In the past, I had written about how to implement a Steady State Cycle (SSC), which is basically where you choose a challenging number of sets & reps (volume) of an exercise and stick to that for 8-12 weeks. The SSC is an extremely conservative program intended for gymnasts/calisthenics-athletes to safely train straight-arm exercises that are notorious for being very taxing on the connective tissues. (Think like Iron Crosses, Planches, One Arm Chinups, etc.)
The way it works is that it that it purposely forces you to stick to the same volume for a prolonged period so that the exercise goes from being an intense challenge, to actually too little of a challenge on purpose so that while the muscles plateau in strength, the tendons could catch up on the healing process demanded by the exercise. The reason for this is because tendons take 10x longer to heal than your muscles. So, while your muscles might be getting continually stronger, underneath the surface, the tendons are unable to recover and fully heal until eventually joint-pain suddenly rear its ugly head and you need to take weeks or months off.
Enter the concept of Rating Perceived Effort (RPE)
I’d like to introduce to you a similar concept that you could use to add and modify your current program for exercises that you think are potentially risky on the joints, to reduce your risk of injury. I have used this concept countless times in the past couple years with great success as it provides great peace of mind. It introduces a smarter form of auto-regulation that allows you to progress a bit faster than an SSC as it is not as conservative and allows for more freedom.
What is the Rate of Perceived Effort? (RPE)
The Rate of Perceived Effort/Exertion is a subjective metric for any exercise that you jot down at the end of all your sets based on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the hardest:
- Ten means it is max effort and you definitely couldn’t do 1 more good rep.
- Nine is very close to max effort, but you possibly had one more good rep left in you.
- Eight means you probably had 2 more reps left in you.
- Seven means it was difficult but manageable and you probably had 3 reps left.
- Six means it was moderately difficult but you had plenty of gas left in the tank.
Utilize RPE to improve your decision making
Let’s say you’re running my Minimal Routine which is an adaptation of Pavel Tsatsouline’s Fighter Pullup Program and you finished your 5 sets of pullups and pushups. At the end of those 5 sets, you can jot down what the RPE felt like for each exercise. So let’s suppose you experienced 10 RPE for the pullups and 7 RPE for the pushups. For the next workout session, according to that program, you’re supposed to add 1-rep to the pullups and pushups, but does it make sense if the RPE was 10?
- If your RPE is 10, it doesn’t make sense to add 1-rep again. Probably best you stick to the same # of reps until the RPE feels lower.
- If your RPE is 9, it’s up to you here if you should stick to the same # of reps or add more. If the exercise has given you issues in the past, you might want to err on the side of caution and just prove to yourself that the volume is manageable before adding a rep.
- If your RPE is 8 or lower, you’re likely fine to add another rep on the next workout day.
To sum up: If you encounter 9-10 RPE, stick to the same volume and intensity until the RPE feels like 7 or lower. Then you know you’re ready to increase the volume again.
Here is a real-life example from my notes when I was training for Single Leg Front Lever Negatives (with Toes at Knee)
|Reps over 5 sets (Volume)
|Notice the RPE is trending up.
|This is a sign to stay at this volume until 6-7 RPE
|Breakthrough! Now I can increase volume again.
Notice how I was increasing the # of reps until I started stalling out. So I stuck to the same volume, grinding through it and after 10 workouts (about 2 weeks), my RPE went from a 10 (max effort) to a relatively easy 6. (From my experience it usually takes only 1-2 weeks). Now, I can feel good and safe about increasing the volume or intensity. I didn’t have to stop working out. I just kept chugging away until that volume became manageable. Most importantly, this undoubtedly helps the tendons to heal to the demands of the exercise while the muscular strength is maintained. It is imperative you add this metric for any exercise that is difficult on your joints or if you have had a history of issues with them in the past.
This small but important addition to your training journal will help you notice trends of your RPE creeping up to unsustainable levels and then drifting down to manageable levels which will help you to keep training, not lose any strength, and to continually get stronger in a safe manner. I hope that helps you and if you have any questions, please let me know!