When it comes to making consistent progress, you must be on some sort of program. This can be something as simple as Starting Strength 3×5, Stronglifts 5×5, Push/Pull/Legs, something you came up with yourself, whatever you want, but you need to be following something structured to ensure you’re progressing consistently over time. There are merits to fucking around a bit without anything in particular planned but these periods are more akin to active recovery than actual training.
However, what many programs fail to take into account is life. Maybe you stayed up late for the Superbowl, or there’s a really big project at work, or your kid is sick, or maybe it’s one of those rare occasions where the stars have aligned and you feel like a monster and are ready to destroy your workout.
Whatever the case and however you feel, well, you’re supposed to be doing 3 sets of five at 225. Next time, you’re supposed to do 3 sets of 5 at 230. That’s the program. And if you haven’t been consistently following a program and seen consistent progress for at least 6 months to a year, you’re better off simply doing what you need to do for the day to learn the nuances of your body. Some days you’ll come in feeling like absolute shit but once you warm up and get under the bar, all of that disappears. Other days you’ll feel normal but your warm up weights feel at least 100lbs heavier than they should and you’ll barely grind out your sets for the day. This is something that takes time to learn and you won’t understand feeling kind of crappy vs a truly bad day until you’ve been consistently putting the work in and getting a feel for yourself for at least 6 months to a year.
However if you’re more on the experienced side, there is a concept that is simple in theory but fairly advanced in execution known as auto-regulation. In short, you let your body dictate the intensity of your workout for the day. There are two important concepts when it comes to auto-regulation. The first and most important is the RPE or RIR scale.
Rate of Perceived Exertion
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or Reps In Reserve (RIR) are two ways to think about how difficult a particular set was. These are essentially the same thing but are just slightly different ways to understand the same concept. For each, we simply take a 1-10 scale; level 1 would be not working at all while level 10 would be an all out effort. When it comes to lifting weights, we’re primarily concerned with staying mostly in the 7-8 range and occasionally hitting the 9.5 and sometimes 10 level:
It’s important to understand these concepts because if you’re always training at a level 9.5-10, you’re going to get burned out, stop having fun and stop making progress. Staying mostly in the 7-9 range while occasionally hitting that 9.5-10 ensures you’re consistently getting stronger over time while still allowing your body to recover.
So how do you apply this to regulate your training as needed? To answer that, we first need to look at the 10% rule.
The 10% Rule
If adding or dropping weight to your working sets, stay within 10%. This really isn’t so much a rule as a guideline, but rule sounds much more official and makes me seem more informed.
Say it’s one of those bear of a days; the boss is breathing down your neck, traffic was a complete mess getting to the gym, some dude is doing curls in the rack and Bieber is on the radio. Things aren’t looking good as you finally unrack the bar and start warming up. You’re supposed to be doing 3 sets of 5 at 225 today and you get your first set, but just barely (RPE 9.5-10), and you’re pretty sure you’re not going to make it through set 2 let alone set 3. Here is where the 10% rule would come in handy
Here you could simply drop down 5%-10% to 200-215 for the last two sets. Whatever you choose, these weights are still high enough to provide a stimulus to get stronger while giving you enough of a break that you can complete the workout. So today you might drop down to 205 for the last two sets, the last set feeling like an 8.5. Next time you’re back in, you get all 3 sets of 225 without too much trouble.
What if you’re having one of those really good days? You just got a raise, there’s parking right outside the gym and the pre-workout is kicking in perfectly during the warm up. You’re pumped and ready to get some work done. This is where understanding the RPE/RIR scale as well as being honest with yourself comes in.
So maybe instead of the 3x5x225 you’re supposed to do, you work up and do 225×5, 235×5, 245×5. The first set felt about a 8, the second set was about an 8.5 and the last set is a grind, maybe a 9.5 RPE/RIR, but you felt really good, went for it and got it. Understanding the RPE/RIR scale is important as it will allow you take advantage of those good days and maybe push a little harder than you normally would while not overly extending yourself so much that it affects the rest of your week. If you lie to yourself on that second set and call it an 8-8.5 rather than the 9-9.5 that it really was, you’re going to fail that last set of 245. In and of itself, failing every once in a while is ok. However, if you were being honest and understood the scale, you would have known to not push past the second set.
What if you’re feeling great but decide to stay at 225 for your working sets? Would you just do more sets, say 4, 5 maybe even 6 sets? You could, sure, but this is where you want to be careful. 4 sets would be a 33% volume increase from 3 sets, let alone 5 or 6. Again, if you do this every once in a while and go ham, hitting those level 9.5-10 RPE’s is not a huge deal. The problem is when you start calling days “beast mode” when you should simply focus on what you need to hit for the day. This is where being honest with yourself comes into play. Strength isn’t built in a day, it’s a journey.
If you are that newer lifter and still figuring things out, play around with this method insofar as recording your RPE level during your workouts. If the program calls for those 3 sets of 5 at 225, do those sets but write down how you feel and what your RPE is. Over time, you’ll be able to fine tune and more objectively assess your levels and you’ll be well on your way to applying this concept subconsciously.
Understanding RPE will help you maintain consistent progress despite life’s best attempt to mess up your training. In short, back off a little when you need and let loose the animal every once in a while when you’re really feeling good.