RPE vs. Percentages: Pros and Cons

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I’ve written in the past about how RPE is a form of intensity abstraction; it removes the need for a lot of information. This time I wanted to compare RPE to percentages and talk about some the advantages it has over percentages and even some of the disadvantages (there are some).

Take What’s There

The biggest advantage RPE has over percentages is, of course, autoregulation. It allows you to adjust your numbers on the fly. The best part (at least from a strength coaching stand-point) is that you can account for both good and bad days in the trainees program.

With percentages, if the trainee is feeling good and decides to go up in weight they have to deviate from the program. That’s okay if you’re under the watchful eye of the coach and they give you the go-ahead but otherwise the trainee might be introducing variables the coach didn’t specify. On bad days the trainee only has the percentages to go off of and will potentially dig themselves a larger fatigue debt.

Using RPE in a programming allows you to take what’s there on any given day. If you’re supercompensating and your strength has improved over last week you will take advantage of it just by following your programming.

Built-in Progression

If you run a percentage based routine over a number of weeks your strength may have increased at numerous points throughout that routine. If there’s no specified progression you’ll never take advantage of that strength increase and therefore experience an overload effect.

Even if there’s a specified progression scheme (ex. +5 lbs, +10lbs per week) there’s no guarantee it will be appropriate for the trainee. If the trainee accumulates too much fatigue on a week (due to outside stress or what not) that five pound increase could be enough to push them further into a fatigue debt. Or maybe it’s the other way around and five pound isn’t enough to really take the new strength into account.

As mentioned earlier, RPE will take advantage of what’s there. If you’ve gotten ten pounds stronger you’re going to have an extra rep or two in the tank. This is also extremely convenient for the coach. They no longer have to guess at an appropriate weight increase across the weeks.

Required Calibration

One of the downsides to using RPE is that, most of the time, you can’t just jump right into your worksets or topsets. There is some calibration required because you are autoregulating and do not know exactly where your strength is on the given day. This is most often accomplished using one or more workup sets which allow you to hone in on your worksets for the day.

Lack of Predictability

It should be obvious by now, but anyone who is autoregulating knows that it’s hard to predict training variables. With percentages (as long as they aren’t too high) you can be pretty confident in your intensity and total volume on any given day. This will allow you to make broader predictions about the training cycle.

I’m sure you can tell by now that I’m bullish on RPE but it’s a good exercise to sometimes consider the downsides.

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