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How To Follow A Program

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

This blog will explain common terms seen on a program, as well as how to use and progress a program.

Part 1: Intensity Explained

Intensity is the difficulty level you should have in your set.

Usually prescribed in RIR, RPE or %max.


means ‘reps in reserve’ ie how many MORE reps you would need to perform to get to muscular failure (at your best guess).

Your sense of how many reps you have left in reserve is very much a guess. But it can be an educated guess... which we'll cover in part 5 below


If you can do 14 reps but would fail the 15th, you will be able to do 12 reps with 2 RIR.


means ‘rate of perceived exertion’ and is scored out of 10 for lifting.

For most people, it’s simplest to think of this as similar to RIR


RPE 10 (out of 10) represents 0 remaining possible reps, 9rpe means you feel you could do 1 more rep, and so on.

Here is a table showing how RPE equates to reps in reserve.

This is taken from Reactive Training Systems


This is the percentage of your '1 rep max' which you should use for the set.

...(Note: 1 rep max aka "1rm" is the heaviest weight that you can lift once but which you could not lift for a 2nd rep, nor could you have handled ant additional weight for that single rep.)


If you know your 1rm for a back squat is 100kg, and the program calls for five reps at 80%, you will use 80kg for that set of 5 reps

...(Note: The first rep will feel like 80% of your 1rm but each subsequent rep after will feel heavier until the final rep feels much closer to 100%)

I don’t recommend using the %max system to prescribe intensity, unless you are in a barbell sport or strength sport or for some other reason you already know your 1rm for various lifts.

This is because testing your 1rm purely to know it for a program is a lot of work and other system can be easily used (RIR, RPE).

Also, 1rm testing requires a lot of skill in the lift and skill in the art of 1rm testing too.

Without those you will get a false reading.

If your program doesn’t prescribe an intensity level in some quantifiable way, get a proper program.

Part 2: Using Rep Ranges

You will often see the prescribed number of reps in a set written as a range, eg 8-12.

8-12 reps means if you can’t get at least 8 reps at the given intensity (see part 1) you should decrease the weight.

If you can get above 12+ reps you should increase weight

Part 3: What Counts As A Set?

Seems simple. 4 sets means do 4 sets. Not so fasst. It means do 4 sets at the given intensity. (See part 1 to understand intensity, RIR etc)


for heavier moves like a squat, it is common to warm up with lighter weights first.

So if the program calls for 4 sets of 10 reps at 2 RIR and you do

10 x 50kg

10 x 80kg

10 x 100kg

10 x 120kg

…assuming the last set finished at 2 RIR, we know the others were nowhere near 2 RIR and therefore they can’t be counted as ‘work sets’.

We will just chalk those down as warm ups.

You still need to do 3 more sets at 2 RIR, to complete the 4 sets - even if that means reducing the weight for your later sets.

Part 4: Common Mistakes

The most common mistake I see is... People saving themselves for the last set.

I often hear this type of feedback from beginners.

“I could have lifted 30kg but I only did 20kg coz I wouldn’t manage 4 sets of 10 at 30kg”.

It's an understandable mistake.

However... you don’t need to use the same weight or reps for all sets.

Just stick to the prescribed intensity (see part 1) and vary the weight and reps around that.

Part 5: Judging Intensity (RIR/RPE)

RIR and RPE are subjective ratings. They won’t always be exact and thats ok.

To get better at making these judgements you can do these things.


Go to failure occasionally.

Because its hard to know how far you are from somewhere you’ve never been to.

Do it safely eg with a spotter if needed.


Using the example of 2 RIR, play this game occasionally

-Do as many reps as you need to get yourself to 2rir

-Then without stopping the set, do 2 more reps and note your RIR again (“x”)

-Now without stopping the set, do “x” number of additional reps and note your new RIR (“x”)

-Repeat that last step until you reach failure.

It is not uncommon for people to finish that game with 2-3 times more reps than where they would have first guessed 2rir.


Make sure you are judging intensity / difficulty of the move on the intended body part.

Eg if you feel you’re running out of deadlift reps, ask yourself is the issue your hamstrings, lumbar, glutes? Or just your grip or maybe cardio?

Fix or ignore those other bottle necks, to bring your intended body parts to the desired RIR / RPE.

Part 6: Progressing Your Program

If you want to progress your results, you need to progress your workload. This is called Progressive Overload.

Each week (or as often as you can) progress the difficulty of each movement in one of the following ways (in order of preference)


weight... add 1-5kg

(if using gymnastic rings with feet on the floor,, lowering your rings by 3-6 inches will achieve the same effect).


reps... if you can't add weight add 1-3 reps


sets... if you can't do either, add 1-2 sets

If adding an extra rep or set; next week try to add weight by resetting the rep / set count

If that is not possible add yet another rep or set and try the following week to add weight by resetting the rep / set count.

Implementing This Info

Going forward you will be able to use this info to not only follow programs better, but also to discern between a well written program and something that is not worth your time.

What makes up a good program is much more than the features above of course.

The best programs will be custom made for you by a coach who has discussed your goals, history and current situation. This is the main way we work with clients here at Custom Fitness.

The next best option will be a program that allows for customisation and growth eg by providing rep ranges and intensity ranges. This way it can still be highly personalised, but cost is reduced.

We will soon be adding this service to the website, so keep an eye out and enquire here if interested.

If you have any questions on any of the above please leave a comment below.

Happy training! 💪

Coach Keith


Some common abbreviations you'll find in programs are...

BB - Barbell

DB - Dumbbell

ext - extensions

KB - kettlebell

mcn - machine

OH - Overhead

OHP - Overhead Press

RDL - Romanian Deadlift

BW - bodyweight

neutral - palms facing each other

SA - Single Arm

LPD - Lat Pull Down

p/s - per side

AMRAP - as many reps as possible

ss - superset

e/s - each side

RFE - rear foot elevated

FFE - front foot elevated

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