Let’s clarify a couple things first…not one single method works for all people, just so you don’t get the wrong idea. Also, this is what works for me, people I’ve worked with, and is popular with other coaches/trainers in various industries.
Before I get into the methods, I feel everybody should be aware/understand “Rate of Perceived Exertion” (RPE). In simple terms, this is the effort/intensity you are using for your training sessions. This effort can and should vary depending on multiple things...RPE is important to understand because it plays a huge role in how you should train to get the most out of what you are trying to accomplish. RPE is also a gauge for over-training or under-training…which is very common in all types of people regardless of their activity, sport, or training style. Most people think of RPE on a scale of 1-10…1 being nothing but standing/sitting around, 10 being the max physical effort you can give. You could also think of it as a percentage from 0-100% effort.
Ok, now that we understand RPE better, let’s talk about what I mean by “smart.” When I use the term “smart” I’m simple stating the ability to continue to train year-round “injury-free while still making progress.” The top reason most people lose motivation or plateau throughout the year is due to over-training. Over-training is when the body is continuously pushed beyond its limits or at high intensities without recovery/rest. At this point you start to fatigue quicker, ache more, lose muscle, dread workouts, and even regress in ability. So how do you avoid over-training and be “smart” about your workouts?
The “smart” method. While most people assume the harder you push, the better you get…that may not be the case. Going “all-out” on every workout could lead to a lack of productivity. The body does love to be physically tested, but not all the time. It’s simply not meant to be at max effort every single day. This puts too much physical stress on the body and can lead to all the affects of over-training listed above. “So what am I suppose to do?” The most efficient athletes and best fighters, runners, or gym rats consistently use an RPE of 7-8 as their go-to training intensity. Let me explain a little more…
The reason most people wisely use a 7-8 RPE is because it allows them to still get the intensity of a great workout while still avoiding “redlining” the body. They can get in the “zone” with their workout and feel good, without feeling like they want to faint, puke, or die. Despite the popularity of those famous three terms, you should rarely get there…unless in competition or on a peak week (testing week). RPE of 9-10 should only be something used for occasional testing of PRs or upcoming competitions…even then, your RPE should peak a couple weeks before performance days (to allow for sufficient recovery). An RPE of 4-6 is used for recovery days. These days should be a low intensity cycle, uphill walk, yoga, roll and stretch, etc. So if your actual “workouts” are one of those activates, you may be a candidate for under-training, and increasing your intensity will help your performance.
So the moral of the story is to try to always work at 70-80% of your max effort. I know this is easier said than done, but the more in-tune you become with your body, the easier it gets. In simpler terms, if you always feel like you are going to faint, puke, or die after every or most workouts, your intensity is just too much. Try scaling it back slightly and see how much better your body feels, how much more “enjoyable” your workouts are, and (I promise you) how much more you will improve at certain exercises, skills, or times. On the flip side…If you feel like you barely sweat, muscles aren’t ever sore, or heart rate is never elevated, try increasing your intensity. Being able to have varying RPEs is a huge advantage to your training and something most people don’t take into consideration (Ex. Crossfit).