Powerlifting: Percentages & R.P.E. – The Stalemate

In the world of fitness, athletes start out their journey as a complete beginner. As time passes, these athletes acquire furthered knowledge along with their bodies gradually adapting to their respective sport/s. Progress tends to be on a steady rise when athletes are just starting out, commonly referred to as “beginner gains”.

However, this progress will inevitably decelerate as the athlete heads closer to the elite level. To reach that primal position at the top, advanced measures must be considered unless an athlete wants to remain stagnant. This applies to any sport, but I’ll be focusing intently on the sport of powerlifting.

All powerlifters are originated from people simply taking up resistance training as a hobby or rehabilitative outlet. Being new to lifting doesn’t require any intricate methods just yet, as a beginner should only be concerned with proper execution of the movements with manageable weight until their nervous systems adapt to the stresses placed upon it. If an athlete wishes to obtain their full capabilities with the iron, the concepts of percentage and R.P.E.-based training must be learned.

Percentage-Based Training

This is easily the most common form of training for powerlifting due to its simplicity. In this method of programming, athletes take specific percentages of their one-rep maxes and perform specific sets and reps. You’ll see examples of this type of training in programs such as Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 or StrongLifts 5×5, which happen to be some of the most popular lifting programs even up until now.

Utilizing percentages at most requires a calculator in addition to actually being honest with your true and current one-rep max. Under or over-estimating your capabilities will only lead to delayed progress. Plugging in a percentage and going from there makes it easy to track progress over time for both athletes and their coaches.

This style of training is strongly recommended to beginner lifters who are looking for a program that will help them consistently become accustomed to resistance training. With the right program, the overall easiness and consistency of this form of training even has advanced powerlifters recruiting the method.

R.P.E.-Based Training

There’s no need to google what “R.P.E.” is. The acronym stands for the Rate of Perceived Exertion. Measuring on a scale from 1-10 (easy-hard), R.P.E. is used to track your level of intensity (regarding powerlifting) during heavy compound lifts such as the squat or deadlift. You’ll see examples of this style of training in almost any elite strength athlete’s program.

A simple calculator will do you no good with R.P.E. training, It is imperative that you understand how your body responds to specific loads placed upon it. “Did that squat feel easy?” and “Did this feel faster last time?” are the types of questions you will need to ask and answer for yourself, as no one knows your body like you do.

It’s far more difficult to track progress with R.P.E., as this method requires an athlete to pay intricate attention to how they feel on particular days with factors such as amount of sleep, amount and type of food consumed, stress, and a plethora of other elements of the lifter’s lifestyle. R.P.E. training is generally not recommended for beginner lifters, as they most-likely do not yet have the cognitive capabilities to properly select the most optimal placement upon the scale.

Okay. So, Which Method Should I Choose?

Both percentage and R.P.E.-based styles of training work only if the athlete trains intelligently, however, both styles have their own limiting factors. One aspect to keep in mind with percentages is that they’re fixed, meaning that you must shoot for however much weight you are scheduled for on training days. This can be a double-edged sword.

If you’re supposed to bench press 315 pounds for three sets of five reps, but you’re struggling to hit 275 pounds, it’s going to be very unsettling when you realize that you may not be finishing that workout. It can also demotivate an athlete by making them question their capabilities in a negative aspect. On the contrary, some lifters might be really strong in a session, and then go for a random personal record out of ego. Not staying on track either way hinders progress.

To counter the effects of percentages, R.P.E., like I mentioned above, considers exactly how the athlete is feeling on that particular day. The problem with R.P.E. however, is that it’s incredibly easy for an athlete to under or over-rate their exertion on the scale. Also, factoring in so many aspects of an athlete’s life can be difficult or tedious to keep up with for both the athlete and their coach unless both of them are honest and willing to communicate effectively.

I’m going to give the unpopular opinion and say that you shouldn’t stay fixated on either percentages or R.P.E., as they both have the potential to transform you into an advanced and even elite strength athlete with time. With any program, it will always be most important to be honest with your capabilities, diet, and body to achieve your desired goals. Neither style of training is wrong or necessarily better than the other. Only one method will truly decide your fate: consistency.


Founder of Torino Fitness

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