Why RPE-Based Programs May Be Better for Women

Women might benefit more with RPE style training due to their body's ability to handle more volume.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Ladies, do you remember the last time that you were deadlifting and the guy’s at the gym had their jaws drop at the weight you were putting up? Being a woman in a male-dominant sport, such as powerlifting, can sometimes be intimidating. Although, most of us, women included, enjoy a little bit of competition and sometimes that means getting hyped when we deadlift heavier than the guy on the platform next to us.

For reference, in a female-only powerlifting group of 14,000+ people, 15% of people said that they don’t feel competitive, 21% said that they were competitive, and 64% said that they were competitive and specifically enjoy lifting heavier than the guys next to them.

There’s nothing wrong with a little competition, and to be honest, when women have a slight disadvantage and still come out on top, that makes us feel unstoppable. We’re aware that men have benefits over women when it comes to strength training, but what if there are training methods that we haven’t utilized yet that can make us stronger, better, and more powerful as athletes? RPE-based programs may be the next step to getting us there.

What Is RPE?

RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. This training methodology is a popular strategy in strength sports for programming to manage and judge training intensity. In a typical program, training intensities are based off of percentages of your 1-RM, which is a number that has been usually set for at least 3 months (or longer). This has always been one of the most efficient ways to program training intensity.

The higher the percentage is, the more strength-focused you’ll be in the program. For example, generally deadlifting at 65% is going to bring focus on muscular endurance/volume and 90%+ is going to bring focus on building strength. When you go into train on these programs, the weight you are lifting is already set and you know exactly what to throw on the bar when you get there.

If your deadlift 1-RM is 400 pounds and you’re doing 3×1 @ 90%, then you already know that you’ll be hitting 360 pounds when you go in to train. With RPE, it might looking something like this: 3×1 @ RPE 9. You don’t know what exact weight that will be until you get in the gym and start training, but the intensity is already set for you.

Thus, when training with RPE, your program may not require a set weight that you should be lifting based on a static number each time, but is instead based on recovery and fatigue of that day — meaning you won’t know the numbers you’ll be lifting until you begin warming-up. It’s a more intuitive way of deciphering training intensites for each session.

On an RPE based program, training intensity is measured on a scale from one to ten. One means that you have nine+ more reps left in the tank, and 10 means there are no more reps left in the tank. Typically RPE 1-5 are not commonly used, as they lean more towards warm-up weight.

RPE Chart
RPE Chart

These training methods are becoming increasingly popular overall in strength sports and women have even more of a reason to experiment with these styles of programming.

Why Men are Better at Strength Sports

While it can sometimes feel like an insult when being complimented for being, “strong for a girl” vs. just “strong,” there’s no doubt that men typically are stronger than women; they’re at an advantage. If you’re here, then you’re ready to learn why this is and how RPE-based programs might change the game for us.

There are a few key points as to why women specifically should utilize these training methods, but first we have to know what makes our bodies function a little differently than men’s. The main differences between men and women have to do with our differences in sex hormones and muscle fiber makeup. These things, especially working together, dictate the type of training that is optimal for the function of our bodies.

Sex Hormones and Recovery

The most obvious benefit men have over women is naturally higher levels of testosterone. Testosterone has been recognized for having clear benefits when it comes to muscle mass, body fat percentages, performance, and strength. It is an anabolic hormone which is a driver for building muscle and decreasing body fat; these are qualities that almost all competitive athletes strive for.

We can’t deny how powerful testosterone is for strength sports, but that doesn’t mean that women are at a loss. Estrogen is one of the main sex hormones that women can thank for carrying their female characteristics and it plays a role in our training as well. Moderate resistance training has been shown to positively affect and regulate our estrogen levels, keeping us healthy hormonally. Outside of promoting general health, it also plays a role in our ability to manage fatigue.

Women Weight Training
Women Weight Training

The reason for this has to do with estrogen and its effect on our metabolism. Estrogen allows for a higher glucose uptake to our muscles during training sessions, especially when incorporating pre-workout or intra-workout meals. Essentially this relationship allows for glucose to be sent to the muscles at a more rapid rate. What this means for us is that glucose is turned into ATP (energy) faster than it is for men (1). For context, when we go into the gym to hit 90% of our 1-RM, this stimulus triggers a need for more energy, allowing for a higher glucose uptake, and thus energy is sent at faster rates to the muscles for back-up.

Despite men having an advantage with higher levels of testosterone, estrogen’s effect on our metabolic process allows for a quicker recovery even with relatively high training intensities seen in strength sports.

Muscle Fibers and Strength Sports

The next big difference between men and women is their muscle fiber makeup. Our muscles consist of type I (slow twitch fibers) and type IIA and IIX (fast twitch fibers) muscle fibers. The role of type I muscle fiber is to aid in endurance-based activities. These fibers typically can work longer periods of time and fire off at slower rates compared to type II muscle fibers. Type I muscle fibers utilize energy efficiently and take longer to fully fatigue (think: marathon training).

On the other hand, type II muscle fibers fire rapidly. These are the muscle fibers we can thank for our explosiveness in power movements. These muscle fibers also fatigue quicker (think: sprints or powerlifting).

When it comes to the differences between men and women, men tend to have larger type II muscle fibers, which means they naturally can produce power and speed better. Women’s bodies tend to rely more on type I muscle fibers, which means they’re able to withstand more training volumes for longer periods of time (2). This helps explain why women are often capable of lifting closer to their 1-RM for more reps than men (3). Some argue in the strength community that most women never see their true 1-RM because they naturally have less type II muscle fibers.

Why Women Can Benefit With RPE Training

What we know is that women are able to recover faster than men in training sessions and women are able to handle more volume than men (4, 5). The reason why this matters when it comes to programming is because that most strength programs are based on percentages that were studied on primarily male athletes who have slower recovery and can’t handle as much volume.

One of the largest pieces of data that we have based around training intensities and percentages for strength sports comes from A.S. Prilepin. Prilepin was an Olympic weightlifting coach for hundreds of male athletes. He kept their journals and studied them to find the most optimal amount of reps, sets, and training intensities to achieve the best results for Olympic weightlifting. His reviews of these athletes’ journals lead to what is known as Prilepin’s Chart, which is one of the most commonly used charts for creating programs based around strength and power.

The chart shows the optimal amount of reps based on the results from his athletes, but it also provides the most optimal range to work within for these percentages as well.

Prilepin's Chart

Based on what we know, most men are going to work better with less training volume and a higher training intensity, while women are going to work better with higher training volume with a similar amount of perceived training intensity.

The reason this is “perceived” intensity rather than true intensity is because it is suggested that women may never experience a true 1-RM, as mentioned before, or that the 1-RM’s may need to be tested differently. This doesn’t mean we cannot get strong as women; we’ve already proven that we can. It just means that maybe we have more potential than we think if we adjust our training strategy.

In my opinion, our potential as women in strength sports isn’t even close to being uncovered yet, because most data on strength and training volume we have is studied on men, not women.

While working within these ranges on Prilepin’s chart will still benefit women, it’s likely that this will not get us the most optimal results as we progress to become more advanced athletes. If women adjust their training to how their bodies function athletically with higher training volume, then we may give ourselves a better opportunity to get stronger more efficiently.

While higher volume does not necessarily mean better results, it is shown that if we’re not getting enough volume, progress will stall. We all have a “sweet spot” for volume and women’s tends to naturally be higher than men and we know that the training volume in these charts is based on results of men. The best way to begin unveiling our “sweet spot” for volume is on a more intuitive program that thrives with our quick recovery: RPE-based programs.

How to Incorporate RPE Into Your Program

If you’re a beginner, then you’re likely to make a great amount of progress with percentage-based programs due to newbie gains. The reason I recommend a percentage-based program as a beginner is because it’s harder to judge RPE’s when you have nothing to compare training intensity to. It’s also harder to decipher between how many reps you have left in the tank.

Personally, I would recommend starting out beginners strictly with a percentage-based program while rating their RPE in their training log.

  • Competition squat: 6×5 @ 75% – felt like RPE 7
  • Front squat: 3×8 @ 70% – felt like RPE 6.5

As an athlete progresses, use your best judgement based on their training level to begin incorporating RPE into their program. I begin incorporating this first with their secondary movements.

  • Competition squat: 6×5 @ 75%
  • Front squat: 3×8 @ RPE 7

For more advanced athletes, I begin incorporating a mixture of both percentages and RPE’s in their main movements.

  • Competition squat:
    • 3×5 @ 75%
    • 2×4 @ RPE 8
    • 1×4 @ RPE 9

As you progress in a program and study how your strength is affected by training volume, you’ll learn more about adjusting to find the most optimal relationship between training intensity and volume by utilizing RPE.

The Counter-Argument

Despite everything I’ve said, this doesn’t mean it’s wrong if you’re not running an RPE-based program. If you’re working with a coach, then there’s going to be some trial and error as they figure out how your body adapts to training volume and intensity. Even in Prilepin’s chart, there are ranges based on how each individual athlete adapts.

Because we know women can lift more reps closer to their 1-RM, you can program based on this without necessarily needing to use RPE for every lift. Rating your RPE on a percentage based program will give more insight into what your ideal training volume and intensity is without necessarily needing to incorporate RPE into the program.

To sum it all up, I’ve seen my clients make better progress after transitioning to RPE-based programs. At the end of the day, each person’s program is incredibly unique to them, and for women specifically, there are less studies out there to show the best reps, sets, and training intensities to benefit us. RPE-based programs can make the difference in discovering more about our bodies and our capability of strength. The biggest differences in our strength all come down to the efficacy of the program and how we utilize this information to structure it.

References

1. Miller, A., MacDougall, J., Tarnopolsky, M., & Sale, D. (1993). Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. European Journal Of Applied Physiology And Occupational Physiology, 66(3), 254-262. doi:10.1007/bf00235103

2. Gorres, B., Bomhoff, G., Morris, J., & Geiger, P. (2011). In vivostimulation of oestrogen receptor α increases insulin-stimulated skeletal muscle glucose uptake. The Journal Of Physiology, 589(8), 2041-2054. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2010.199018

3. Staron RS, e. (2019). Fiber type composition of the vastus lateralis muscle of young men and women. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 13 March 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10769046

4. Wood, R., & Stanton, S. (2012). Testosterone and sport: Current perspectives. Hormones And Behavior, 61(1), 147-155. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.09.010

5. Skeletal muscle and bone: effect of sex steroids and aging | Advances in Physiology Education. (2019). Advances In Physiology Education.

Lexes O'Hara

Lexes O'Hara

Lexes is a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. Her primary focus with her athletes and clients is strength, nutrition, and physique transformations. She runs a blog called Flex Club where you can find helpful tips and motivation to begin your journey into fitness. Her competitive side of fitness was introduced at age 3, when she began bowling in league. By age 8, she was winning scholarships in state and junior nationals and at 18 began competing in USBC Women's Championships. She first picked up a pair of dumbbells at 17 and, soon after, competed in her first NPC bikini show. After developing binge-eating disorder, she began doing more reseach on the mental aspects of fitness and nutrition. At age 22, she re-discovered the fun and competitive side of fitness, where she got into powerlifting and marathon running (the full 26.2). She has been personal training and online coaching since 2014, using her past experiences to help current clients.

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