This is something that we go over extensively inside at the loading portion of a Pure PROgramming. But I think that it’s a really simple and effective conversation to have for trainees who are just following a program as well as a topic to revisit if you are a coach. It’s very easy to get married to one approach and forget that these other options exist. And that one of these might make sense for one of your clients or even one portion of a program; where another loading method might work better for another portion of the same lift that you are prescribing or that you are doing yourself. So maybe for the main lift percentages makes sense, and then for most of the accessory work reps in reserve makes the most sense. Things like experience come in to play, and training age.
So today we are going to dive into all of that. We will go over reps and reserve, rate of perceived exertion, Amrap‘s, percentages, and the rule of two. All of these are simply methods that we can use to prescribe a load or how much weight someone is lifting for a given exercise. That’s all these are.
My hope would be that you have a pretty good idea of which one to use when when you’re either choosing load for yourself or a client.
I actually became a familiarized with rate of perceived exertion, or RPE through conditioning, versus weightlifting. But it can be applied to nearly any type of exercise where intensity is a factor.
There are two different versions one where it is a scale of 1 to 20, and a more commonly used adaptive version which is a 1 to 10 scale. One being no effort at all, and 10 being maximal effort. Generally speaking in training where we are pushing our muscles and attempting to elicit strength or growth, the RPE is going to be above seven. It’s going to be a challenging load.
No another loading method is kind of the yang to the yang of our PE. And that is RIR, or reps in reserve.
I definitely came to know this in my college lifting days. But we referred to it as “go until you have one to two reps left in the tank.”
From a programming standpoint, you might give a range of reps that you want them to hit, like 8 to 12 reps, or 6 to 8 reps. With a weight that is a two reps in reserve. So if they hit eight reps and they feel like they could do three more, the weight needed to be heavier if that makes sense.
It’s literally just working on fatigue, you might just say perform reps until one to two RIR. I might use this on an exercise like push-ups, or strict dips, or pull ups. some thing where I know the number of reps they’re going to be able to perform is within the range that I want them to be hitting. For instance I would never just say one rep in reserve for bodyweight walking lunges for my clientele. They would be doing walking lunges for 30 minutes. Which likely does not fit their goals or the goals of my programming. And that’s why it’s so important to know the goal of your programming or a given exercise prescription, because we want to choose the best loading method for that.
You can think of reps in reserve as the opposite of RPE. So, 10 RP would be zero reps in reserve, 9RPE would be one rep in reserve, so on and so forth. Now inside a Pure PROgramming I have these charts all lined up next to one another, and I prefer ranges then definite numbers. That’s just because how many reps somebody has left in the tank is going to depend day today at a given load. That’s why the next method is not always my favorite. And that will be percentages.
A nice little transition is to talk about training age when choosing between rate of perceived exertion, and percentages. You could argue either way, but if someone has never trained before, or may have a skewed perception of their own exertion, RPE is not always the best loading method for a new lifter. Have they ever gone to failure? Do they know what a 10 RPE feels like? Do they know what zero reps in reserve feels like? Because that’s the only way they’re going to know what one rep in reserve feels like, or two reps in reserve. Or an RPE of 8 to 10. I do have an inkling that many people are not working at true RPE is when they see an RPE in programming. They probably have more like 4-5 reps left in the tank.
So let’s get into another method which was likely, and maybe still is the most popular load method of all time. Again, that is using percentages of a one rep max.
Percentages make a whole lot of sense for big lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, variations of these exercises, even hip thrusts, or Romanian deadlifts. Think big compound movements. You can even apply this to someone who can do a weighted pull up. So if there one rep max with a weighted pull up is 20 pounds, then you could use percentages to prescribe lower working sets.
You can also use percentages that aren’t based on a one rep max. So don’t be afraid to combine these methods. I will often use RPE for working sets of a lift, and then use percentages for back offsets. I’ve talked about this another podcast before. So maybe they perform three sets of three at an RP of nine, and then they do two sets of eight back off sets at 70% of whatever weight they used for the 3 x 3.
Percentages can also be determined from a three or five at max. And I might put the equation in the show notes, but you can look it up. It’s readily available through any personal training certification likely. I do think percentages can be great for a lifter at any training age. I think they have application for a new lift or finding a three rep max, as well as an extremely experienced and advanced lifter working strictly on percentages of their one rep max.
The con that I see with percentages is that it doesn’t take into consideration daily energy and stress fluctuations. I do think that sometimes we lose a bit of the grit and the drive and the challenge when we change up training exclusively on the energy that we have. More often than not your body will show up and perform regardless of these factors. And that’s really fun to see for my clients anyway. But it is a real factor, and some weeks whatever weight is scheduled for 85% effort might feel like 97% effort. Or a weight that is scheduled for 85% might feel like 75% effort and you could push harder that day. This awareness comes with training age, and If an athlete can push one day I want them to take advantage of that, and if an athlete needs to back off one day because a given percentage is just not accurate to their output, I want them to be able to adjust that and not feel shitty about it. So it’s just some thing to note.
The next option is actually a fan freaking tastic option for new lifters. I think that it has less risk than maximal load testing. And it’s actually the opposite of maxima load of testing. So you’re going to essentially find what their capacity is at a given load, what volume they can perform, and then work backwards to prescribe they’re working so it loads. This also gives lifters a really good idea of what zero reps in reserves feels like. If you’ve never used this I highly suggest it. I was first exposed to using this methodology in this manner by Dr. Jacob Harden at his prehab 101 seminar in Canada.
This is a bit of a guessing game, but with somebody that has a very young training age, we need to communicate that finding a load for a given volume is going to be a guessing game at first. You’ve got to use trial and error to find what you were a different threshold‘s are for different reps and sets. And that’s OK that’s not a bad thing.
So the athlete is going to choose a weight that they think they can perform for 10 to 12 reps and then they’re going to perform as many reps as they can until complete failure. The complete failure needs to be with proper form. So they need to keep form sound, and go until their muscles actually stop moving the weight. But we are not sacrificing form.
Often times an athlete will end up performing closer to 20 reps or more. Again, I really like this because it gives that athlete a feeling of actual failure. And they are only doing this for one set. So they are not going to failure more than once on each exercise.
This is how they will then determine their working set loads. Again I go into deeper detail inside my Pure PROgramming course as far as choosing a load based on how many reps they performed. But if they performed only 10 reps, then obviously they would need to use a lower load for their working sets. Whereas if they performed 20, then a weight close to what they used or a little bit heavier would probably work for their working sets depending on what the volume was.
Even with an intermediate or advanced lifter, I think that using AMRAPS is just a really fun and low risk way of loading for the athlete. So I thought I would throw it out there. I think it’s used far less commonly than some of these other methods. So take it for what it’s worth.
The last method is the rule of two. This is very trial and error-based. But it’s some thing that I teach all of my clients inside built by Annie. And that is that they should be struggling on those last two reps, they should have roughly 2 reps in reserve on most exercises generally speaking, and if they can’t finish their last two reps they need to lower the weight and re-perform those sets. So it’s just a general rule of two. It’s some thing that I’ve used for over a decade and it seems to work for most people. Especially when they are in a younger training age or learning what loads makes sense for them.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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