Yo! I benched today! That was my best "bro" impression. Yeah I know not very good. I'll leave the comedy up to my brother.
Anyways I really did bench press today. I know it's basically sacrilege to not bench on a Monday, but what can I say I like to break the mold.
It was a decent session for me.
I am no were near an elite level bench presser (I don't really aspire to be either), but I did get 300lbs for 3 sets of 3 reps. I am not really sure what my max would be, but I am fairly confident that I could get at least 330 pounds for a single rep on a given day. I weight 200 to 210 pounds so that's at least 1.57x to 1.65x my bodyweight. I have always thought that 1.5x bodyweight bench press was adequate although I know there are some who would argue that.
I know you don't care about my bench press max, but I am trying to illustrate a point. Trust me I'll get to it.
300 pounds for 3 sets of 3 reps was actually quite strenuous, which was really surprising considering I'd done the same routine not more than two weeks ago and it felt easy. This left me asking the question today, "What is this so heavy?"
The funny thing is I know why it feels heavy. I am a freaking trainer for crying out loud. I know that strength gains are not linear and that our ability to recover fluctuates based on a number of variables, some in our control and some outside of it.
But still my innate human logic is well if I could do it last time easy peasy shouldn't it be just as easy if not easier the second time.
A lot of my clients experience the same thing in their training.
It's often super frustrating and at times even discouraging to them. I often find myself explaining several times a week why 20 pounds this week may feel light as a feather and another week it feels like the dumbbell is made of solid gold.
And again we are left with the same answer that strength gains are rarely linear especially after the first few weeks of training.
This makes progressing and periodizing programs challenging at times because what looks logical and good on paper often doesn't really pan out in the real world because as I mentioned previously there are numerous variables that we cannot account for a head of time in our programs.
Mr. Tuchscherer refers to this solution as Autoregulation or essentially using feedback from daily training sessions to make adjustments to the training plan on the fly while in the gym in order to account for poor sleep, lack of nutrition, or any other variable that might impact someone's performance.
This allows you to match the training days volume and intensity to the individual's current level of recovery and adaptation and the amount of fatigue they will realistically be able to recover from and adapt to.
This idea really drew me in because it gave me a clear defined system and explanation of something I think many of us long time gym rats have been practicing without really knowing it. This led me to purchase the Reactive Training Systems Manual, which is basically an all you need to know guide on Mike's training philosophy and how to use Autoregulation. It's a fantastic resource for coaches and trainees.
After reading it I began experimenting with using Autoregulation in my training in the most basic format of RPE's.
This stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. This is actually not a novel concept.
Anyone who has a read an exercise physiology text or taken a course has probably ran into this concept as a way of judging cardiovascular intensity during a given activity, but this was the first time I had really considered applying a similar concept to strength training.
Essentially RPE's are a way of subjectively ranking the difficulty of any given set of a strength training program. There are a number of scales, but I took Mr. Tuchscherer's lead used a scale of 1-10 really only using numbers 7 - 10.
This scale for me looked like the following:
RPE of 10 = Max effort. No more reps left in the tank.
RPE of 9 = One more rep left in the tank at end of the set.
RPE of 8 = Two more reps left in the tank at end of the set.
RPE of 7 = Three more reps left in the tank at end of the set.
This scale is just what I came up with. RPE's are subject to the individual so you can really define them however you want as long as you use the same consistent definition when evaluating the difficulty of a set. For example my scale could have been just as easily in line with a Mark Fisher Fitness theme of the following:
RPE of 10 = Seriously that was fucking ridiculously hot, hard, and heavy.
RPE of 9 = I still have enough energy to reach my Unicorn Glory.
RPE of 8 = That didn't have nothing on this Ninja.
RPE of 7 = Are you kidding me? Get the fuck out my Enchanted Ninja Clubhouse of Glory and Dreams!
See what I mean? As long as you define your rate of perceived exertion the same each time you lift you can use them as metrics to guide your intensity and volume over the course of your program.
If you are having a hard time understanding how you might use this or how it fits into a program let me explain it like this.
Have you heard of percentage based programs? Such as like 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of your one rep max (1RM).
Yes? Okay cool this will make sense then.
No? Then let me explain. This kind of program basically means that you will use a weight for all your sets of 5 reps that is equivalent to 80% of what you can handle for a single rep on the given exercise you are doing.
Using percentages is just another way to progress and periodize volume and intensity over the course of a program. The same thing Mike advocates doing with Autoregulation and in my experimentation specifically using RPE's. All you do is replace the percentage of one rep max with a given RPE. For example instead of 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of 1RM you do 5 sets of 5 reps at an RPE of 8.
Yeah, but so what Stevan? What's the big deal about using RPE's over percentages?
The big deal is that percentages our absolute and completely objective. In a percentage based program progression is often dictated as linear and constant, but as we talked earlier this is rarely the case and anyone who has ever tried to do a purely percentage based program will probably also attest to this fact.
However this kind of program ignores that fact or at least believes that everyone's life revolves around training (hint: this is not the case).
This means that on Tuesday if you are supposed to do 3 x 5 at 85% of your 1RM, but Monday was an incredibly stressful day at work not to mention you only got three hours of sleep because the baby was crying all night and you walk into the gym feeling like an epic ball of fatigue you still have to do your 3 sets of 5 reps at 85% of your 1RM even though every single rep feels like a max effort attempt (and to your body it probably is being taken that way).
See why this might not be such a good thing in terms of getting results?
Especially considering that one's training stress does not dictate results, but rather the amount of stress one can recover from and adapt to.
This is where RPE's becomes a huge life saver. If instead in the example previously you were using an RPE based program instead of a percentage based one you would be able to account for the stress at work, the poor sleep the night before, and your level of eagerness to train.
For example if you come in that Tuesday and are scheduled to do 3 sets of 5 reps at an RPE of 8 then you can simply start with a weight that you feel is adequate for the rep range and after finishing your first set you can ask yourself whether or not you could have done more or less than two more reps.
If the answer is you could have done more than you increase the weight to get closer to the correct intensity at this volume.
If the answer was less than you will take a bit of the load off to get to the correct intensity at this volume.
Do you see it now?
RPE's are relative measures of intensity to how heavy or light the weight feels based on how strong you are feeling which is relative to how well you have recovered since your last training sessions.
I have been using this approach of Autoregulation into my training for the last year and have absolutely loved it! And I think it's an especially useful approach for those of us who use training to improve the rest of our life rather than training being our lives.
However as with everything new I add to my training philosophy I always vet it for quite a while before I consider introducing it to my clients or even really discussing it with them. I want to make sure it works and that it fits with what we are trying to do before blindly adding it in and then being forced to remove it down the line.
Plus in all honestly it always stresses me out to add a new concept into our training system across all clients.
It's a lot of repeated conversations, clients frustrated with change, and dealing with objections to a new way of doing things regardless of whether it's going to be more practical, efficient, and effective.
I did though recently go through with implementing RPE prescription across the board at RSC over the last month of new programs for all existing and new clients.
It was really finally motivated by hearing Mike Robertson talk about how he uses them with all of his clients at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training in his most recent product Physical Preparation 101, which by the way if you are a trainer who wants to write better programs or learn to write programs is a must have resource.
And while like with any change there has been some growing pains I whole heartedly wished that I had not waited so long to add it into my clients programs. Not only has it made explaining non linear progressions in strength much easier and natural, but it has also completely removed the never-ending question of "how much weight should I use?"
As you can probably guess I am now a big advocate of using Autoregulation in training programs. I would highly recommend you experiment with the concept in your own training. It can be as simple an application as I have chosen to use, RPE's, or it can be as complex as monitoring daily systemic fatigue using HRV and correlating with total training volume.
If you still feel like your not quite sure what the heck I am talking about I would highly recommend you check out the Reactive Training Systems Manual for yourself. It lays out this topic much more thoroughly and completely. Or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below with any questions you have. I don't claim to be the expert on this topic, but I'll do my best to answer any you have.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training