You, Me and RPE: Part 2

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a great way to regulate the intensity of your training sessions and manage fatigue. It is as easy as rating how many more reps you think you have left in the tank after completing a set on an exercise. For example, an RPE 7 roughly corresponds to having 3 more reps left in the tank. RPE allows us to find the “goldilocks” zone of not too easy and not too hard. In this article, we’ll look at how we can apply RPE to training and some of the ways we can calculate it.

Using RPE during a warm-up

When we warm up, we can use RPE to help us determine what we do for our top set. Let’s say our goal is 3 sets x 6 reps at 100kg @ RPE 7. A good approach is to treat your warm up sets as though they are the top set. This means we use the same number of reps and also attempt to move the weight as fast as possible. An example could look like this:

  • 2-5 sets x 6 reps x 20kg (empty barbell)
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 40kg
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 60kg
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 80kg
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 95kg @ RPE 6 (~5% of top estimated load)

We use this final warm-up set as an indicator set to help us determine an appropriate load selection. If this final set is easier than expected (RPE 5 or lower), then we might choose to load up 102.5kg for our final working sets. If this final set however is harder than expected and is rated RPE 7 (the prescribed RPE) then the good news is that we can call this indicator set our first working set.

RPE and modifying load selection

So what do you do if you do a set and realise it doesn’t match the prescribed intensity? This is often referred to as undershooting or overshooting a set. Undershooting is when the RPE of the working set is too easy or lower than expected, whereas overshooting is when the RPE of the working set is too hard or higher than expected.

Now, undershooting a set isn’t as bad as it seems. Slight undershoots will result in less fatigue accumulation and consequently may allow you to adhere to a program for longer. This is because there is less of a need to introduce a deload. A deload is a period of time where intensity, volume or both are scaled back to allow fatigue to subside. If we are constantly taking deloads, then we are losing effective training time throughout the year. However, consistently undershooting can present issues in the long-term as you may be slowing the rate of progress.

How about overshooting? Again, the occasional overshoot isn’t a massive deal. However, if this is a constant occurrence then you may find that you are accumulating fatigue much faster throughout a training cycle. Accumulated fatigue means you might be entering subsequent sessions less and less recovered.

For example, consider a top single at 100kg with a prescribed RPE 8 with back off sets of 3 sets x 5 reps at 70%. If we overshoot the single and it’s an RPE 9 we can simply modify the projected estimated 1 repetition maximum (e1RM) and the back off sets at 70% will still be appropriate. Conversely, if the single was easier than expected, the e1RM will reflect this and the 70% will be heavier.

Just to reiterate, undershooting or overshooting every now and then generally isn’t a big deal. However, it is probably helpful to get into the practice of being as accurate and honest as you can about the effort of your sets.

Starting a new program

When starting a new program, we won’t always know what the most appropriate load selection should be. We can use RPE to help us determine what to put on the bar in a few different ways.

Low stress weeks can be a great way to introduce a new program and allow us to get an idea about what the loads should look like going forward. By pulling back the average RPE for the week (and consequently the loads used throughout the week) we are able to better estimate an appropriate starting point for the following week without overshooting. A low stress week has the added benefit of allowing us to recover from any build up in fatigue.

Another great way of determining an entry point is by ascending sets. As an example, say we have to do 3 sets x 10 reps at RPE 7. To find the appropriate entry point we can spend the first session doing a set at RPE 5, then RPE 6 and finish with a set at RPE 7. This way we know that the working weight for the following week should be somewhere between what was used for the set at RPE 6 and RPE 7 (roughly).

Troubleshooting

What is progress and how do we define it with regards to training? Quite simply, progress can be defined as an improvement in capacity with regards to a certain task. Let’s look at an example over a 2 week period with squats.

Week 1: 3 sets x 5 reps at 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 2: 3 sets x 5 reps at 102.5kg @ RPE 9

While the load has increased from week 1 to week 2, notice that the perceived effort required has increased also, so has there been an improvement in capacity? The numbers tell us that there has not been an improvement and all that we have done is move the goalposts.

Now, what can you do if you’re really struggling to work out the RPE of a set? Do an AMRAP set! AMRAP stands for As Many Reps As Possible. Since RPE is closely related to how many reps you have left in the tank then we can pretty easily determine the RPE of a set. Imagine you have a set of 10 reps at 50kg @ RPE 8, but you can’t tell if it’s actually an RPE 8. We can set up safeties and ask someone to spot us and then attempt an AMRAP set. If you can only get to 2 extra reps out, then the estimate of 50kg @ RPE 8 is correct. Getting more than 2 reps means that you have undershot the weight. Getting anything less than two reps indicates that you may be overshooting.

Conclusion

RPE is a great way for us to regulate our training and track progress effectively across training cycles. Not only that, but it allows us to account for the ebbs and flows of life and adjust our training accordingly. If you’re having a rough week, trying to push and do more than the week before might not be the most effective approach.

Hopefully this article has given you a better idea about what RPE is and how we can use it to manage our training. If you’d like to learn more, contact us here.

You, Me and RPE: Part 1

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is an autoregulation tool. So, what is autoregulation and why does that matter to you? Autoregulation is a process that takes place within biological systems. It is an automatic mechanism which helps the body adjust to stimuli. A really simple example is perfusion, or the delivery of blood to the capillary beds of organ and skeletal tissue. Without perfusion, oxygen cannot be delivered. At some point, certain tissues require more oxygen in response to a changing stimulus. For instance, there is an increased oxygen delivery to muscles during exercise!

In training, autoregulation is a deliberate and conscious process. It involves adjusting the training demands of the day based on your current ability during a training session. In resistance training, autoregulation is expressed in terms of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), or Repetitions in Reserve (RIR) or Velocity-Based Training (VBT). Autoregulation methods are also used with endurance training. Today we’ll talk about how you can use RPE in your training. Let’s get into it!

What is RPE?

If you’ve ever read an old-school strength program (I mean, who hasn’t, am I right?) then you might have read something like: “6 x 6 @ 70%”. This isn’t witchcraft we promise – it’s simply 6 sets x 6 reps at 70% of your 1 repetition maximum. Your 1 repetition maximum or “e1RM” is the most you can lift for 1 rep (often estimated). Indicating the planned intensity of a session is important as we are trying to deliver a deliberate and effective stimulus. So we need express intensity, but what are the issues with percentages alone?

Well, this prescription relies on a few assumptions. Firstly, you must know your 1 rep max. Secondly, you assume your 1 rep max is a static target. Third and last, strength is specific. Let me use an example to explain. If all you do is 5 reps, you’ll only get efficient with 5 reps. If you start doing 10-12 reps however you may find that using the prescribed percentage is disproportionally hard.

So, there’s clearly some issues with percentages alone.

RPE is therefore simply a rating of an effort, relative to your maximum ability. RPE lets us put language to percentages. Ultimately, it helps us communicate and adjust for how hard something is. It accounts for your e1RM being a moving target and, oh yeah, the fact that humans aren’t machines. Simply put, you won’t always feel your best for a variety of reasons. Training with strict percentages based will limit your options. A static target will mean some days the training is too easy, and other days, too hard.

How can you implement RPE?

Implementing RPE is simple and our companion article will provide a more fleshed out example. Using RPE is as simple as considering how many more reps you could perform once you have finished a set. Second to this is considering the bar speed. This is how quickly you could move a weight during the concentric (shortening) portion of the exercise. For instance, let’s say I was doing a set of squats for 5 reps, and on the last rep while standing up the bar speed slowed down (that is, I stood up more slowly than the first 4 reps). After the set I estimated I could only do about 2-3 more reps before failing, this would be an RPE 7-8.

Importantly, when we consider bar speed we are only counting the “slowdown” that occurs when trying to move a weight as quickly as possible. That is, if the weight is sufficiently challenging and you are working sufficiently hard, that weight won’t be flying around so quickly! In the scientific literature we can call that slowdown a “velocity” loss which reflects intra-set fatigue. Research shows us that there is a sweet spot where we can get strength and hypertrophy outcomes from training while minimising fatigue. This occurs by staying within the 5-8 RPE range which roughly corresponds to a ~20-25% velocity loss [1].

Simply begin to be aware of your training efforts and you will dial in your ability to rate them. Moreover, it seems that the accuracy of your ability to monitor RPE can be improved with practise and exposure [2],[3]. You can use velocity-based trackers for VBT training but this isn’t necessary. What matters most is consistency. So even if your RPE 8 is really an RPE 7, as long as that stays the same, you can anchor your efforts and go from there.

For your convenience, we’ve inserted an RPE chart which also accounts for its inverse, Repetitions in Reserve (RIR). Use this as your reference when deciphering program prescriptions. So returning to that earlier example, instead of the percentage, one could simply write 6 x 6 @ RPE 7 which would mean simply 6 sets x 6 reps each with 3 reps in reserve and some-minimal slowdown. That’s much easier to guess than 70% right?

Wrapping up RPE

Considering your RPE is an important step in making your training more consistent and results, reliable. Poor results can be attributed to many things, but there are two obvious culprits. Firstly, failing to push hard enough. Secondly, pushing too hard, too often. Autoregulation tools such as RPE, RIR and VBT helps trainers and trainees alike find the “goldilocks” zone of not too easy and not too hard. Although learning how to rate your own efforts in training with scales such as RPE/RIR is imperfect, practise will go a long way. Outside of training, occasionally testing to better anchor your perception of a “hard” effort is viable. Testing could include actual 1 rep max tests, training singles or AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets, all to be discussed at another time.

If you’d like to learn more about RPE and Training, you can read part two here or contact us.

References

  1. The Effect of Load and Volume Autoregulation on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – PMC (nih.gov)
  2. Methods for Regulating and Monitoring Resistance Training – PMC (nih.gov)
  3. Novel Resistance Training-Specific Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve – PubMed (nih.gov)

Ageing Strong: Part 2

In Ageing Strong: Part 1 we discussed the background to Ageing Strong. There are strong reasons for adopting exercise and in particular resistance training for older adults (over 60 years). In Part 2 we will cover exercise prescription and provide an example training week. We will focus in on the resistance training component that matches evidence-based recommendations.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a fantastic resource on Resistance Training for Older Adults. Their Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement is split into 4 parts and 11 summary statements. Part 1 and 2 covers exercise prescription and physiologic adaptations which we will cover today [1].

Susan on the Concept 2 RowErg with Jake

Statement 1: Appropriate instructions for exercise technique and proper spotting is safe for healthy, older adults.

Exercise technique will need to be individualised for each trainee based on their anthropometry, exercise and injury history. The primary concern here is clear communication and consistency across training sessions. Warming up will be the time to implement exercise instruction and practise while ramping up to working loads. “Safety” isn’t found in necessarily physically spotting each exercise but rather being aware of the environment and individual. This can involve the following observations:

  • Making sure the J-Hooks are set at the correct height for unracking & re-racking barbells
  • Making sure there are no trip hazards,
  • Monitoring client exertion levels
  • Gradually building up the training demands
Rachael chatting with clients Travis and Lisa

Statement 2: A properly designed resistance training program for older adults should include…

A resistance training session will involve 2-3 sets of 1-2 compound (multi-joint) exercise per major muscle group. Major muscle groups include thighs, arms, chest, back and shoulders. We tend not to worry about forearms or facial muscles in isolation! Working loads for heavy slow resistance training will float around 70-85% of an estimated 1 repetition maximum (e1RM). Loads for lighter, more explosive exercise will be at intensities of 40-60% of an e1RM.

Now these ranges don’t have to be exact, in fact there’s a wide range of possible prescriptions [2], [3]. A good summary for ageing strong is as follows:

  1. 40-85% e1RM across low and high velocity resistance training (for strength and power)
  2. 2-3 sets per exercise per major muscle group
  3. 6-15 repetitions per set (on average)
  4. 1-6 sessions a week

It’s important to note that these are general guidelines. Individuals will experience different results at varying volumes and loads [4], [5]. However, it is clear that resistance training for older adults should not be “easy” or different to the general population. Of course, it goes without saying, if older adults are participating in any sports, training will need to be more specialised.

Harry helping his client on the leg press

Statement 3: Resistance training programs for older adults should follow the principles of individualization, periodization, and progression.

By periodisation we are referring to modifying training stressors over time to facilitate better results. This can be as simple as allowing for two different loading zones of a lower body exercise across a week. This could look like the following:

  1. Squats: 4 sets x 6 reps at 75% of e1RM on Day 1
  2. Squats: 3 sets of 8 reps at 65% of e1RM on Day 2

We call this Daily Undulating Periodisation. Additionally, periodisation can also involve exercise selection. We call this Exercise Conjugation. In the example above, we can substitute Squats on Day 2 for Leg Press or Lunges. Periodisation can be useful for resistance training for older adults in order to drive progress while managing fatigue.

Julia on the seated cable row with Harry

Statement 4: A properly designed resistance training program can counteract the age-related changes in contractile function, atrophy, and morphology of ageing human skeletal muscle.

Resistance training is a powerful stimulus, however, the correct physiological environment will facilitate the best results. Making sure protein targets such as 1.6g per kilogram of bodyweight and consuming sufficient calories is important. Lower intakes such as 0.8 per kg/bw may not be enough to drive adequate results [7]. Secondly, managing fatigue through appropriate programming and getting enough sleep is essential.

Kevin squatting 100kg with Jake

Statement 5: A properly designed training program can enhance the muscular strength, power, and neuromuscular functioning of older adults.

Heavy, slow resistance training for older adults is effective but can we do more? In the prescription section, lighter, explosive training for developing Power was mentioned. Training Power as a fitness quality isn’t about sports performance but instead proposed to confer certain benefits to older adults. In particular, improving or at least maintaining how effectively the nervous system operates to create forceful contractions [6]. Power in its simplest form is the product of force multiplied by distance, divided by time. In an exercise context, force can be substituted for strength, and time/distance indicated by the speed of movement.

This will essentially involve moving lighter relative loads, faster, with the intent of moving fast and powerfully or “explosive.” We can easily incorporate this into training sessions in two ways:

  • Starting sessions with dedicated power training
  • Cueing maximum concentric velocity during all exercises
Susan chatting with Jake

A Week of Training

A week of training will involve a combination of aerobic and resistance training. If you’d like to know more about cardio, see our blog post here. Our example program today is a three-day full-body resistance training program that will satisfy the recommendations above.

Ageing Strong Sample Program

Conclusion

We hope you’ve enjoyed our dive into resistance training for older adults. Sufficient training should look like at least performing heavy load, slow resistance training and some fast, light load resistance training at least twice weekly. This will involve targeting all major muscle groups. The challenge should start low but gradually increase to match the increase in fitness expected from training. In summary, resistance training with an emphasis on getting stronger over time is not only safe, but necessary for ageing strong [8].

Rogue barbell rack

References

  1. Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement Fro… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (lww.com)
  2. Dose–Response Relationships of Resistance Training in Healthy Old Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (nih.gov)
  3. Benefits of resistance training in physically frail elderly: a systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov)
  4. Progressive Resistance Training Volume: Effects on Muscle Thickness, Mass, and Strength Adaptations in Resistance-Trained Individuals – PubMed (nih.gov)
  5. Individual Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Responses to High vs. Low Resistance Training Frequencies – PubMed (nih.gov)
  6. Skeletal Muscle Power: A Critical Determinant of Physical Functioning In Older Adults – PMC (nih.gov)
  7. (Protein intake and muscle function in older adults – PubMed (nih.gov), Dietary Protein, Muscle and Physical Function in the Very Old – PubMed (nih.gov))
  8. Cancer-Specific Mortality Relative to Engagement in Muscle-Strengthening Activities and Lower Extremity Strength – PubMed (nih.gov)

Ageing Strong: Part 1

It’s no surprise that age catches up with us all. The thought that a steep decline in function is inevitable is simply untrue. We all know individuals who differ in their abilities and function relative to their age. Some are ageing strong. So, what is ageing? Well biologically, ageing results from the molecular and cellular damage accumulated over time. Chronological age is only loosely associated with biological changes. Other major changes such as retirement and changing living conditions also occur (hopefully for the better!)

Although ageing will always occur, health-promoting behaviours, even if adopted late, can result in a positive compression of morbidity. Resistance training is not a time machine, but it can help reduce the onset of conditions that impact quality of life [1]. It’s estimated that between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%. By 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older has outnumbered children younger than 5 years [2]. For this reason, improving quality of life over the long term for older adults is a key driver behind our work at Ivy Training.

In today’s post we’re covering three key areas related to ageing strong and how adopting strength training can be a key influencer in improving quality of life. 

  1. Managing Musculoskeletal Conditions
  2. Exercise Prescription for Older Individuals
  3. Ageism in Healthcare
Ageing Strong – Julia deadlifting with Harry

Managing Musculoskeletal Conditions

Did you know that approximately 1.71 billion people have musculoskeletal conditions worldwide [3]? That’s huge. Musculoskeletal conditions are the leading contributor to disability worldwide. Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability in 160 countries. These conditions can significantly affect mobility and dexterity. This leads to early retirement from work and therefore lower levels of self-efficacy and ability to participate in society [4]. As population growth and ageing continues, the number of people living with musculoskeletal conditions and associated limitations is increasing. Ageing strong can help prevent this.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that affects the whole joint including bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles. Many individuals describe OA as ‘wear and tear’. OA is now thought to be the result of a joint working extra hard to repair itself. Joints themselves are actually similar to a complex organ. They contain multiple different structures like synovium, bone, nerves, muscles, and blood supply. We cannot reduce the cause “degeneration” alone although a further exploration of OA is outside the scope of this article. It is the most common form of arthritis and affects millions of people worldwide. It can include symptoms such as:

  • Inflammation of the tissue around a joint
  • Damage to the joint cartilage
  • Body spurs growing around the edge of a joint
  • Deterioration of ligaments

OA affects any joints but commonly affects the knees, hips, finger joints and big toe. Although it can develop at any age but most commonly with people over 40 years. Symptoms can include pain and stiffness in the joints and often these symptoms get worse over time. Risk factors include being overweight, strenuous physical activity (manual labour), family history and previous injuries [5].

Sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is a progressive skeletal muscle disorder involving loss of muscle mass and function. Associated with this loss is an increased risk of falls, functional decline, and frailty. The rate of muscle loss is dependent on individual exercise level, comorbidities, nutrition and other factors. Sarcopenia is considered a part of frailty syndrome. Frailty is a common geriatric syndrome that involves a catastrophic decline in health and function among older adults. Associated weakness, slowing, decreased energy, lower activity, and, when severe, unintended weight loss are all symptoms. Additionally, frailty increases vulnerability to stressors such as extreme temperatures, infection and changes in medication. Managing sarcopenia can help manage frailty [6].

Functional Mobility

Age-related declines in health including result in reduction of functional mobility and self-care of older adults. Individuals with musculoskeletal conditions may also experience further decline when taking bed rest post-fall if advised. Importantly, the ability to perform activities of daily living can determine the quality of life someone has as they age. This quality can include the ability to be independent, social and enjoy hobbies and activities. Lower self-efficacy not only has large implications for someone’s physical health but also mental health. As defined by Zimmerman (2000), “Self-efficacy is a highly effective predictor of motivation and learning in human beings. It is sensitive to changes in context and leads to reactions in activity choices, effort and persistence and also to emotional reactions”. Managing musculoskeletal conditions is critical to maintaining functional mobility [4].

Ageing Strong – Travis using the Ab Wheel with Rachael

Exercise Prescription for Older Individuals

Thankfully plenty of research has been performed on this topic and the results are both exciting and optimistic. Ultimately, despite your age or current level of ability, positive changes can be made to improve your quality of life. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has a fantastic position statement on resistance training for older adults. We will cover each of the points listed and how we would approach them at Ivy Training in our companion article here [7].

Importantly, however, these guidelines state that programs should “follow the principles of individualization, periodization, and progression”. In doing so, they can “enhance the muscular strength, power, and neuromuscular functioning of older adults.” Initial frailty, mobility limitations, cognitive impairment, or other chronic conditions do not have to prevent training from starting. Most importantly we feel “properly designed resistance training program can help improve the psychosocial well-being of older adults.”

Our companion article will cover the 11 position stand points in depth alongside summary recommendations from two other research articles. What’s important to take away here, however, are the following points:

  • Heavy slow resistance training between 60-85% of an estimated 1 rep max is appropriate
  • Power training, performing lighter movements explosively is appropriate
  • Training stress should increase over time
  • Older adults will build muscle and strength
  • Older adults are not inherently fragile
Ageing Strong – Susan doing a Bent Over Row with Jake

Ageism in Healthcare

This is an important point that bears stating: age alone shouldn’t decide how able we perceive someone to be. Individuals should be treated with dignity and have the opportunity to live to their fullest extent. Getting under load and getting strong is for everyone. Unfortunately, ageism is an issue that pervades healthcare and culture at large.

As previously discussed, age alone is a poor marker of disability. Decision making in medicine should be based on potential benefit to the individual. Older adults need not participate in tokenistic exercise. This includes arbitrarily light-load resistance training with no emphasis on progression. The absence of effort required might mislead both the trainer and the client about the potential benefits occurring. Although all exercise is good, older adults need heavy loads (relative to their ability) to fight frailty. It will need to be appropriately hard, and we shouldn’t dismiss someone and their potential to improve on the basis of age alone [8], [9], [10]. We should instead be encouraging people to start ageing strong.

Ageing Strong – Kevin lacing up his Nike Romaleos

Conclusion

In conclusion, increasing physical activity and engaging in both aerobic and resistance training for the management of musculoskeletal conditions can have positive effects on the process of ageing. Exercise (and ageing strong) is a powerful intervention that can compress morbidity and improve one’s quality of life [11].

Most importantly, individuals should feel empowered knowing that they can make effective and meaningful changes by starting to take more control of their health. For older adults, resistance training is absolutely safe. Additionally, older adults should not be stigmatised for their age. Older adults do not need to be doing downscaled resistance training or geriatric training, which is neither hard or challenging. Now admittedly, individuals will bring into their training different levels of abilities.

That being said, older individuals should be challenged to a level appropriate to their current capacity with the view to improve and face harder challenges. They should not just be doing “tokenistic” attempts at exercise that do not involve progression in load, volume, intensity and range of motion. If you would like to know more about how you can start resistance training, exercising in general and ageing strong, you can contact us here.

Ageing Strong – the Ivy Training studio

References

  1. Healthy active ageing: How to get active | Queensland Health
  2. Ageing and health (who.int)
  3. Musculoskeletal health (who.int)
  4. Well-Being, Self-Efficacy and Independence in older adults: A Randomized Trial of Occupational Therapy – PubMed (nih.gov)
  5. Osteoarthritis — Arthritis Australia – the most common arthritis in Australia
  6. Pathogenesis and Management of Sarcopenia (nih.gov)
  7. Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement Fro… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (lww.com)
  8. Age as a basis for healthcare rationing. Arguments against agism – PubMed (nih.gov)
  9. [Is ageism a relevant concept for health care practice in the elderly?] – PubMed (nih.gov)
  10. Geriatric oncology: problems with under-treatment within this population – PMC (nih.gov)
  11. Benefits of resistance training in physically frail elderly: a systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov)