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  • Writer's pictureLisa Stephenson

Ruck Strong Principles - Using Progressive Overload and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

By increasing the demands that we place on our muscles over time, they adapt to that increasing stimulus by getting stronger. This is a concept called Progressive Overload. Two of the best ways to get stronger over time are improving your form and progressively overloading your muscles by increasing the weight that you use.

Let's look at how we apply this in Ruck Strong:

At the beginning of each Phase, you will be given 3 new workouts, each of which you will repeat 4 times. During the first round of the workouts, you will need to figure out your starting weight for each lift. Here are some guidelines for figuring that out:

  • Ideally, you want to strive for what feels like a 6 out of 10 effort - a weight that is hard but still feels like you could do another 4 or 5 reps with great form.

  • If you cannot do what feels like a 6 out of 10 with great form, your starting point is the weight that you can do with great form.

  • If you are injured, your starting weight is what your doctor or physical therapist authorized for you OR what you can do without pain or aggravating your injury. (Note that it's perfectly acceptable to substitute in another movement if the one prescribed is a problem for your injury!)

As you go on to repeat each of the 3 different workouts, you increase your working weight so that during Round 2, your effort level is a 7 out of 10, Round 3 is an 8 out of 10 and Round 4 is a 9 out of 10. This method of determining your effort level on a scale of ten is know as the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale.

Now, you may not always be able to increase the weight each week and maintain great form and that's ok. (There are all kinds of reasons for this - maybe adding one more set of plates to your lift is too much of a jump or maybe you are still working on attaining great form with the weight you did last time. If you had a hard training week, are recovering from an event or it's just one of those less-than-stellar days in the gym, there will be times when the same weight that felt like a 6 out of 10 last time feels like a 7 out of 10 this time.)

Here are several other ways that you can overload a movement from the last time you did it if increasing the weight doesn't work:

  • Lifting the same weight with better form or increased range of motion

  • Lifting the same weight but doing one more rep each set

  • Lifting the same weight but adding one or more reps to the last set

  • Lifting the same weight but with a shorter rest period between sets

  • Lifting the same weight and doing one more set

  • And if you can't lift the same weight as you did the time before, you can use any of the above with a slightly lighter weight too. Sometimes this happens!

Ultimately, it is most important to stick to the rule, "Form first!" over increasing weight. It's also important to note that, while you may be able to increase the weight round over round much of the time, those times where you can't do so do not mean that you aren't progressing or that you failed at a movement or a workout and they don't mean that the lifting session didn't have value in terms of increasing your strength over time. It just means you are a normal human having the same normal experience that everyone that lifts has.

Why do we use RPE Scale?

In Ruck Strong, we use the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale to increase our weight. You, the athlete, determine what weight a 6/10, 7/10, 8/10 or 9/10 feels like. This allows you to take ownership of how you progressively overload your workouts. In contrast, I could have programmed the lifts so that you do something like 75% of your 1 repetition maximum in the first round, followed by 80%, 85% and 90% for the following rounds. This takes the power away from you and forces you to lift at a weight that your body might not be prepared to handle on a given day. I could have also said, "Every week, add 5 pounds to your lift". Using this method, I could be asking some of you to add too much weight and for others too little, in both cases hindering your progress.

As athletes, you are all doing other forms of training along with Ruck Strong and may have events interspersed throughout the Cycle. Your goal in training is to improve your performance in the sport of rucking and tactical-style athletics, not to become a champion powerlifter. In order to train in a way that truly fosters your improvement and long-term durability in your sport, we have to balance your strength training with the effects of your other training and the daily stresses of your life. By using RPE to help determine the weight you lift and using other tools (like readiness assessments) as part of the Ruck Strong program, this allows you to make a judgement on your lifting session based on how you feel that day. Over time, this helps you to become a more self-aware athlete, having an ownership stake in the process of balancing strength training with your other training in a way that works best for you as an individual. This allows strength training to become a learning experience that will help you grow as an athlete in all realms of your training and it allows me, as a coach, to be someone that helps facilitate your athletic journey in ways well beyond just increasing your repetition max on a bunch of lifts as we work together to maximize the athletic performance benefits you get from Ruck Strong.


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