Make it feel lighter. Make it as easy as possible. Imagine a cloud breathing you in with love. These are things that you may hear from the camp of “Reducing Perceived Exertion.”
No pain, no gain. One more rep, pussy. Do you even lift? These are things you may hear from the camp of “Always Go Hard”.
Neither camp is right. In fact, they’re both wrong.
Our exercise culture is fascinated with the idea of building the most effective, efficient training program ever, and in the process we often confuse what we want and what we need. Balancing training intensities are a key part of reaching short-term goals, as well as laying a foundation for continued success.
A recent observation of mine is the proliferation of two camps with the polarizing philosophies of Maximum Effort or Minimal Effort. It seems that everywhere I go, there’s talk of getting every last ounce of result possible, or of minimizing effort while retaining results. It strikes me as misunderstood exercise science and lackluster art, or perhaps a well intended look at exercise psychology.
We regularly confuse the concepts of Maximum Effort, Minimal Effort, and the overarching concept of Perceived Exertion. Let’s discuss the differences, and how to find an appropriate balance for rapid and repeated results.
In a word, Maximum Effort means more, while Minimal Effort means less. Strategies of maximum effort tend to focus on doing the most work that is possible, or doing as much work as you get results for. Minimal effort strategies seek to find the most efficient results possible, often focusing on the Law of Diminishing Returns. Here they are as two points on a bell curve:
While Maximum Effort is focusing on 100% and maybe more, Minimal Effort thrives on the 20% that gets 80% of the results. Submitting to one process and one process only is a great way to minimize either your long term or your short-term. Where you may fail depends on the specifics of your goals. Let’s address the benefits of each philosophy.
Maximum Effort is sexy. Going all out is sexy. If it’s great to do 6 reps, 12 reps may be better. If 3 sets are good, 10 must be better. If 50lbs are challenging, 500lbs may be a bigger challenge. Here we thrive on taking the maximum effective dose before something goes wrong.
Minimal Effort is calm. Efficiency is calming. If 1 set does almost as much work as 3 sets, save yourself those extra sets. If 60 minutes of work isn’t much different from 30 minutes of work, or 20 minutes of work, why not just do 20 minutes of work? Here we thrive by finding the sweet spot of intensity and results, and riding that point to zen-like calm.
If you’re not finding an appropriate balance between Maximum Effort and Minimal Effort, you’re leaving results behind. As I’ve constructed these two philosophies as two distinct camps, they’re more practically points on a scale of balancing work. At times we want to be on the easier side of this scale, and at times, we want to be on the harder side of this scale. Quite often, we want to find ourselves recalibrating this scale.
There are times when focusing on less, on that idea of minimal effort, is important. Let’s consider a restorative yoga practice as a lower-intensity activity, one that facilities mental calmness and serves to improve mobility and flexibility, not aerobic capacity or strength. This practice is most likely best suited by a minimal effort approach, as the goal is calmness or body awareness. On the contrary, this may be a horrible approach to setting a personal record in a squat or deadlift.
Accomplishing a personal record is an activity that most often requires of us feeling engaged and energetic, to allow an appropriately prepared body and brain. Calmness can be a part of this equation, but may very well stand in the way of achieving a desired result. How the hell do we find the balance? Let’s calibrate that scale and our Ratings of Perceived Exertion.
Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) have the potential to be the most reliable or least reliable system for determining intensity as possible. Intensity is often considered a percentage of a 1 repetition maximum, but today we’re going to avoid the math and instead look at our mind. The simplest scale of judging intensity is an admittedly arbitrary self-assessed scale of 1-10. How hard do you think you’re working?
Any given training session allows the opportunity to move between intensities, but most importantly it gives us the opportunity to adjust our scales. After all, as we further enhance our fitness, we need to regularly recalibrate our perception of work. That is where the magic happens.
The notion that all training should “feel easy” strikes me as a really good way to NOT get a training effect. The concept of “going H.A.M.” in any given session also strikes me as a way of wearing yourself into the ground. We know that both options suck. Recalibrating our internal scale can be as simple as picking up a weight that may be heavier than we’re used to followed by a weight that we’ve grown accustomed to. The goal isn’t to look at the physiological effects but to bring awareness to how we’re perceiving that weight.
If you’re accustomed to deadlifting 315 for 3 sets of 5 and decide that you’ll make your first set 330lbs, you can bet those next two sets of 315 are going to feel lighter. The same can be said for training for a run. If a maximal exertion 5k can be occasionally replaced with runs that are calmer, that “maximal exertion” may shift towards “moderate”. As we slide this scale to adjust for our current state of fitness, we can better find balance throughout our training.
Our perception of intensity is a plastic one, and can change on any given day, with any workout, or during any program. Using Ratings of Perceived Exertion can work well to regulate any given set or exercise in a training session, but I believe it best serves to help us track our psychological progress as we understand how we perceive and perform what we’re doing.