Bottom Line Up Front:
Take bodyweight exercises closer to failure.
Be honest about your perception of failure.
Gyms are closed across the country and for many barbell warriors, strength gains are slowly disappearing like a passing memory. Without knurled barbells, iron plates, and a cable cross-over machine, is it even possible to make gains? The answer is yes, but with the correct dosage of intensity. To illustrate this concept, I’ll recap the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) system and how it is applied to bodyweight training.
RPE is the rating of difficulty for a specific exercise and is subjective in nature. In strength training, RPE is used to assess the difficulty of a given set, at a given weight, for a specific exercise. As noted in the RPE table below, it also corresponds to how many repetitions you could have done if taking the set to failure. For example, let’s say you bench press 185 lbs. for six repetitions, and rate it as an RPE 7. This means you’re confident that you could have done three more repetitions at that weight. An RPE 9 rating indicates you could only do one more repetition at that weight.
Therefore, we need to be honest with ourselves about RPE scores with respect to bodyweight exercises like the pushup. Since you’re used to doing sets of eight on the bench press, you might think that sets of 20 for pushups would be sufficient. That’s a high rep set, right? Consider this: what if your pushup max is 50 reps? If you do a set of 20 pushups, you had 30 reps left in the tank, equating to an RPE 0. A high rep set is only relative to either a 1RM or in this case, a max rep set. In order to get a similar training effect as a bench press, you need to reevaluate your perception of failure.
Next time you’re doing a set of pushups, expect to feel a burn that you may not be used to. When you start to feel fatigued during a set, I encourage you to take a deep breath in the top position and do a few more. Truly get yourself to RPE 8+ and you’ll see that you can maintain the same intensity you were used to with a barbell.
Aryeh was born and raised in South Florida where he competed in high school sports and quickly developed a passion for fitness. After graduating from the University of Central Florida with a B.S. Civil Engineering, he spent four years in the Navy where he trained in multiple fitness modalities like Powerlifting and Crossfit. He is now pursuing a Master of Public Health at the George Washington University. Aryeh is a certified personal trainer and instructor where he enjoys guiding people along their own fitness journeys. When he’s not in the weight room,
you can find him at the beach, enjoying a hike,
or spending time at a local coffee shop.