Not only do we have to consider intensity in developing a program, but we have to consider volume as well. While the two are interrelated in getting from Point A to Point B, a good way to look at it is that intensity determines the training effect, and volume determines the magnitude of that training effect. So, as a coach, I prescribe less reps per set with more intensity to develop strength in an athlete, and more reps per set with less intensity to develop (say) hypertrophy.
This important to note: for intermediate and advanced athletes, the rep range is always prescribed by programming, when the coach develops the training cycle. Different rep ranges target different systems; doing an all out set of 3 reps is not the same as doing an all out set of 10 reps.
This approach differs greatly from a well-known 5x5 program, used by many beginners. In this program, which will remain unnamed, the lifter is supposed to do five sets of five reps with a target weight that increases each week. Typically, there will come a time when the lifter can do the first set or two quite easily, but has trouble after that. S/he might hit the third set, and gets four reps, the fourth set two or three reps, the fifth set two or three reps.
The standard advice in this situation is to stay at the same working weight until five sets of five reps can be completed. So, the lifter might spend 3 weeks at a given weight before adding more weight to the bar. While this might sound like autoregulation, it's not autoregulating the most important variables: intensity and volume (stress).
Remember: number of reps in a set is prescribed by the coach. Intensity is autoregulated by the athlete. Volume is autoregulated by the athlete. The number of reps are dictated by program for a desired training effect.
.We've seen how RPE naturally applies to intensity; it might be a learned skill to gauge RPE, but it's an intuitive concept. Using RPE for volume revolves around the concepts of fatigue, and fatigue work. Fatigue work is that work done after that athlete has completed a top work set.
Let's say an athlete is prescribed triples at an RPE of 9. The athlete works up to 315lbs, and labels that RPE9. This is the athlete's top work set for that exercise. Remember, we haven't prescribed that weight, but rather we prescribed the intensity: 3 reps, RPE 9.
From an autoregulation perspective, it doesn't make sense that we would specify in the program that the athlete is supposed to do 3 sets of 3 reps at RPE9. What if the athlete is subject to a whole lot of life stress, and they just aren't recovering well? How can the coach possibly know in advance what volume to prescribe? How can the coach possibly know how fatigued the athlete will feel in advance?
So, instead of prescribing a fixed number of sets, we prescribe additional work at a lower intensity. We do this in terms of percentages based on the top set. Typically, a range of 4-6% is a good all around fatigue percentage.
In our example, the lifter would apply this fatigue percentage by calculating:
315 * 4% = 12.6
315 * 5% = 15.75
315 * 6% = 18.9
So, for a fatigue drop of 4-6%, the lifter would strip 12.6 - 18.9lbs off the bar, and do additional work.
Realistically, the lifter is going to round these numbers; the easiest rounding in this case is to set the range from 12-20lbs - we're not concerned with microloading. The lifter will pick how much to drop based on how they feel.
There's also times when the lifter will just know s/he is done after the top work set, and is incapable of performing any fatigue work. In this case, the lifter should not attempt drop sets, and should note this in his/her training log.
So, now we have the intensity for our drop set. But how many drops should the lifter perform? The answer to that question is deceptively simple: the lifter should perform as many drop sets as it takes to get to the same RPE of the top work set.
This fatigue work is a great place for the lifter to really learn how to gauge RPE. Since the lifter is doing sets until s/he reaches the same RPE as the top work set, that means the lifter is attempting to replicate the exact same "feeling" and physiological symptoms of that top work set.
Notice that we're not programming a prescribed number of drop sets with this method; rather, we're letting the lifter's fatigue regulate the number of sets s/he will complete. Depending upon the exercise, depending upon the number of reps in each set, depending upon the athlete, a 4-6% fatigue factor should permit at least one drop set.
Again, it's important to control other variables while performing the drop sets. If the athlete doubles his/her rest period after the top working set, and prior to starting fatigue work, that's going to permit more full recovery. This will interfere with fatigue, and could permit too many drop sets to be performed.
The 4-6% range is a moderate level of fatigue; generally speaking, the following holds true:
0% - no fatigue work
2% - minimal fatigue work
5% - moderate fatigue work
7% - high amount of fatigue work
These numbers have been developed by Mike Tuchscherer over a number of years, working with hundreds of lifters. While they are just guidelines, they're not arbitrary guidelines.
Generally speaking, a higher fatigue percent, means the lifter will be performing more work. When the lifter performs more work, more fatigue is generated. More fatigue requires more recovery. If an athlete is gauging RPE accurately, training for a week with a fatigue percentage of 7% will leave the athlete in a state of incomplete recovery the following week.
So, you would not program a 7% fatigue drop for an athlete who is already having problems recovering. You would not program this much fatigue immediately prior to the athletic event. You would not program this much fatigue for multiple weeks.
Bob's personal website can be viewed at http://www.thethinkingstrongman.com