Figuring out how to express the difficulty of a set can be an incredibly hard question for a lot of people to answer – from novice to advanced, most people have a hard time describing it. Whether you just don’t know how to describe it, or you just don’t know what you’re truly capable of, answering that daunting question is not always easy.
This is where exertion description training can come in and provide some help.
I’m going to provide you with what exertion is, the basic history of why it got started, why to use it, and finally how to implement it.
What is exertion based training?
In its most simple form, exertion training is a description given to training (particularly sets) that explains how hard you are/should be working. There are various kinds of exertion description that can be used – notably RPE and RTF which I will discuss later.
Where it came from
In 1970, Gunnar Borg made a stir in the medical community by releasing a scale dubbed the rating of perceived exertion (RPE). It was created to measure physical strain, which at the time had minimal research designating a best method. His scale ran from 6-20 with descriptions associated with each number, ranging from no exertion (6) to maximal exertion (20). It was originally found to correlate well with HR by simply multiplying the RPE by 10. For example, someone stated they were a 13, matching to a HR of 130. This was a dominant scale utilized for a very long time, particularly in the aerobic community.
A shift occurred when RPE got modified by Mike Tuchscherer to reflect resistance training. He simplified the scale and converted it to a system on a scale of 0-10, primarily used between 6-10. The new scale kept the same format of 0 (no exertion) and 10 (maximal exertion), but got the addition of two new very important fundamental characteristics.
Rep descriptions & .5 markers
With these additions, the numbers began to reflect a new format of inverted reps left in the tank.
By this I mean 10 indicates 0 reps left in tank, 9 indicates 1 rep left, 8 representing 2 reps left, etc.
Additionally, the ability to choose a number like 8.5 was added allowing the trainee to indicate 1 to 2 reps left in the tank. This is currently the most popular scale that is used in training.
A more friendly version - RTF
I’m not entirely sure who originated RTF – reps to failure – but I associate it with Brad Schoenfeld as he was the first I heard use it.
Its system is more intuitive to the average person.
With RPE, an 8 essentially means 2 reps left in the tank, which can be confusing for a lot of people to understand well – especially after doing a set when they're tired.
With RTF you would just say 2 as that means 2 reps to failure.
Why use RTF?
A number of major reasons to begin using exertion ratings in training:
1. Manage fatigue and stress more precisely
2. Be more objective
3. Increase overall volume
4. Account for environmental stress
5. Manage load more precisely for technique
By using exertion ratings, as a trainee or coach you can be objective in the amount of exertion you are expecting from the training. When relative intensity is high (being closer to failure on sets), the volume will come down because the ability to sustain higher intensities drops.
By choosing an “easier” exertion for a set/exercise/workout the trainee will be able to get more done that day – increasing the total volume.
This is very beneficial in long term periodization. As well, by having an exertion description associated with training, if an athlete is just having a bad day/week for various reasons (he/she lost their job, broke up with their significant other, etc.) and everything feels heavy, then training naturally adjusts to meet the exertion description for the day. Finally, by having a trainee use a more moderate exertion description (1 to 3 RTF/7-9 RPE) we can allow for them to execute their respective sets with more optimal technique.
From my experience coaching a variety of athletes and weekend warriors, I see two main types of people when dealing with exertion description training:
1. Those who have no idea what they’re truly capable of (under guessing)
2. Those who think they can do more than they can (over guessing)
These are the two ends of the spectrum and some people will fall in the middle, but not all.
A lot of people either don’t know how strong they truly are, or don’t want to accept how hard something is. While I hate to generalize, I will say that I’ve seen most women tend to fall more towards the first category, while men fall fairly split between the two.
Each camp of people can get a big benefit of incorporating exertion based training. The first group can begin to get a better grasp of just what they’re truly capable of; the second group can begin learning how to manage fatigue better and improve their overall training.
How to put this into your workouts
The most important thing with any sort of information that people blog about is "how can I actually use this?"
There will be a period of adjustment when implementing this and that shouldn't be considered lightly. If you are someone who is used to grinding out reps and getting assistance to finish your sets, then this is going to be very foreign and take time to get used to.
In contrast, if you are someone who isn’t used to pushing yourself to true failure on sets, then it will be an unusual feeling to exert yourself in that way.
Here are my top ways to use it:
1. As a reference point for percentage training
I work with a lot of strength athletes – weightlifters, powerlifters, etc. – and in doing so, I’ll provide them with sets x reps x percentages. When I choose a percentage, I pick something that I anticipate will reflect a certain difficulty.
Things like individualization, exercise selection, and environmental factors means the prescribed load isn’t always going to be exactly what I was hoping for. I provide an exertion description (typically reps to failure) as a guideline for my athletes and express to adjust the weights to more match that.
This chart is a great starting point for anyone who uses percentage loads and wants to incorporate RPE/RTF.
2. As the load
This is something I use with some of my strength athletes, but far more with my general population clients. I’ll prescribe an exercise, like goblet squats, and give a set and rep scheme with a guiding RTF/RPE. They then would go through their workout using weights that best reflect that.
Depending upon the way I periodize the program, their goal will be to either do the same weight at a better RTF ( ex. do 60 pounds at a 2 RTF instead of a 1.5) or use more weight at the same RTF (ex. do 65 pounds at a 2 RTF instead of 60).
For those who aren't accustomed to "maxing out", you likely aren’t sure what “one rep left in the tank” or “two reps left in the tank” feels like. If I say do 4 sets of 6 at a 2 RTF, that has to have meaning and context to you.
Someone who is more experienced with understanding their exertion can make a good estimate on these things, for those of who aren’t experienced with it, we need to figure that out. One of my suggestions is to use an AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) test at the start of a training block.
For an AMRAP test you’ll do 1-3 sets of an exercise in your training as a warm up, then take your next set for as many reps as you can with good form – stopping due to either fatigue or form breakdown. This will allow you to have a good idea of what weights you should use going forward.
Those are the two general formats that exertion can be implemented in, the real gold I believe is in the way that you can use it to periodize stress, testing, and recovery. These are my favorite ways to use exertion for periodization.
1. Increase exertion while keeping sets and reps the same
This is one of my favorite methods of programming for the general public. This allows for clients to get comfortable in week one with manageable loads of an exercise, then progress their efforts week to week.
For example – Half kneeling 1 arm pulldown
- W1: 3x8 @ 2.5 RTF
- W2: 3x8 @ 1.5 RTF
- W3: 3x8 @ 0.5 RTF
- W4: 3x8 @ 3 RTF – Deload
2. Get stronger at the same exertion
For some clients, I’ll leave the same set, rep and exertion scheme week to week during a phase and have them focus in on just using more weight week to week.
For example – Bench Press
- W1: 4x6x76% @3 RTF
- W2: 4x6x78% @3 RTF
- W3: 4x6x80% @ 3 RTF
- W4: 3x6x76% @3.5 RTF - Deload
3. Increase reps while keeping exertion the same
During a phase I’ll progress an exercise week to week through adding a rep for sets and keep the RTF the same. This client is challenged to use the same weight, but get an extra rep week to week.
For example – Goblet Reverse Lunge
- W1: 5x8 @ 2 RTF
- W2: 5x9 @ 2 RTF
- W3: 5x10 @ 2 RTF
- W4: 5x8 @ 3 RTF - Deload
4. Lead up to an AMRAP
This isn’t necessarily an individual concept but more of something I use with one of the other forms listed. What I’ll do is prescribe a set, rep, and exertion scheme for an exercise and list the last set as being an AMRAP (as many reps as possible). I don’t want the client to fail, but to get as close as comfortably possible to it on the set.
I do this for a number of reasons, particularly having the client find out if their weight choice was accurate, and for them to push themselves and have fun. I only do this on exercises that are either “safe to fail” or one the client is very technically sound on.
For example - Landmine press – half kneeling
- W1: 4x8 @ 2 RTF – last set AMRAP
- W2: 4x8 @ 1.5 RTF – last set AMRAP
- W3: 4x8 @ 1 RTF – last set AMRAP
- W4: 3x8 @ 2 RTF - deload
All of what I expressed above is in the form of “reps to failure.” However, that is not the only way to write exertion descriptions. Using reps to failure is a great way to get more objective, but it doesn’t work for all exercises. For instance, if you are doing a side plank for X duration, you can’t provide a reps to failure. In contrast, you can use a verb for a description such as easy, moderate, hard, or max effort.
Exertion description training is not the be all end all, but it can be a great addition to training. It's not overly complicated once you begin practicing it, however it does take some trial and error.
If your goal is manage your/your athletes’ stress better, then it’s a fantastic way to begin doing so.
When was the last time you knew exactly what you should be feeling when you hit the gym?
Sam Spinelli is the President of Rough City Athletics and Owner of The Strength Therapist. He's also a competitive powerlifter and student of physiotherapy at MCPHS University. Sam takes fitness and his clients results very seriously.
You can learn more about Sam by clicking on his picture.