Autoregulation has seemingly taken the powerlifting world by storm. A quick look at any random lifter on instagram or youtube and you’re likely to see a reference to RPE or the ubiquitous @ syntax. RPE is the one tool which enables an autoregulatory overlay onto most powerlifting programs. This in and of itself is extremely useful. I think one of its biggest advantages over percentages, though, is its ability to abstract intensity.
When we talk about RPE in the sense of intensity and more specifically prescribe an RPE it’s important to note that you can’t separate RPE from a rep range. Without specified reps, RPE is just a scale. However, together RPE and reps correlate with an intensity. And like all good abstractions it removes the necessity for a certain foreknowledge and/or assumptions.
One of my favorite examples of the utility of the RPE abstraction is when prescribing intensity for new exercises. You’ll often run into lifters on forums or reddit commenting on an article about an exercise variation. One of the first questions they ask is naturally, “how heavy should I go?” Normally they’re answered by some sort of experienced lifter who’ll give an off-the-cuff percentage, “take 20% off your 1RM Squat and start there.” This is certainly a noble attempt by the experienced lifter but prescribing a percentage requires certain assumptions to be fulfilled:
- The trainee has tested their 1RM at some point in their training career
- The trainee has tested their 1RM somewhat recently
- That the prescribed percentage will be appropriate for this trainee
RPE separates the notion of intensity from its underlying implementation. It allows you to prescribe an intensity without knowing a lot about the individual. So rather than say, “Do sets of 5 at 80%” you can say “work up and do sets of 5 across @7.” By using RPE you don’t need to take into account the trainees current level of experience, their 1RM or even their level of fatigue on the given day. The only thing they require is a half-decent ability to estimate RPE¹.
- I realize that this might not always be realistic