RPE vs. Percentage Based Programming: “What’s The Difference?”

RPE vs. Percentage based programming is always a hot topic to debate when it comes to the fitness industry, and as with many highly debated fitness topics…it’s not that deep.

I feel like the fitness community just likes to argue for arguments sake sometimes.

Both RPE based and percentage based programs are completely valid styles of programming. There’s no real right or wrong between the two, and there’s no convincingly saying that one is truly better than the other. Additionally, both of these programming styles can actually be combined to create a program that is simultaneously RPE and percentage based (Yes you can have the best of both worlds if you really want to).

All this being said, I find a lot of newer lifters are simply confused on why someone would use a RPE program vs. a percentage based program or vice versa. There’s also some confusion on what the actual difference is between the two to begin with. So to address that problem, here’s what you need to know about the differences between RPE vs. percentage based programming.

1. RPE Based Programming

RPE stands for “Rating of Perceived Exertion“. For resistance training this is typically done with a 1-10 rating system (keep in mind 1-10 is not the only way to do RPE). A 10 on the RPE scale would indicate a set in which you could not have completed any more reps. So if you did a set of 5 reps on the squat @ RPE 10, that means you could not have done a 6th rep. Going down from their an RPE 9 would indicate you had about 1 rep left in the tank, an RPE 8 that you had 2 more reps left in the tank, so on and so fourth.

RPE is a subjective programming system. That means the individual performing the exercise is the one deciding the RPE ratings. So while the program could say 5 sets of 5 reps @ RPE 8, the person lifting will be the one who has to determine what load is an RPE 8 for the day. For some this is frustrating because it means that your specific load for the day isn’t necessarily known when you walk into the gym. One day you could be feeling great and hit a set of 5 reps of 100lb squats @ RPE 8, a week later you could be completely rundown and that same set of 5 reps of 100lbs is now an RPE 10. That’s okay, and basically the whole point of this style of training.

RPE PROS:

RPE has exploded in the fitness industry for a few reasons, but at the top of the list is that RPE is built in “autoregulation” for your programming. Autoregulation simply refers to the ability to adjust the intensity of your programming (usually from a load standpoint) in relation to your “readiness” for your training session (I.E. Did you sleep well? Are you stressed? Are you fatigued? Did you eat? etc.)

Essentially RPE takes into account your life and all it’s stressors outside of the gym and that you are not some perfect machine that is coming into the gym in the same exact state every single day. This is great from a programming perspective as you will be able to up the load on days you are feeling great, and decrease it when your readiness isn’t quite up to snuff. Percentage based programming doesn’t give you this ability. So even if you just worked a 12 hour shift and are running on 3 hours of sleep, those 3 sets of 3 reps @ 90% are going to be at 90% whether you like it or not.

Additionally, RPE fills the gap for exercises where you may not actually know your max. For example, if you had 3 sets of 12 reps @ 60% written down for dumbbell chest fly, how many of you right now know your 1RM chest fly? Anyone? Bueller?

Write down 3 sets of 12reps at RPE 7, however, and anyone will be able to complete the work as written regardless of if they have ever even done dumbbell flys before.

RPE CONS:

Everyone’s main concern with RPE is that this is subjective. Whereas percentage based programming will tell you exactly what you are lifting for the day, you’ve got to decide what your RPE is every single time you come into train. The load for the day is unknown until you get through warm-ups and start hitting your working sets. For a lot of client’s they actually HATE this lack of certainty in their training. They’d much rather be told exactly what to do, and then just go do it which is fair.

RPE also theoretically allows emotions and ego to slip into an otherwise balanced lifting programming.

Was that really an RPE 8? Or was it actually an RPE 10 grinder and you are saying it was an 8 to act like a bigshot on the internet. On the flipside, was that really an RPE 8? Or was it an RPE 6 and you just “don’t feel like it today“.

^I think the above concerns with RPE are valid, but not quite as worrisome as some people would have you believe.

Also good to note is because of it’s subjectivity, there is a bit of a “learning curve” to RPE based programming. It’s very common to see those new to the system have some anxiety around if they are training the “right way” or not, which can make your first few weeks on RPE style training frustrating.

2. Percentage Based Programming

Percentage Based programming is programmed in relation to your one rep max on a given lift. For example, you could have 5 sets of 5 reps programmed at 70% of your Squat 1RM. If your squat max is currently 100lbs, you would do 5 sets of 5 reps of squats at 70lbs for the day.

Percentage based programming is an objective style of programming. What you see is what you get. Unless mixed in with another style of programming you will know exactly what weight you are supposed to lift for a given training session. This also means there is no changing the load for a given day. If it says 75% 1RM you are meant to try your very best to hit 75% of your 1RM for the prescribed sets and reps.

Percentage PROS:

The biggest pro right off the bat for percentage based programming is it’s objectivity. So long as you have an accurate up to date 1RM, you can program your intensity to be exactly what you want it to be. Additionally you will know the exact weight’s you are supposed to hit for a certain day. This can take some doubt away from your training as there’s no real “guesswork” to be done.

Percentage based programming is very simple to understand and straightforward to follow. “Here’s how much you have to left today, here’s how many sets and reps…now go do it…

^As a coach I see a lot of general strength and conditioning clients prefer being told things in this more “straight up” manner.

Percentage based programming is also great for those who like complete control over all the details of their programming. A person can dial in all of their intended training days to peak for competition or a 1RM attempt exactly the way they want to. A lot of higher level lifters will employ percentage based programming when they have an exact number in mind they want to chase after for a given lift.

Percentage CONS:

Percentage based programming’s biggest con is that it does not care about your stress. Regardless of how well you slept, how well you ate, your significant other just broke up with you, house caught on fire, you name it…75% is still going to be 75%.

There’s no wiggle room here in terms of your intensity, so if you are having an already rough day there is the potential for percentage based programming to kick you while you are down.

Additionally, percentage based programming requires that you actually have an up to date 1RM to base your percentages off in the first place. This isn’t a big deal for competitive lifters who consistently retest over the months, but for newer lifters or more casual lifters they may not even know their 1RM to begin with, or don’t care enough about testing their 1RM.

Like we also talked about above there are also some lifts that just don’t lend themselves to max testing. No one is out there 1 rep maxing there dumbbell curl so they can go home and write a program later (scratch that the probability is high someone has actually done that). The point is for smaller movements you simply aren’t going to have that 1RM data to work with.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.