By Jordan Feigenbaum
Hey there! I was contacted by Scivation a few months back to come up with a series of workouts geared toward improving strength, as this is right in my wheelhouse. They’ll be releasing the workouts on their Instagram little by little, but I wrote a longer article to explain the how and whys of the program for those who are interested. First, let’s get to the workouts. I’ve initially programmed three workouts per week that we’ll run for the first month before adjusting some of the variables for optimal progress:
- Workout 1
- Competition Squat x 1 @ RPE 8, 5 @ RPE 8 x 3-5 sets
- 2 count Paused Bench x 4 @ 7, 4 @ 8, 4 @ 9 x 3-4 sets
- Romanian Deadlift x 7 reps @ 6, 7 reps @ 7, 7 reps @ 8 x 4 sets
- Workout 2
- Competition Bench x 1 @ RPE 8, 5 reps @ RPE 8 x 4-6 sets
- 2 count Paused Squat x 4 @ 7, 4 @ 8, 4 @ 9 x 3-4 sets
- Press x 7 reps @ 6, 7 reps @ 7, 7 reps @ 8 x 4 sets
- Workout 3
- Competition Deadlift x 1 @ RPE 8, 5 @ RPE 8 x 3-5 sets
- Touch n Go Bench Press x 4 @ 7, 4 @ 8, 4 @ 9 x 3-4 sets
- Front Squat 7 reps @ 6, 7 reps @ 7, 7 reps @ 8 x 4 sets
- Dumbbell Incline Bench 8 reps @ 6, 8 reps @ 7, 8 reps @ 8 x 4 sets
Now let’s introduce the concept of R.P.E., which stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. The RPE scale was originally developed in the 60’s by Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg and had a linear scale of 6-20. Each increment is associated with a subjective level of effort, with 6 representing a resting state and 20 representing maximal exertion. Additionally, each numerical value is correlated with a heart rate by multiplying the RPE by 10. For example, if a person rated their exertion at 13 (somewhat hard), then their heart rate is estimated to be about 130 beats per minute. At this point, the RPE scale was typically applied to aerobic exercise and exercise physiology research and not resistance training.
Fast forward to the late 2000’s and enter the freaky strong and very intelligent Mike Tuchscherer, owner of Reactive Training Systems. Mike was the first to apply RPE principles to strength training as a way of selecting the weight for a given exercise on a particular day. I would be remiss if I did not give credit where credit is due, as Mike deserves a lot of praise for bringing this concept to strength sports. I am fortunate to have called him both coach and friend.
It is my opinion that there are many advantages in using RPE to determine the load for lifters as outlined below:
- Accounts for variability in performance
–Performance on a given training day is related to many factors, including many the lifter may not be able to control. Things like previous training stress, sleep, nutritional status, motivation, time of day, injuries, training environment, etc. all play a role in what a lifter’s performance level will be on a particular day. Using RPE to select the weight accounts for all of this because it allows the lifter to “feel” out the correct weight. In contrast, using something like percentages or pre-planned loads may be less appropriate depending on how accurate the 1 rep max that guides the percentages is. Consider this, a 1RM is only accurate on the day that it’s performed. Days, weeks, or months later this 1RM may be much heavier or much lighter than a lifter’s current maximum and thus, loads planned off this number are likely to be sub-optimal. While I’m not against having a certain load in mind as the goal of the day, it is my opinion that the load will need to be altered based on the lifter’s is performnce that particular day.
- Provides optimal training stress
–In strength training, it is important that the stress applied by training is appropriate given the demographic, the timing within the training cycle (e.g. is it close to a meet or test week vs being 16 weeks out?), and the amount of fatigue the lifter is dealing with at the time. For instance, if someone is far out from a meet or testing week, it’s likely best to get in a good amount of training volume at a relatively lower intensity than if the meet or test week is 14 days away. So in selecting the load for a particular exercise, I can use RPE to communicate to the lifter that the sets are supposed to be at a certain level of difficulty and they can gauge this in real-time, depending on how they feel under the bar. Of course this depends on a ton of factors that are hard to communicate, so I simply say “Do 4 sets of 6 reps @ 70%”. If we continue to apply the right stress over a series of training sessions, we’ll likely be see the greatest improvements in outcomes.
- Improves lifter’s awareness
-By using RPE for each set, we get the unique opportunity to clue the lifter in on their potential performance for the particular exercise. This is, admittedly, relatively more important for competitive lifters and serious trainees- but I do find it useful to help build a lifter’s self awareness of their performance over time. Say a lifter is warming up and everything feels light, by using a set scale like the RPE scale to describe the relative effort, he or she will have insight into their potential for the day, which is very important during a meet in attempt selection.
Conversely, there are a few potential downsides to using RPE:
- Poor RPE Gauging
–While I just described the benefits of improving a lifter’s awareness of their effort if they use RPE, I won’t pretend that there’s not a learning curve here either. It is very normal for people who have never assigned RPE to their sets to both under and overestimate at the beginning. I have also run into people who consistently underrate or overrate their RPE, and this can be troublesome over time if it’s not worked out. So, how does one get better at this? By doing it more, of course! It is important to be honest with yourself after a given set, use video for objective feedback, and keep practicing to hone your RPE rating abilities. For some this takes longer than others, but I do feel the advantages outweigh this disadvantage when considering how I as a coach most effectively communicate the intended loading and stress for a given exercise if I can’t be there in person.
- Planned progress limited
–I also have found that some people like planning their training linearly, i.e. if I squatted 405 x 5 this week, I’m aiming for 410 x 5 next week. I see the appeal in that, certainly, but I would make the argument that the use of RPE and linear progression (adding weight each session or each week, for instance) are not mutually exclusive. The idea- EVEN WITH RPE- is to be adding weight to the bar regularly and if a person can do that weekly without overshooting the planned training stress (and thus, likely missing reps or having to eliminate volume by cutting sets) then that’s a great plan. Having a back-up plan in RPE however, allows the lifter to know what to do if they cannot,for whatever reason, make that 2.5-5lb jump they planned.
It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that this is NOT a program for a novice lifter. By definition, a novice is a person who can add weight to the bar every session they train provided they aren’t doing a sub-optimal program that either provides way too much stress for their level of advancement or provides too little stress for their level of advancement. A great example of a proper program for a novice would be the Starting Strength Linear Progression, found in the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition. Also note that the amount of weight someone lifts does NOT determine whether they are a novice or not, rather it is the sustainable rate of increase in load provided the other variables do not change, e.g. reps, sets, range of motion, etc. Again, this bears reinforcement- if you’ve never run a linear progression like mentioned above then you are a novice until proven otherwise. If this describes you, I would start with the novice LP and let it run its course. These more advanced programs will still be here when you’re done.
In any case, this is a strength program through and through. Strength, the ability to produce force against an external object, which is measured in a specific context. The specific context in this case, improving 1 -Rep Max performance, requires lifting relatively heavy weights and low reps. In this part of the program, we are focusing on developing strength, which is a general adaptation that we can apply specifically in sport later, once developed. During this developmental period we’ll be sticking to 4’s and 5’s on the competition lifts with a preceding single, and 6’s and 7’s for the supplemental lifts. Sets of 4 and 5 reps allow the use of relatively heavy loads, accrual of volume and intra-set fatigue, and the lifter is able to focus on maintaining good technique. A set of 10, by contrast, limits the loading and is less likely to allow the focus needed for technically sound reps. I also like the preceding single rep to emphasize good mechanics for the first rep (since you only get 1 rep per attempt at a powerlifting meet) and as a nice way to help the lifter more accurately hone in on the appropriate load for the day. On the supplemental lifts, i.e. the RDL, Press, Front Squat, and DB Incline Press, we’ve upped the rep range to 6’s and 7’s. This allows for a bit more volume to be accrued, used to drive hypertrophy in addition to developing strength. Additionally, I like using higher rep ranges during developmental blocks to make sure the total stress from training is not too great.
The intensity of the working sets are at RPE 8 and 9 during this phase of training. The RPE 8 intensity rating is used for the competition lifts, allowing the lifter to use good technique while accumulating volume without “going to the well” too much/too often with too many high intensity sets. A true RPE 9 set means there’s one rep left in the tank. It also means that the next set is likely going to have a reduced load if it’s also going to be a RPE 9 because if the load was kept constant, it’s likely the next set would be a 9.5 or 10. So for the true competition lifts, I like repeated sets done across at RPE 8. For the more specific supplemental lifts, e.g. the paused bench, paused squat, and touch and go bench, I allow a bit more intensity (but less volume). Later on in the training cycle, we’ll move more towards RPE 9 and a few RPE 10’s here and there, so it’s important to understand that the basis of these first four weeks is to get exposed to volume!
You’ll also notice that there is a range of sets recommended, i.e. 3-5 sets on the competition squats and deadlifts and 4-6 sets on the competition bench press. This is to allow the lifter to adjust the volume to their individual needs on the given day depending on their performance for the day. For example, let’s say that the warm ups, single @ 8, and first set of 5 reps @ 8 on the squat all moved well and are at or near PR levels. In this instance, it would behoove the lifter to get a little extra volume by doing 4 or 5 sets instead of just 3 sets. This is, of course, in addition to maintaining the prescribed RPE for these sets and not letting it get too high just for the sake of doing “more”. Remember we’re trying to provide the correct amount of stress to the lifter- not too much and not too little.
By convention, the competition lifts are the squat, bench press, and deadlift and the competition designation is used to signify that we will use competition form and equipment. Using a belt, wrist wraps, and knee sleeves is advisable for these lifts whereas they are more optional in the supplemental lifts. It also means that the bench press should be paused like it would be in a meet. If the federation you compete in (if you compete) uses specialty bars like a squat and/or deadlift bar and you have access to them, use those too!
However, I should state that in general I am not against using belts on the supplemental lifts if a lifter has a history of back injury and using a belt results in more productive training. I hold this same view for wrist wraps with respect to wrist stability in the lifts. On the other hand, I have a more nuanced view about knee wraps and straps. Yes, there are many federations which classify knee wraps as “raw” and there is definitely a learning curve to using them. That said, I do feel that knee wraps tend to decrease some of the training effect of squats by providing assistance out of the hole. Similarly, I feel that straps used in the deadlift decrease the training demands on the grip in the deadlift and in addition, eliminate the lifter’s need to pay attention to the supinated side if using a mixed grip since it’s possible to double overhand all your deadlifts with straps. With a mixed grip the supinated side’s latissimus dorsi has a less favorable mechanical advantage than the overhand side and one commonly sees the supinated side of the bar “windmill” away from the lifter. Straps eliminate this mixed grip and thus the lifter does not practice compensating for this as they should so it doesn’t happen in a meet. On the other hand, knee wraps and straps do allow folks to train through injuries or chronic conditions, e.g. knee pain that can be eliminated or controlled with a light wrap or a strap to train around torn up hands. All in all, my view on straps and knee wraps is use them when you have to. If you have to use knee wraps when you’re not close to a meet where you will be using knee wraps due to knee pain or other reasons, that’s okay too.
Straps, wraps, and belts bring up a good topic of exercise selection for this program. I go pretty far down the rabbit hole on the how and why’s of picking exercises here and I would encourage folks to check that out for some thought provoking musings on programming. For this initial part of the program, I want to expose the lifter to the main lifts with a good amount of volume and specificity, while also not overdosing on the intensity, which would be more likely to occur with a lot of RPE 9/10 sets or overload movements (chains, bands, blocks, etc.). Other forms of overload movements can be done with less equipment, such as squats w/ knee wraps, rack pulls with straps, etc. and you’ll notice the absence of these things at this point also in favor of lighter movements being utilized for slightly higher volume, i.e. RDL’s, Press, paused squat and bench, front squats, and DB incline work.
When it comes to prioritizing development of a lift, another consideration is exercise order. During this initial phase, we’ll give priority to each of the big three lifts individually to try and coax optimum performance out of each, while accepting that later on we may want to change this for a competitive lifter situation. For a lifter going to a meet, we may consider moving competition bench right after competition squats in order to replicate how the bench press will feel at the meet. The argument here is that we may want to condition the lifter to this situation as they get close to the meet, but do not want to compromise development if there is sufficient training time preceding the competition. Similarly, we’ve spaced the competition deadlift out as far as possible from the competition squat to try and eliminate the squat’s effect on the deadlift’s performance. If a lifter was going to a meet however, we may choose to place the competition deadlift closer to the competition squat (perhaps on the same day) to get conditioned to this stress as well. Ultimately, these decisions come down to context- who are we dealing with (competitive lifter going to a meet vs. recreational lifter trying to PR), the person’s recovery capacity (experienced, young lifter who can recover quickly vs. older, less trained lifter who has compromised recovery), scheduling concerns (can we dedicate three hours to training the big three on a given day or no?), and a host of other factors. In short, it depends.
Other questions people will invariably ask will center around “Where do I put ______?”, e.g. cardio, arm work, etc. and again this depends on a ton of variables we simply cannot flesh out in a single article. My rule of thumb is that the further out someone is from a competition or testing situation, the more “stuff” can be thrown in, provided recovery is on point and is not compromised significantly. I tend to program in General Physical Preparedness (GPP) work 1-2 days a week. and I like to make sure the lifter can’t go full-bro and apply too much stress to themselves on these GPP days. The most useful approach I’ve found here is to use time-caps on highly effective (in my opinion) exercises, such as the following:
-25-30 min steady state cardio @ RPE 6 (conversational pace)
-6-8 minutes of upper back work (no sets to failure)
-6-8 minutes of ab/trunk work (preferably isometric in nature)
-Mobility/active recovery, if necessary
Training Day Example
How should one actually perform one of these workouts? Let’s use day 1 to go through this. To begin, do a general warm up of 5 minutes on something like an airdyne, rower, or similar device to get the blood flowing. If you have some range of motion restrictions that prevent you from attaining the correct positions for the movements, some foam rolling and mobility work would likely be beneficial. On the other hand, if you can reasonably hit the positions without foam rolling or mobility work, I’d just get under the bar and start squatting with the empty bar. Consider, what is likely to prepare you for squatting more– foam rolling + stretching or 10 sets of 5 reps with the empty barbell? Seems to me that squatting is likely to best prepare someone for squatting, you know? At any rate, once you’re warm, start adding weight to the bar and do sets of 5 reps with the squat. Using the RPE chart, we have a target for our 5 reps @ 8 being ~81%. For a 500lb squatter, we’re looking at around 405 for a set of 5 being our 5 @ 8. We can also make an educated guess that the 1 @ 8 is going to be a bit heavier than this, but we’ll need to feel it out. So if planning on working up to 405 x 5 @ 8, the warm up might look like this:
Bar x 5 x 5 sets
95 x 5
135 x 5
225 x 5
275 x 5
325 x 3
375 x 1
425 x 1 @ ~RPE 6
445 x1 @ ~RPE 7
460 x 1 @ RPE 8 (feeling good so 405 x 5 is likely to be good!)
405 x 5 @ 8
405 x 5 @ 8
405 x 5 @ 8.5
405 x 5 @ 9 (since RPE has climbed, we should scrap the 5th set)
Now we’ll move onto bench press, again starting with the empty bar. Let’s say this lifter has a 300lb touch and go bench. We know that it’s highly likely their 2 count paused bench is going to be lower than their best touch and go bench. We also know based on the RPE chart that 4 reps @ 9 is likely to be a slightly higher weight than 84% (~252lbs), which is what we are predicting 5 reps @ 9 would be. Given that this particular bench variation is lighter than the touch and go bench however, we might predict that 240-250lbs is our planned set of 4 @ 9. On the other hand, we might also recognize that predicting what weight we’re supposed to hit for a given exercise is getting REALLY complicated, especially if we don’t know our 1 rep max is for that movement. So is there an easier way? Sure there is!
How about we just start with the empty bar and gradually add weight each set until we hit a set that feels like we’re getting near our target RPE? That might look like this for the 2 count bench press:
-Bar x 5 x 3
-95 x 4
-135 x 4
-185 x 4
-215 x 4 @ 7
-230 x 4 @ 8
-240 x 4 @ 9 (ding ding, nailed it)
-235 x 4 @ 9
-230 x 4 @ 8.5 (oops a little low, better repeat it)
-230 x 4 @ 9
Then we’d repeat the process for the RDL’s by gradually titrating up the load until we get to the prescribed RPE. Hitting those sets at RPE 7 and RPE 8 before the top set tend to be very useful in honing in on the correct load for the top set.
So there you have it, folks! I’ll be updating this article and the program every time we release a new block of training. Check out my and Scivation’s instagram (@jordan_barbellmedicine and @scivation) for updates!
Bio: Jordan is a 30 year-old powerlifter, strength and conditioning coach, medical student (graduate in May!), blogger, and owner of Barbell Medicine. As a powerlifter, he currently holds the 17th highest total of all time in the 198 weight class (raw) with a 640 squat, 430 bench, and 725 lb deadlift. He recently placed 4th out at the 2015 USAPL Raw Nationals. He also runs the nutrition forum on startingstrength.com, where he fields questions from forum members from all over the world. Additionally, he is a medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, VA and will be soon receiving his MD degree to complement his BS in Biology and MS in Anatomy and Physiology. He’s been coaching people since 2007 and currently Barbell Medicine works with a variety of people from all over the world. Finally, health and wellness is his passion with the ultimate goal being to open a medical practice that vertically integrates preventative medicine, i.e. fitness, nutrition, and Western medicine into one great service in order to help save money on health care and make the community healthier!