What is RPE?

What is RPE and How Can It Improve Your Training?

     RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. It’s a way of measuring how hard a set of repetitions is. It’s a subjective measure, touchy-feely in fact. It’s not like using a percentage of your 1RM to decide how much weight to use for your workout. That’s an objective mathematical formula.

     RPE works on a 1-10 scale, based on how you feel.

RPE Reps Left Feels Like
1 9 Is there any weight on there at all?
2 8 Barely registers
3 7 Easy
4 6 Yawn
5 5 Ho-hum
6 4 Cruising
7 3 Working
8 2 Working really hard here
9 1 Almost total effort
10 0 You cannot do any further repetitions without breaking form

The first column and the last column are the most important ones to understand. A higher the number on the RPE scale corresponds to a higher effort. A repetition at an RPE 1 will barely feel like any effort. When you get to RPE 10, that means you could not possibly do another repetition with good form. It’s an all-out effort. That’s why RPE 10 corresponds to 0 reps left in the tank.

Why is this useful? As you put your time in the gym you’ll realize that some days you will feel stronger than others. It’s not really a big deal when you’re more of a beginner. If you’re just starting out, you should follow your programming as closely as you can (within the bounds of common sense).

     Early on, you won’t necessarily have the skill to gauge your efforts and how much you truly have left in the tank. You’ll get much better at it as you become more experienced.

     You might think the best way to progress is to do all your lifts at an RPE of 10 but that’s not always the case. Often the best way to keep your long-term progress going is to spend most of your time in the 7-9 range.

     Using RPE can seem a little confusing at first. Even though it’s a scale of 1-10 it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do 1-10 repetitions. You can do a set of 5 repetitions correspond to any number on the RPE scale.

     RPE correlates to your relative effort, not the number of reps or the weight on the bar.

     Many things can factor into it, including if you’re rested or tired, fed or fasted, etc. This means one day a given weight may feel way lighter and on another, that same weight will feel much heavier.

     That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re weaker or your progress has stalled or somehow something’s wrong. It just means, like with anything, some days are better than others.

Once you have several months of focused training under your belt you’ll have a solid intuitive understanding of your body, your strength, and how the weights should feel. It’s one of those things that may not make much sense until it does. I’m not trying to seem mystical or mysterious, it’s just how experience works.

When you’re at this point, RPE can really come in handy. As you warm up and do your acclimation sets you can gauge what kind of workout you’re about to have. You’ll know if the weights are feeling easy you can push a little bit harder in your working sets. Conversely, you’ll also know if it’s a day you should take it a little easier.

RPE is another tool you can use (or not) to help you as you strive to reach your fitness goals.

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How Often Should You Train?

Training 3-4 days a week is most likely the best way for you to achieve your fitness goals.

Seems like everyone’s talking about being on their “everyday grind” but is that the most effective way to get fit?

Your training frequency (or how many times per week you work out) is just one variable on your path to progress. But it can have a big impact.

Generally speaking, training more often is better. As with most things, there comes a tipping point. More sessions means more opportunities to stimulate the muscle. Lifting relatively heavy lets your muscles know, “hey we may be asked to move heavy weights so we’d better get stronger.”

We don’t actually get stronger from that. It’s the recovery phase, in which the muscles utilize nutrients from food to repair and build. So the stimulus and the recovery are equally important to your progress. You could make the case that recovery is more important as it takes much longer to happen. You can do an hour-long workout at still be recovering 48 hours later.

When you’re a beginner more frequent training is beneficial for a few reasons. You’re becoming accustomed to the exercises, so the more you do them the better they become ingrained movement patterns. Plus, you build the habit of actually going to the gym. We know habits are hard to build and even harder to break.

If one person practiced playing the piano an hour a day and another practiced 3.5 hours twice a week, who do you think would improve faster? It’s similar with training. Learning to squat with a barbell on your back is a skill. Doing it more frequently when you’re starting out will help you learn it better. Seems like a good time to say here that it’s much better to learn the right way to do early on, than it is to relearn once you’ve adopted poor movement patterns.

Beginners generally aren’t using a lot of weight in a more objective sense. Doing sets of higher repetitions (e.g. 8-12 per set) helps you internalize the movement and stimulate muscle and strength gains without approaching your 1 rep maximum weight.

I would say wait a long time before testing your 1-rep max but most people don’t listen. I’m included in that group. Testing isn’t training. It doesn’t really make you stronger. Training is training. That makes you stronger, so spend most of your gym time doing that. Besides, when you’re a beginner, your 1 RM isn’t likely to be all that impressive anyway.

A beginner can make great strides doing a full-body workout 3 days per week. A full-body workout will include a compound exercises that work the legs, the upper body push muscles, and the upper body pull muscles. Taking a day off between sessions will allow your body adequate time to recover.

You really could do this for the first several months of your training life.

At some point your training needs will change. This is where you can get creative with your programming. Over time, you’ll need higher weights to stimulate the muscles to keep getting stronger. This greater stimulus also means you’ll need increased recovery time.

It’s now a great time to switch to a split workout. A popular and effective split is to do upper body exercises in one session and lower body exercises in another. One example week looks like: Monday – upper body, Tuesday – lower body, Wednesday – off, Thursday – upper body, Friday – lower body, Saturday and Sunday – both off. There’s nothing magical about those particular days, you fit the days to your schedule. If you’d rather workout Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, that’s cool.

This has you training four days a week in a way that allows you to work hard yet with enough time for recovery. Your Monday and Thursday sessions can be identical or you can slightly alter them. It’s tough to do deadlifts and squats in the same workout, so perhaps it makes sense for you to do one on Monday and the other on Thursday. You can do the same thing with upper body lifts.

If you still prefer training 3 days a week, you can keep that model with only a slight change. One way I like to structure this is an A, B model, where one represents your upper body training and the other is your lower body training.

One week it’ll be Monday – A, Wednesday – B, Friday – A. The following week you reverse it, Monday – B, Wednesday – A, and Friday – B. Alternating the weeks like this will keep you getting stronger and perhaps stave off feeling bored.

The pertinent question is how do you know when it’s time to change? There’s no one size fits all response. When your progress really starts to stall, that’s a good indicator. I don’t mean you hit a plateau for a week or two. Sometimes that just happens. When you first start you can increase the weights sometimes literally each workout. Your rate of improvement is fastest at the beginning and tapers as you get stronger.

One popular workout schedule out there is the “Bro Split”, where you have a designated day for each major body part. The theory is you beat the hell out focus on 1 or 2 body parts per workout. It often looks something like: Monday – chest, Tuesday – back, Wednesday – legs, Thursday – shoulders and calves, Friday – biceps and triceps.

The upside is you can really work on developing body parts you feel are lagging. One of the downsides is you’re only hitting each muscle group once a week. This works for some people but I don’t think it’s optimal for most people. If you’re planning on being on stage, then making sure your calves are as peaked as possible may make sense.

If your training is about you getting stronger overall, and feeling better and healthier for life in general, I don’t think doing a bro split is going to get you the best results. I mention it because it’s an option, and ultimately, you choose your own path.

Most of us just want to be a little healthier, look a little better, and move through life a little easier. There’s no question a three-day routine can help you accomplish that, provided you put in the effort and give it some time.

Training vs. Exercise

Is there a difference between exercise and training?

Often they’re used interchangeably but there’s a subtle and important distinction.

Exercise is a means to its own end. Training is a means to a different end. In other words, you exercise for its own sake. Whether it’s running, swimming, biking, dancing, lifting weights or any other physical activity, you’re doing it because you enjoy it.

When you’re training, it’s for another purpose. It may still be enjoyable, of course. But you’re following a plan with a specific goal. For example, your bike workouts are to prepare you for a specific race.

Neither is better than the other.

 The reasons I have my clients train rather than exercise is because having a specific goal is really motivating. The goals are theirs, not mine. You’re not going to be motivated for my goals. At least I hope you won’t.

 When you have a goal in mind that you really want, a lot of awesome things happen. You have a deadline. It’s not “some day”, it’s a particular time. Maybe it’s 12 weeks, 6 months, or a year. In fact, it’s a great idea to have a mix of shorter-term goals on the road to your longer-term goals.

You can think of the deadline as a finish line, if that’s more appealing to you. Either way, it means that you don’t have time to mess around. Each of your training sessions is a step closer. If you skip a session, you lose a step. Sticking to the plan matters.

It helps you build your mental toughness. You learn to set aside your feelings and do the work. There will be days when you absolutely will not feel like working out. You may even hear a little voice in your head suggesting, “it’s only one day”. You learn to drown that out and push through any resistance.

You use your toughness and the knowledge of an upcoming finish line as fuel to keep you going through even the toughest workouts.

When you learn this, you can apply it to any aspect of your life. Do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, regardless of how you feel at the moment.

Let me say again, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with exercising. It sure beats the hell out of sitting on the couch all day. It’s a great way to be physically active. It’s a great flipside to training.

Training is really taxing mentally and physically, so sometimes it’s nice to just exercise. You still get in your workouts but it’s not quite such a grind. Taking some time off to just exercise without a particular end goal can be recharge your batteries. But exercising all the time without a goal can become boring. It’s a good idea to use both phases in cycles. Alternating a few months of training with a few weeks of just exercise can keep you motivated and progressing without wearing you down for a long, long time.

Thanks for reading. Hope this helps. Any questions or comments, leave ‘em below.

What is Online Training?

WHAT IS ONLINE FITNESS TRAINING

It’s a relatively new way to do personal training. In fact, I still encounter many people who have no idea what it is. That’s cool, I’m here to explain.

Normally when you work with a trainer, you and s/he meet up and go through your workout. The trainer helps you with the programming (which exercises, how many repetitions, how many sets, how much weight, etc.). Hopefully the trainer explains how to properly do each exercise and why it will help you reach your goals. It’s nice having someone in person with you to guide you through the process.

An online trainer provides all of that, only I’m not physically there with you when you’re working out. I work with clients via email to figure out what their goals are and what kind of programming will help them get the best results. There’s a continual exchange back and forth as we adjust the workouts based on their progress. The clients still get the guidance, support and motivation to hit their goals.

If you’re totally new to fitness, in all honesty, online training may not be best for you. At the beginning stages it’s imperative that you learn to lift with proper form, and having someone there to observe and correct in person is more appropriate.

If you already know your way around the gym then it may be a solid option. I like to have my clients send me some video from their workouts, especially early on. If you have a smartphone, you have a video recorder and you can send me the footage. This way we can ensure the form is on point and make occasional tweaks as needed.

A huge upside is that it leaves the client free to workout according to his or her schedule. The best time for the client to do the training may not sync with the availability of an in-person trainer. This is ideal for someone who works odd hours, for example. Or if a client travels a bunch, this way they can easily stay on top of their workouts.

Another benefit is that some online trainers offer nutrition plans as well. You want to make sure that he or she is properly qualified though. A specific nutrition plan is very different than more general diet guidelines. A specific plan is more detailed, telling you exactly which foods to eat, how much and when. For that, you definitely want to be confident the person knows what they’re talking about. A good trainer can help you with guidelines, such as approximately how many calories are appropriate for you and targets for the amounts of protein, carbs, and fat to eat.

Online training isn’t inherently better or worse than in-person training. It’s just a cool option that works better for some clients. It’s more interactive than ordering a program off a website or following one from a book. And it’s more independent than in-person training.

Here’s an example of how the entire process might work.

The client reaches out and I respond. We discuss several things via email or skype to figure out if it’s a good fit. A particular trainer may not be a good fit for a particular client. And a particular client might not be a good fit for a particular trainer. The relationship aspect is still fundamental for helping the client achieve their goals. Online or in-person, it’s still paramount in order for the client to get the most out of it.

A good online trainer will want to know about the prospective client’s current lifestyle, goals, training experience, and general health, to start. We’ll go over other pertinent information such as injury history or orthopedic surgeries.

From there it’s important that we’re both clear about expectations. The last thing you’d want is to have confusion about this. You want to know what you’re getting from me and what you’ll need to do to hold up your end. This clears up a lot of confusion for everyone.

If you’re a good fit, I will work with you to design a program that’s tailored specifically to you. It needs to be based around where you are currently relative to where you want to be. It takes into account things like how many days per week you can train and what equipment you have access to. Importantly, it’s not just a dictatorship, it’s an exchange. A good trainer will factor in the exercises that are most enjoyable to you.

Once you begin the training, there will be communication on a predetermined basis. It will vary based on client need. Maybe you check in via email after each training session. Or maybe it’s once a week’s worth of training is completed. There’s feedback based on what’s going on both in and out of the gym. It’s a way to provide accountability and support, which is one of the main reasons people fail to achieve their fitness goals.

We’ll adjust your training along the way to ensure continued progress towards the best outcome. Ideally, after the length of the agreement the client is in better shape and is more knowledgeable about the process of getting and staying fit and healthy.

Online training is a great option for some people. You’re not dependent on just who happens to work at your local gym. Maybe the trainer at your gym is great. Maybe not. But if she or he moves that affects your training. With online training, geography isn’t a limiting factor that way. In fact, it means you can work with a trainer thousands of miles away from you.

This is a general overview of how online training works. If you go with this option, please make sure you’re totally comfortable with the trainer you choose. They should be knowledgeable, experienced, eager to help you reach your goals, and available.

Thanks for reading. Hope this helps. Any questions, just hit me up jquinn.fitness@gmail.com

How to Get Your First Pull-Up

You want to be able to do pull-ups or chin-ups but you can’t do any just yet. That’s no problem. It’s an impressive feat of upper body strength. Maybe you’ve thought it would never be possible for you. Follow the steps below and you’ll be able to get your first one pretty soon.

The most obvious difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is the placement of your hands. With pull-ups, you use an overhand grip, meaning your palms are wrapped around the bar facing away from you. For chin-ups, you grab the bar with your palms facing you. This makes for some differences in which muscles are worked, but they’re minor. For most people, chin-ups will be somewhat easier. Either exercise is a great way to improve your back strength and develop a great looking back.

Real quick, let’s make a deal: For the rest of this I’m going to use “pull-ups” and you’re going to agree that it means “pull-ups or chin-ups”, even though we know they’re not exactly the same. Deal? Deal.

LatThis is a diagram of your lats (latissimus dorsi). The large fan-shaped muscle ranges from your armpit to your lower back. Its purpose is to move your upper arm down, back, and towards your side. It’s the primary muscle involved when you do pull-ups. The exercise does basically works all the muscles in your back. It also trains your biceps (the muscles on the front of your upper arm), forearms, and grip strength.

Now that we’ve got that covered, we can really get to business. In order to make it happen, you’re going to have to develop a good strength-to-bodyweight ratio. This may mean you have to lose some fat. The leaner you are, the easier pull-ups will be. If you’re not as lean as you’d like, you obviously can still work to get stronger. You don’t have to wait to begin this progression.

You can build pulling strength by doing lat pulldowns and using the assisted pull-up machine but in order to get better at pull-ups, you’re going to have to do pull-ups.

Doing negatives are a great way to make this happen. A negative is when you actively resist the force of the weight as it extends your muscle. That sounds fairly technical. A more common sense way of thinking about it is: fighting gravity as it pulls the weight back down.

Visualize picking a weight up with your hand and bending your elbow to bring the weight towards your shoulder. Now imagine lowering it as slowly as possible. That last part is the negative. You’re going to do that with pull-ups.

If you can jump up and grab a pull-up bar so that you’re holding it tight and your chin is just over the bar, that’s probably best. You’re already in the top position for doing a pull-up.

If you’re not there yet, no sweat. Find something stable to stand on that will allow you to maneuver yourself into the top position. Really make sure it’s stable for safety’s sake. You can also use your workout partner, if you have one, to give you a boost up to the top position.

From there, you extend your arms as slowly as you can to lower yourself to the dead hang position. Really fight the gravity pulling you down. You know you’re doing it correctly when you feel your lats working. You’ll likely feel the stretch in your upper arms also. Once you’re fully extended, let go of the bar and gently drop down to the ground. Then repeat. The first few times you do this you probably won’t be able to resist too long. That’s okay. Just keep working.

Start really easy and just do a couple negatives. You’ll likely experience some soreness the day or two following. That’s okay. As you do the exercise more frequently your body will adapt and you’ll get less and less sore.

I suggest you do this at the beginning of your workouts when you’re nice and fresh. You want to focus on slowing down your descent more over time. Doing just a few high quality reps is better than doing several reps of lesser quality.

Soon you’ll feel more confident and comfortable with the movement. This should happen over a few weeks. Then you’re ready for the next step.

For this you’ll jump up to the bar, same as before. Only instead of slowly lowering yourself down, you’re going to hold yourself up in that top position as long as you can.

There are essentially three ways you can contract a muscle. 1) Contract it: This is what you probably think of when someone tells you to “flex”. You shorten the muscle, as in when you flex your biceps, you shorten it to move your elbow joint to bring your forearm to your shoulder. 2) You resist as you extend it, as in the case of the negative. 3) Isometrically hold it. This is where you’re working the muscle but it’s not actively lengthening or shortening. Picture trying to shove a wall. As hard as you push, it’s not going anywhere. Even though your arms aren’t moving either, you’ll still feel the muscles working.

You will be working your entire upper body in this isometrical hold pull-up. Eventually you’ll fatigue, your arms will start to extend and you’ll end up in the dead hang position. Rest a minute or two and repeat the hold a couple more times. As you keep working this, you’ll notice you’ll be able to hang longer and longer, a sign of improved strength.

Then you’re ready to try doing a pull-up from the dead hang position.

Reach up to grab the bar with your arms fully extended. Raise yourself towards the bar in a smooth motion. Keeping your whole body tight will help this. Brace your abs, flex your butt and legs. Try not to kick or swing or otherwise use momentum. Thinking of the motion more like bringing your elbows towards your sides, than raising your chin over the bar might help you engage your lats. Once you reach the top part of the pull-up your chin will be above the bar. Lower yourself under control to the dead hang starting position.

Congratulations! You did it! Can you do 2?

I know you will soon enough. I’ll wrap this with a couple tips:

  • If you find yourself craning your neck to reach over the bar, focus on bringing your collar bone towards the bar instead of getting your chin above the bar.
  • Don’t shrug your shoulders towards your ears. There’s a tendency to want to shrug both at the top and at the bottom of the exercise. Keep your shoulder blades down.

As you get more confident doing pull-ups, you can try different variations. Besides an underhand or overhand grip, there’s a neutral grip. That’s when your palms are facing each other. It’s more comfortable for some people. If you have access to rings, you can definitely use them for your pull-ups. Rings offer more of a challenge in terms of stability. But their ability to rotate will help you find your body’s naturally efficient groove to do pull-ups.

These are all vertical pulling movements, meaning you’re moving up and down. For your best progress, you definitely want to include some horizontal pulling lifts, such as inverted rows or dumbbell rows in your workouts also.

Hope this helps! Any questions, leave ‘em below. Thanks for reading.

Calluses?

Solutions if lifting weights is giving you rough callused hands.

If you’re like me, you see the calluses on your hands as circumstantial evidence that you spend a fair amount of time in the gym, lifting heavy stuff.

What? You’re not like me? Okay cool. I’m the weird one. If you want to workout and avoid developing calluses, keep reading.

If you workout, at some point you’ll most likely develop calluses on your hands. They come from your skin’s reaction to the friction from holding the weights. Your skin tries to protect itself by growing thicker, tougher skin. It’s good for inside the gym, but maybe less so outside the gym. Even in the gym, you run a risk that you could tear open the callus. Not the most pleasant visual, I realize, but it does happen.

Here are a few ways you can prevent them from happening to you:

Wear lifting gloves. You know, the leather ones with the fingers cut off. Having a layer between your skin and the weights will help. The downside is some people feel it interferes some with the ability to grip the weights. If you use lifting gloves, remember to wash them.

Use lifting chalk. Rubbing some lifting chalk on your hands helps by drying your skin a bit. When you lift, you sweat. Yes, even your hands. You feel the weight slipping so you grip tighter, which increases the friction, which leads to calluses. Applying some chalk dries the sweat, making it easier to grip the weight. But if you use too much, it actually adds to the amount of friction. And it can make a mess, which can be inconvenient.

Use a pumice stone. About once a week, you can use it to sand down the parts of your skin where the callus is beginning to build. Do this when your skin is still a bit moist after you shower. You don’t have to go overboard and rub the flesh raw, of course. Use moisturizer after.

You can also use lifting grips. They’re like a combination of wrist wraps and a little hook. Maybe you’ve seen people use them to do pull-ups at your gym. They’re pretty reasonably priced. They’re not as restrictive as lifting gloves. A downside is they work far better for some lifts than others. They might not offer too much help on pressing lifts.

Similarly, you can buy kinesiology tape (it’s sometimes referred to as goat tape) and apply it to your hands. It’s a barrier between your skin and the bar that won’t restrict your motion. The downside here is it may not be the most cost effective option.

Finally, you can use a looser grip on the weight. I don’t especially recommend this because, while it may be easier on your hands, it might be harder on your toes if you drop the weight. If you use this method, please be careful.

Generally speaking calluses aren’t a big deal, but they do happen. Now you know what to do to try to prevent them, and how to deal with them.

Thanks for reading!

Nuance Training

This is about embracing nuance. The subtle “it depends” responses when it comes to training. When we first start out, things are pretty simple. You go to the gym, do your 3 sets of 10 repetitions for each exercise 3 days a week and come back stronger each time. Progress is easy.

As you get stronger and fitter, by definition you need more volume to stimulate your muscles further. Unfortunately, you can’t just keep adding volume indefinitely. And your muscle and strength don’t keep increasing in a linear way. You’re also more experienced than when you started. In order to keep developing, you’ll need to become more nuanced both in your understanding and in your training.

Embrace it. It’s a sign of more complex thinking. Kids exist in a binary, right or wrong world because they have no experience. You can’t have judgment before you have experience. Teaching them to separate things into two groups simplifies life for them as they start to learn. Yes and no, good and bad, always and never absolutism helps build a framework. But eventually we learn other groups like “maybe”, “sometimes”, and “it depends”.

The same is true for fitness. As you become more experienced you find the rules are more of a framework than absolute truth. When you start out, it’s all about big compound lifts (or at least it should be). Your workouts center around squats, deadlifts, and bench. Probably you’ve been told you have to lift x reps and y sets with z time to rest.

In time, you might figure out that your body responds better to different parameters. Your workouts become more customized to you, which is exactly how they should be. At first it’s good to learn the “rules” and stick to programs as they’re drawn up. That’s a great way to make progress and build a solid foundation of strength and fitness. It’s important to learn the fundamentals well. And you don’t ever want to stray too far from them. But as your training progresses, your knowledge and experience expand also.

So understand that as your understanding and experience grow, so does the grey area between black and white. There’s no singular path to fitness. Once you’ve got the fundamentals, it’s good to be a bit flexible with the tactics you use.

In time your goals may evolve (I certainly hope so). Your life will change. Your body changes as you get older. The truth is, you’re always chasing a moving target. I think it’s a good thing. It keeps things interesting.