Problem With (Perceived) Reps-In-Reserve

Problem With (Perceived) Reps-In-Reserve

The use of (perceived) reps-in-reserve (pRIR) in strength training has become one of the most prominent (subjective) auto-regulation methods. Another very common subjective auto-regulation approach that precedes pRIR, involves the use of rate of perceived effort (or exertion), or RPE. The problem with RPE, in my opinion, is the confusing language that tries to be generic or general. What is effort? What is exertion? It is really hard to pin them down. I have expanded on these topics in the Strength Training Manual (and also favored the use of pRIR as a “Small World” model; i.e., “tool not rule”), but in short, pRIR is less confusing since the athlete knows what rating is. Compare “How much effort did you put in this set?” versus “How many reps you have in the tank?”

Other auto-regulation method that is more objective involves the use of (concentric) velocity. Although I will not discuss the use of velocity in this article, I believe this approach also suffers from the issue I will discuss.

Although I have been wrestling with this issue for quite some time (I had a few back-and-forths on Twitter regarding this topic), the recent short chat with Robert Frederick got me motivated to write this piece.

Here is an example from Robert that I have expanded a bit. Let’s say I had a bad day at work and I feel “emotionally drained.” I come to the gym and I just do not have an “umph” (i.e., arousal, intention, emotional investment capacity, etc). My coach tells me to lift 100kg. I do 2 reps and rate 2RIR (I perceive that I have two reps in reserve). He looks at me weirdly and tells me to lift the next set for 5 reps. And I am like “Wut?”

I got pissed off, and approach the bar in all seriousness and with (emotional) intention. I lift for 5 reps and rate 1RIR. How did that happen?

Although this is a simple example of “arousal” (not what you think bucko; pun intended), similar variability in performance and perceived performance can happen not only in a single workout (between sets) but between training days and phases. Thus my pRIR ratings are not “objective” (which we all know, since I have used the term “subjective” to describe them) in a way that I (directly) rate some (perceived) “demand.” In addition, these ratings are affected by my perceived capacity. James Steely stated, “perception of effort (i.e., pRIR – my addition) is the perception of demand relative to the perception of capacity and all those things can impact the latter.”

In addition to this, my ratings emerged in my emotional/arousal state and how much emotional investment I have at my disposal. I believe this is true for any other performance and rating of performance. That’s why we have and differentiate between “every day maximums” (EDM), training, and competition maximums. Not sure we have a “theoretical model” of these topics/constructs/conundrums and everything that has been written lately sounds like incoherent astrology. And I am certain I am not helping here to unravel these phenomenologies – but maybe adding more oil to the fire.

So what is the solution? In my opinion, we need to differentiate between ratings under different scenarios. Even if my ratings have errors, if I state that I have 3 RIR, that probably implies 3 RIR under my current emotional investment, intentionality, expectations, and so forth, rather than in an “absolute” sense. If you get me angry, I will probably do more reps and rate higher RIR. But is this because I go stronger (i.e., my 1RM “changed” or got manifested differently), or because my perception of my capacities changed? Or because I am more emotionally invested? Not sure – we do not have a theoretical model juggling these and this is something we need to define, at least more transparently so we can discuss and falsify (rather than introducing more fuzzy concepts).

As stated in Strength Training Manual, I think we need to differentiate between two program intentions: pull the floor versus push the ceiling. The emotional investments, expectations, and thus ratings will be different in those programs. In Load-Exertion Tables And Their Use For Planning – Part 5 I suggested estimating and tracking strength profiles using both maximum and minimum approach (or best and worst). If I can get one message across, that would be that we should approach all these “scientific evidence-based,” “objective” and “quantifications” approaches as tools not truths.

I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grew up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »
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