatigue for people. However, everyone has their good days and everyone has their bad days. Some days you feel really weak in the gym and other days you feel really strong. For example, if you got bad sleep the night before your training session or you are very stressed out about something you may have going on in your life such as a job or school then you may not feel the best when it comes time to lift some heavy weights. This is where RPE can help. On a day where 135 lbs is feeling really heavy when on a normal day it typically feels pretty light, then you can lower the weight to match your prescribed RPE. This will prevent you from doing too much on a day where you feel physically weak and in hand will prevent you from building up too much fatigue at once. However, the same way that RPE can aid in managing fatigue it can also have a negative affect on managing fatigue. This can happen when someone overestimates themselves and thinks their lift is easier than it actually was. For example, as a coach I constantly receive videos from the clients I coach and they give me their opinion on their lift and RPE. Sometimes they will over estimate and call their prescribed single an RPE 8 but when in fact it was an RPE 10. The issue with this is that if it keeps occurring, then it can become a habit. Once the habit is created then you could be over exerting yourself when you shouldn’t be. This could lead to lack of progress from not being able to recover or could even create an injury.
Now that we have a decent understanding of RPE, how it works, and some pros and cons of it, we can dive into a discussion of RPE for accessories. Some coaches believe that RPE can be programmed for accessories and that you need to manage your fatigue from your accessories so that you can perform at your best when it comes time for your compound movements. In theory this does make sense and has been shown to work with some people. However, this theory of programming RPE 6,7, or 8 on accessories leaves the opportunity for people to slack off and sandbag on their accessories. This then leads to less muscular breakdown and less opportunity to recover, grow, and get stronger. With this being said, I think a lifter should take the approach of pushing their accessories as hard as they can and go to actual muscular failure. Yes, this may in the short term affect the lifter on their compound lifts and make them feel weaker when they attempt to squat, bench, and deadlift on their next session but it will ultimately do more good than bad. This is because the human body is an amazing thing and will eventually adjust to training accessories to failure. The body will reach a point where training to failure will not affect the next training session and you’ll be able to make progress. Along with human body being able to adjust, going to failure on accessories will provide the lifter with more muscle breakdown that they are not achieving on the squat, deadlift, and bench press, provide them with stronger joints, ligaments, and tendons, and could provide them with more confidence when they get under the bar. So, the next time you are looking to change up your programming in powerlifting and you are not training to failure on your accessories, then try training to failure to see if it works for you!