Why am I not getting stronger? Progressive Overload and the RPE Scale Explained


A common complaint in the strength and conditioning world is that one's body is not adapting or changing the way one hoped it would. You could be doing all the right things like going to the gym regularly, eating a balanced diet, hydrating, having good sleep hygiene etc. but despite going to the gym you may find yourself just going through the motions and not challenging yourself enough.

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to get fancy on us and switch up your workouts daily or even weekly. What I am going to write about is the principle of progressive overload and what it means to someone who may be struggling to see progress. Keep in mind there is more than just lack of progressive overload that may be hindering your gains but for the purpose of this blog, this is the key factor I am going to focus on.

So what is it? Implementing progressive overload is when the intensity of one’s strength training gradually increases as one develops muscle and strength. For example, each week you may go into the gym and lift 250 pounds on a barbell back squat doing the same sets and reps for multiple weeks. This is not progressive overload. Progressive overload may look like this: week 1 you go into the gym and perform 3 sets of 10 squats with 250lbs, week 2 you perform 3 sets of 10 reps with 275lbs, and then week 3 you perform the same movement with 300lbs etc. Now this is a very broken down and simple way to look at this concept and it is going to look different for everyone. Increasing weight is just one way to progressively overload. Other examples include changing your volume, implementing a speed component, changing tempo with movements, increasing ROM and the list goes on and on.



What this idea is backed by is the SAID principle. SAID stands for “specific adaptation by imposed demands”. Meaning that the human body will adapt in response to demands and stressors placed on it. For instance, if the muscles are put under more tension i.e. more weight the muscles will become stronger. Now how does one know if they are “stressing” their body out enough to impose these demands?

One answer is the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale. This scale is subjective and individualized and always one to tell how hard they feel they are working. There are multiple RPE scales, but a common one uses the rating 1-10. The best way in my opinion to understand it is, how many repetitions of an exercise do you have left in the tank? A 1 on the RPE scale is the lowest meaning you are not working very hard at all and 10 meaning you could not do another repetition if your life depended on it. Let's say you did 10 deadlifts at 200 pounds and you felt like after you did those 10 reps you could have done 10 more without resting. Now on the complete opposite end of the scale you just deadlifted 400 pounds for 1 rep and you know that that rep took all you had and you had no reps left in the tank, this would be an RPE of 10. Now what? What level is best to train at? According to 2 studies published in the strength and conditioning journal and reported by the NSCA, it is best to train anywhere between an RPE of 6-8 for muscle hypertrophy. This would mean that after warming up of course, you’re working set would leave you with about 2-4 reps left in the tank.
In the grand scheme of the strength and conditioning world it is common to fall into habit and pick up the same old weights you’ve been using for weeks or even months because you are comfortable. If there was one thing, I hope you learned from this was that to see change you must put yourself in some uncomfortable situations. So, pick up the heavier weights and watch your strength improve.

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