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3 Ways To Train Smartly For Strength When You Return To The Gym

This week, gyms in the UK are reopening. Many of you will have had to significantly change your training or have stopped training entirely.

This presents a great opportunity for you to begin again with great training habits to build the consistency you always knew you were capable of but you haven't quite achieved yet.

Let's get into how to train smartly.

Track Rate of Perceived Exertion

Rate of perceived exertion or RPE as it's known if you a cool powerlifter like me is a tool for gauging how difficult your training is.

Most people either go by the charts designed by Mike Tusherer (see below) and his team or they come up with their own individualised chart as one size doesn't necessarily fit all.

You can use RPE to calculate the percentage of your lifts as in the complex looking chart below:

You can find Mike's article HERE. In this article, Mike also discusses how to develop your own percentage scale. It's not something you necessarily need to do, but some lifters love having additional details to work with.

Why would you use RPE?

When you are training, especially if you are above the age of around 20-25, you want to keep most of your training around 8 RPE. Sometimes above, sometimes below.

Many people think you should be pushing all out for every single set. For someone who isn't using steroids, this is unsustainable and results in the person breaking down through injury, tiredness, or both.

By tracking RPE you can monitor how difficult your sets are and ensure you aren't pushing too hard too frequently.

As you get stronger it becomes more important to watch your RPE carefully. I'm currently a 31-year-old powerlifter and if I go to a 9 or 10 RPE on a big movement like squats, bench press, or deadlift it can affect my performance for up to 5 days.

If I was to try and go to 9-10 RPE all the time I'd never do a session where I perform well because fatigue is masking my ability to express my best performance.

I like to structure my training weeks like this in order to manage my fatigue levels:

Week 1: Most sets at 7 RPE

Week 2: Most sets at 8 RPE

Week 3 A few 9 RPE sets at the start of a session, dropping to 8 towards the end

Week 4 Most sets 7 RPE

Another great way to manage fatigue levels would be to always train at 8 RPE.

Lighter people tend to be able to get away with staying at a higher RPE for longer. If you have a higher recovery threshold your month might look more like this:

Week 1: Most sets at 8 RPE

Week 2: Most sets at 9 RPE

Week 3 A few 10 RPE sets at the start of a session, dropping to 8-9 towards the end

Week 4 Most sets 7-8 RPE

You could also realistically stagger your RPE throughout the week.

Monday- mostly 7 RPE session

Wednesday- mostly 8 RPE session

Friday- 9 RPE session

Saturday- 7/8 RPE session

For those who can handle more punishment:

Monday- mostly 8 RPE

Wednesday- 9 RPE

Friday- 9-10 RPE

Sunday- 8 RPE

There's no "correct" answer. It's all about finding what works best for you or your athletes over time. It's a smart move to track how much effort is going into your training.

Tracking your RPE's can be a great indicator of whether you need to have a deload instead of a big session. If all of your warm-up sets were a higher RPE than usual for example, this would potentially be time for an easier session than usual.

Tracking your RPE can show you need to focus on a lift more as for example if a light warm-up set is a higher RPE than usual it could be that you weren't paying attention and didn't perform your usual lifting ritual.

RPE is a useful tool to use for those involved in strength training.

Factor in the loss of performance after a big PB or a badly missed rep

Picture the scene:

You smash a deadlift PR by a whole 2.5kgs!

You finally smashed that 200kg mark!

You were so fired up!

You then try to deadlift your back-off sets at 180kg!

20kg should be easy!

aaaaaaand it sticks to the floor.



This is common.

It happens after a rep is missed too, but that isn't as fun as a big deadlift PB!

When you hit a particularly big lift requiring far more emotional investment than usual, you'll find it next-to-impossible to get near the same intensity again. Most people tend to have to drop the weight significantly after this in order to perform their reps to any kind of standard.

To train smartly, you need to factor this in.

When you hit a big PB and feel an instant lessening of tension (even HAPPINESS) I would suggest taking a lighter weight than usual after your big emotional repetition at the risk of the weight suddenly feeling incredibly heavy and that your PB was some kind of fluke because it wasn't.

It takes a hell of a lot more to lift a PB. Take this into consideration with your sets and reps afterward.

This is a concept we see to varying degrees in people. The more amped up/scared/anxious/screaming at everyone in the vicinity you get during heavy reps the more likely you are to see a huge drop off in performance after a big PB.

Some people have to lift like this to hit good numbers. I know I am one of those people, therefore, I often see a huge drop off once I've done my heaviest sets.

For my psychologically intense clients (particularly powerlifters) I will more-often-than-not program a large weight drop after big sets to give them a chance of being able to maintain good form and to factor in the large performance drop often seen.

I think you should do the same.

Have Some Planned Deload/Different Sessions In You Back Pocket For Days When Doing Your Full Program Isn't Possible

Sometimes when we come into the gym we know we can't lift the weights we normally lift.

We know we can't produce the same power, drive, and coordination to get it done.

Or we are a little more beaten up than usual.

Having sessions you can throw in at any time works well for when you know you can't get it done to your usual intensity.

For those who struggle to make a call based on feel, according to Lee Bell BSc (Hons), PGCE, MSc a performance physiologist based in Sheffield the symptoms of overtraining are as follows:

Elevated morning heart rate and low maximum heart rate.
Disturbances in heart rate variability.
Bad mood, low energy levels and motivation.
Anxiety, restlessness, exhaustion and poor sleep quality.
Decline in testosterone and other hormones associated with growth and development.
More frequent illnesses, such as sore throats and common colds - due to an ineffective immune system.
Increased stress hormones such as cortisol.
Potential loss of muscle mass, strength and overall fitness

Lee Bell

You can read his full article HERE.

If you track the rate of perceived exertion as suggested above, when you are overtrained you'll notice weights that are usually a lower RPE will be a higher RPE than usual.

Overtraining is far more complicated than I've made out here, but delving deeply into this subject will be an article another day.

The approach taken by me is unless you are competing, an appearance of the above symptoms means a change and a rest is needed for 3-14 days.

These "different" sessions should be much easier, should involve much lighter weights, be shorter, or involve a lot more rest if you want to be in the gym for the same amount of time.

They should be sessions you should be able to do if you were woken up at 3 am and required to train.

If no session meets this requirement, REST.

I mostly train with barbells for strength so repetitions are low, my back pocket sessions involve dumbbell, machine, and bodyweight exercises, they are much easier than normal and have no preset weights. I can go as light as I need to.

To facilitate recovery, these sessions should be easy. It's not time to be hardcore. Get the blood flowing, leave lots of energy in the tank and get out of the gym as fast as you can.

I have these sessions saved on my phone where I know where they are at any time.

Have Rest Days

Rest days allow you to recover. You'll see people telling you to push through muscle soreness to "get it done" but they are largely wrong.

Pushing through serious muscle soreness puts you at a higher risk of injury than is necessary.

Having a couple of rest days per week will allow your body and mind to recover (assuming you aren't a stressed mess all of your rest day as well.)

Having rest days allows you to get more real-life stuff done like spending a little more time with your partner, your children, or your friends. Or a rest day could be used to have some "you" time, which is important.

If you never have time off from the gym and work to have time to yourself, you'll start to struggle to be alone for any period of time and that is a place that is quite precarious for your mental health.

If you aren't used to having rest days, they will take some getting used to, but unless you are a competitive athlete literally paid to train and compete, what are you doing in the gym every day?

Have rest days and you'll usually make more progress, you'll be in a better place mentally and you should get injured less.

Do Some Cardio

Powerlifters tend to avoid cardio. I was one of those people.

I have struggled to walk upstairs, to do more than 5 reps, and had to take 10 minutes between sets numerous times per workout.

This isn't right for someone as light as me.

Without cardio, you need to take longer between sets, you can't handle as much volume and your life is made worse because you lack the prerequisite fitness to be able to do regular life activities with any kind of proficiency.

This doesn't mean instantly starting a couch to 5k while peaking for your powerlifting competition next month.

As a strength athlete adding 3 sessions of walking or gentle cycling will work wonders for your fitness levels.

You don't need to do sprints and interval training if you don't want to. But steady cardio should be a mandatory part of your week if you want to be the best version of yourself.

Most of those reading this aren't elite powerlifters. I'm not an elite powerlifter either.

Done correctly, cardio won't kill your gains. It will help you train more effectively and you'll feel better in your everyday life.

To finish with a powerlifting example:

I've competed in powerlifting competitions which started at 10.30 am and finished at 8.30-9 pm. Those who are fitter have more to give during their last lifts when competitions are won and lost. You don't want to be one of those people who have nothing left when it can be prevented by adding in a little bit of cardio.

Personally, I get my cardio in with a combination of walking, gardening and on the stationary bike. Occasionally, I'll walk on the treadmill for 30 mins to an hour, but this tends to make me want to kill myself.


For many of us, when we return to the gym, it's a chance to trainer smarter, more consistently, and achieve better results.

We achieve the above by training sensibly which means tracking how difficult your sessions are, doing cardio and having rest days.

When you return to the gym, be careful. I've already had messages about people ripping their hand open deadlifting heavy without taking time to build callouses first.

I know you want to be as strong as you were before the pandemic, and that will happen quicker if you apply the above concepts to your training.

By Chris Kershaw

The Heavy Metal Strength Coach

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