Chapter 5: Understanding Intensity

We’ve made a case for a strength training plan built around heavy, compound barbell movements. Let’s bring more definition to what “heavy” actually means. 

Repetition Max (RM)

Most strength training plans use a repetition max (RM) for intensity prescription [7]. Here’s how the RM system works.

  1. An athlete determines the maximal amount of weight they can lift for a particular exercise.
  2. Lifting loads are assigned based on a percentage of this RM.

If the maximal amount of weight you can squat is 200lb, a coach might prescribe three sets of five repetitions (3 X 5) at 60% of your 1RM (120lb).

The most significant advantage of an RM approach is precision in assigning weight for each exercise. Conversely, the biggest downside to RM is the need for frequent maximal testing. 

While lifting maximally may be appropriate for highly trained strength athletes, it doesn’t make sense for most cyclists who can significantly improve strength without increasing their risk for injury when trying to max out under the bar [29].

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

An alternative approach to the RM method for intensity prescription is to use Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). 

Load assignment with RPE differs from RM in that weight is determined based on a subjective perception of intensity rather than a percent of max effort. 

To bring more definition to how you might use RPE in strength training, the model of “reps in reserve” (RIR) is helpful [38].

RIR is an estimate of how many reps you think you could complete after finishing a lift. Whatever’s left in the tank gets subtracted from 10, leaving the remainder as your RPE for the rep. 

If you finish your final rep in a set and feel you could have still done two more reps (two reps in reserve), your RPE would be an eight out of 10 [38].

Adapted from: Zourdos, M.C., et al., Novel Resistance Training–Specific Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2016. 30(1): p. 267-275

Here’s an example of how a coach might use RPE to prescribe intensity in a strength training plan. 

  1. An athlete starts by learning and regularly recalibrating their RPE scale throughout the process of training. 
  2. The athlete “auto-regulates” by self-selecting the load on the bar to line up with the prescribed RPE for the lift. 

A coach might prescribe three sets of five repetitions (3 X 5) at an RPE of six. 

Following an RPE system in your strength training is helpful for the same reason it works well on the bike: RPE accounts for the physical and psychological nature of effort [39], giving you the flexibility to push harder on days you feel great while granting license to hold back on days you might be dragging [40].

Making it Work

For cyclists, a more flexible approach to managing strength training intensity can be the difference between consistency under the bar and quitting strength training for good. 

RPE does well to account for life stress and carryover fatigue from the bike, but does it work to drive improvements in strength? 

A recent study raised this question by comparing an RPE-based loading strategy to the RM method. In short, using RPE to assign intensity in a strength training plan seems to work just as well as using RM [40].

Learning the Language

As a subjective language of training intensity, the effectiveness of RPE depends on the accuracy of your perception of effort [40].

In other words, the more fluent you are in RPE, the more likely you are to nail the higher intensities needed to sustain improvements in strength and cycling performance. 

Here’s how our strength training plan will use a full spectrum of RPE throughout the three strength periods of a season.

Adapt

RPE 1-4

The choice to “lift heavy” should come months after you’ve painstakingly learned proper lifting techniques and given ample time for your body to adapt to new movement patterns safely [32].

Build

RPE 5-9

With greater confidence in your technique, you’ll begin to build strength by challenging yourself with conservative increases in RPE under the bar [41], ultimately progressing toward “lifting heavy” around an RPE of eight [7, 42].

Maintain

RPE 7-9

As you inch closer to your primary cycling goals, your focus will shift from building to maintaining strength. In the same way cycling fitness is best maintained with frequent intensity [43], the key for preserving strength is to keep lifting heavy [44].

We’ve outlined our primary strength training movements alongside the language of intensity we’ll use throughout our plan; now it’s time to put it all together.