Following a properly designed workout program is key to unlocking your full potential in the gym. RPE and % of 1RM are both common methods for measuring load intensity in powerlifting and bodybuilding programs. In this article, we will explore the differences between these two approaches, their pros and cons, and the reasons why you might choose one over the other.
RPE stands for Rating of Perceived Exertion, which is a subjective scale from 1 to 10 used to measure the intensity in a given set of an exercise. For weight training, the RPE scale is based on how many reps in reserve (reps left in the tank) before failure you have at the end of a set.
RPE 10 means you cannot do another rep without failure at the end of the set. RPE 9 means you have 1 rep in reserve at the end of a set, i.e., you could have done 1 more rep before failure. RPE 8 means you have 2 reps in reserve at the end of the set, RPE 7 with 3 reps in reserve, and so on and so forth.
To dive deeper into RPE, read The Ultimate Guide to RPE in Lifting.
RPE in a workout program provides an individualized approach to training intensity based on the lifter’s ability on a given training day. For example, an athlete’s performance to lift a certain weight or reps depends on factors like fatigue, stress, energy, and sleep quality. If a program prescribes a target intensity (RPE) on an exercise, it gives the lifter the flexibility to select a weight that is at the optimal level. This is called auto-regulation.
In a real world example in the gym, let’s say you are doing a program that calls for Bench Press, 3 sets of 10 reps at RPE 8. This means that you should find a weight that they can lift for 10 reps with 2 reps left in the tank. If you know that you can do 200 lbs for a 10 rep max (RPE 10), then you should probably choose a lower weight like 185 lbs so you can do it for 10 reps (at RPE 8 with 2 reps left in the tank). What weight you lift can vary depending on the day.
3 weeks of RPE-based program:
Week 1: Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ RPE 7
Week 2: Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ RPE 8
Week 3: Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ RPE 9
Week 4 (deload): Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ RPE 5
Example above with weights used:
Week 1: Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ 180 lbs
Week 2: Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ 195 lbs
Week 3: Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ 205 lbs
Week 4 (deload): Bench Press 3 sets of 10 reps @ 155 lbs
Individualization: RPE allows for a personalized training experience based on an athlete’s perceived effort and current fitness levels.
Adaptability: RPE allows for adjustment on the fly, taking into account daily fluctuations in energy levels and other factors that may impact performance.
Autoregulation: RPE enables athletes to better listen to their bodies and reduce the risk of overtraining or injury.
Subjectivity: Since RPE is based on personal perception, it may be less reliable and prone to inaccuracies.
Requires Experience: RPE is most effective when individuals have enough training experience to accurately gauge their own exertion levels.
Novice Bodybuilding Program: program from The Muscle and Strength Pyramid book
Intermediate Bodybuilding Program: also from The Muscle and Strength Pyramid book
Alberto Nunez Upper Lower Split: intermediate bodybuilding program by Mr. Universe
Rampage: 3x/week novice hypertrophy program by Geoff Verity Schofield
Ravage: 6x/week intermediate hypertrophy program by Geoff Verity Schofield
1RM Percentage-based Programs
Percentage-based training programs involve prescribing a specific % of an athlete’s one-rep max (1RM) for a given exercise. The calculation to determine the target weight is simple. For example, a workout program might prescribe the following targets: bench press for 3 sets of 8 reps at 70% of 1RM. This means that if your bench press 1RM is 200 lbs, you’ll do 140 lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps. Some programs might also have target 1RM ranges, like 65%-70% of 1RM, to give the lifter more flexibility on what weight to use. Percentage based programming has been around for decades and is a tried and proven method for lifting programs.
1RM % programming approach allows for more precise programming and periodization, with the intensity of the workout being determined by a predetermined percentage of the athlete's maximum strength. 1RM % programs are also easy to use as long as you know your 1RMs; just plug in your 1RM and all your weights are provided for every week.
Percentage-based programs like nSuns 531 are especially popular in powerlifting programs (1 step back, 2 steps forward) to get lifters stronger and peak for competition. This method is also used on some bodybuilding and powerbuilding programs to provide concrete weight numbers to target, as strength gains is also a strong barometer for hypertrophy.
3 week wave progression cycle example:
Week 1: 3 sets of 8 reps at 70% of 1RM
Week 2: 3 sets of 6 reps at 80% of 1RM
Week 3: 3 sets of 4 reps at 90% of 1RM
Week 4: Deload week or repeat the cycle with adjusted weights
Objectivity: Percentage-based programs offer a more objective approach to training, with intensity based on quantifiable metrics.
Consistency: This method provides a consistent framework for progression, allowing athletes to track improvements over time.
Structured Progression: Percentage-based training enables coaches and athletes to design structured, periodized programs that systematically target different aspects of strength development.
Rigidity: Percentage-based programs may not account for daily fluctuations in energy levels or other factors that impact performance.
Regular 1RM Testing: To maintain accuracy, regular 1RM testing is necessary, which may be time-consuming and disruptive to training.
Candito 6-Week Strength: Break PRs with this intense and fun 6-week powerlifting split
TSA Beginner Approach: powerlifting program made by champion Bryce Lewis
TSA Intermediate Approach: powerlifting program made by champion Bryce Lewis
5/3/1 for Beginners: Wendler’s famous 5/3/1 strength training philosophy for beginners
5/3/1 Boring But Big: Popular 5/3/1 variation to build strength and size for intermediates
Choosing the Right Approach
The choice between RPE and percentage-based training ultimately depends on individual needs, goals, and preferences. Here are some factors to consider when making your decision:
Experience Level: Less experienced lifters may benefit from percentage-based programs, as they provide structure and clear progression. More advanced lifters might prefer RPE for its adaptability and autoregulation capabilities.
Training Goals: Athletes focused on specific strength goals, like powerlifting or Olympic lifting, might benefit from percentage-based programs. Those with more bodybuilding hypertrophy or general fitness goals may find RPE more suitable.
Personal Preference: Some individuals prefer the structure and objectivity of percentage-based programs, while others thrive on the adaptability and intuitive nature of RPE-based training.
Many excellent training programs utilize both RPE and 1RM % within the same workout, or even for the same exercise.
For example, in the free TSA Beginner Program by champion powerlifter Bryce Lewis, paused deadlifts in week 1 and day 2 are programmed as 3 sets of 4 reps at 65% of 1RM or RPE 6.5. This means that you can use the calculated weight of 65% of 1RM as a starting point, but if the warm-up sets feel extra light or extra heavy, you can increase or decrease the weight to hit RPE 6.5.
In another example, in the free Novice Bodybuilding Program by Dr. Eric Helms, the compound lifts have % of 1RM progressions, while the isolation accessories have RPE targets. This is a mixed approach that is very effective for managing intensity to ensure optimal progress.
Both RPE and percentage-based training programs are effective methods for lifters to build muscle and gain strength. Which tool you use depends on your experience level, training goals, and personal preference. Ultimately, it depends how these tools are utilized in a properly designed progression-based program. To learn more about unlocking your strength potential, read the guide on weight training progression methods.