Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) based training is becoming increasingly popular in the strength sports world, no doubt in great part to the work of Mike Tuchscherer. But as weightlifters, we’re often left asking how we can apply the RPE concept to the olympic movements. This article is designed to give an overview of the problems encountered using RPE for weightlifting, as well as suggesting a couple of solutions.
Let’s get started, shall we?
The Problems With Using RPE for Weightlifting
Take a quick look at the chart below, taken directly from the RTS website.
You’ll notice that it fits fantastically for classic strength movements; squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press etc.
But for fast, explosive movements that require a larger technical component, the scale starts to fall apart pretty quickly.
By this I mean, it’s more than possible to hit a rep that looks fairly quick and easy (RPE 7 on the chart) only to add 2-3kg and miss the lift altogether (RPE 10+) and I’m willing to bet almost every weightlifter and weightlifting coach will vouch for me on this.
The scale simply isn’t sensitive enough to account for the speed, power and technical factors. Nor was it designed to be. The RPE scale above is a fantastic training tool for its purpose, but its purpose was never to help weightlifters.
So What Are the Solutions? How Can We Actually Use RPE for Weightlifting
In my mind, there are two solutions. I favour the second, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
Solution 1: “How Does the Lift Feel?”
This is a solution I’ve seen suggested a couple of times, and over at MashElite I saw a scale that looked something like the below…
RPE 7 – Quick and snappy
RPE 8 – looked and felt good, but a bit more challenging
RPE 9 – Pushing hard but with a few kilos left in reserve
RPE 10 – Maxing Out
And to be fair, I do think this is better than nothing. If I gave this to an athlete they’d probably be able to have a fair idea in their head of what I was wanting them to achieve that day, and be able to adjust their weight selection accordingly.
My problem with this approach is that athletes themselves, and I say this with love, are often an appalling judge of the kinematic aspects of their own lifting.
How many times has someone told you that their lift felt so hard and slow, when externally it looked quick and snappy and you know that they’re good for another 5-10kg? And how many times have you thought that a lift was incredibly hard, only to watch a video of it and the bar actually had enough height to fit a double-decker bus under it?
In my experience (both as lifter and coach) far too often.
Not all the time, but it certainly happens enough to be regularly leaving kilos on the table.
Solution 2: RPE as a Psychological Excitation Scale
This might sound a little weird, but hear me out.
Assuming a lifter is strong enough to make each lift, what’s the biggest change as the bar gets heavier across a session?
It’s the lifters psychology.
At lighter, easier weights everyone is laughing, chatting between sets, the mood is pretty chill. But as we go heavier the mood changes. People become quieter, they focus in, they pace, they stare down the bar, they psych themselves up.
And it’s this qualitative psychological difference that makes heavy weightlifting movements so damn fatiguing. Because physically and biomechanical there’s no real difference between a snatch at 118kg versus 120kg. It’s the psychological component that changes, and so it’s this that we should be accounting for.
Here’s my proposed RPE scale for weightlifting…
As you can see, the chart progresses from psychologically easy through to psychologically very demanding.
In my view, there are three major benefits to this approach…
1) It gives the athlete direct guidance on how they should be conducting themself during the session.
I’ve coached a lot of teams over the years, and one thing is incredibly clear to me, athletes need direction. They need clear instructions to follow. Without clear guidance, all it takes is one persuasive Jon North wannabe to turn a light technique session into a bar slamming max-out.
2) It gives an accurate indication of what the athlete is actually capable of on the day
I spoke earlier about how lifters often convince themselves the lift is harder/slower than it actually looked. How much of this do you think would be fixed if the lifter applied a more appropriate mental framework to their lifting session? I’m betting it fixes a tonne of that.
As a coach, if I can see a lifter being highly focused, visualising, psyching themself up and still missing at a single at 80%, I know for certain that they’re absolutely battered and that I’m not getting anything more out of them that day.
3) It doesn’t require constant video recording or coaching
Don’t get me wrong, some recording is great, especially during technical sessions, but if your system of RPE relies on some external feedback to check your lifts, it’s going to end up being disruptive in your heavier sessions.
Using a psychological RPE model puts control in the athlete’s hands, and encourages them to actually think about how they’re approaching a lift.
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RPE for Weightlifting – Round-Up
So there you go, a couple of practical solutions that you can use if you’re keen to utilise an RPE based approach in your weightlifting movements.
I’m not saying that they’re the be-all and end-all.
I’m not saying they’re perfect.
Nor am I saying that you have to use RPE. Percentage ranges can work just fine too.
What I’m doing is offering some ideas, based on my education and coaching experience, ideally as a starting point for an even better quality discussion around the topic.
If you’ve found the article helpful, feel free to share it with your weightlifting friends, and as always, if you’re looking for more tips, workouts or programmes, consider joining my mailing list.
‘Til Next Time
MSc Strength & Conditioning
British Weightlifting Tutor/Educator
Having provided S&C support to Leeds University, City of Leeds Swimming Club Talent Pathways, and Leeds Rebound Gymnastics Elite Squads.