RPE: Am I Doing This Right?!

You’ve been barbell training for a while. Maybe today’s your first day under the bar. Wherever you are on your strength journey, you know that putting weight on your back, or in your hands, feels some type of way. Some days the weight feels how you expect it to feel like, some days it feels like  loose-leaf paper, and other days it feels like a humpback whale.

Let’s face it: sometimes the same weight feels different than what you expect or exactly like you expect.

Understanding how our bodies feel weight is as important as defining the weight with a concrete number. Having a subjective way to express how our body interprets load serves to tune us in to our perception of it. 225 lbs will always be 225 lbs, but sometimes it may feel light as a feather and other times it may feel like an 18-wheeler. In turn, having this ability to express how we feel on a particular day can help us fine tune our training, adjust it, and improve our ability to get stronger while reducing our risk of injury and over training.

So what’s the secret, Rori?

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

RPE is nothing new to the world of exercise and was first discussed by Dr. Gunnar Borg of Stockholms University in the 1970s. The Borg Scale is a standard measurement tool and is most known for its use in cardiovascular exercise. In recent years, the use of RPE has weaseled its into strength training. Since PRS utilizes RPE with the majority of our strength trainees, we'll talk about RPE for you folks.

What’s RPE, you ask?

RPE is a subjective measure of how you perceive the intensity of exercise to be in the moment. Basically, how hard you feel like you’re working. RPE takes into account perceptions of your heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate, sweating, and muscle fatigue. The RPE scale is a scale that ranges from 1-10 and was popularized in the field of barbell training by world-class lifter and programmer, Mike Tuchscherer, and is now widely used in the strength training world in many capacities. While the scale ranges from 1 to 10, values less than 5 are not super important for strength or hypertrophy training. RPEs less than 5 are considered for warm-up and technical adjustment so they aren’t talked about much in strength training.

Ok, hold on, we need to discuss something first...

When looking at the value of measurement tools in exercise and science it’s important to understand the difference between objective and subjective tools. Objective tools have definitive values and unit measures that have a miniscule margin of error, high repeatability, and excellent interrater reliability. This means that no matter who is taking the measurement, the same (or nearly the same) value or outcome will be produced. Tendo units, surface electromyography (EMG), and isokinetic machines are some examples of objective measures you might be familiar with. Objective tools specifically quantify something about the movement, are standardized, and are consistent between people and within the same person.

In contrast to objective measurement tools there are also subjective tools used to give insight into the quality of the movement and can vary greatly within and amongst individuals. Motion analysis in a real-time coaching scenario is one example of a subjective form of assessment. For a person to analyze movement there must be some standard, or model, in their brain that they’re judging or comparing a movement to. Let’s take a squat for instance. You have this model of how a squat should look in your head. Then you see someone squatting and it looks way different from your model. You’ve identified technical deviations in form based on your subjective analysis.

Another example is visually assessing bar speed. It’s possible to subjectively assess that one rep moves faster or slower, stops moving, has a somewhat even tempo or varied tempo through a rep and among reps, but in a visual sense only. There is no concrete value to assign to each rep, so this is considered subjective. While subjective assessment measures have higher variability and less reliability than objective measurement tools they have an important purpose in strength training.

So why do they exist and why do we use them?  Well, that’s a great question!

For the general strength trainee, recreational athlete, and even high level, elite lifters, using objective measurement tools like computer generated motional analysis, isokinetic tests, force plates, tendo units, EMG (the list goes on), is not feasible due to cost of the equipment and convenience in terms of training. So, in non-laboratory and non-performance testing center settings, the visual eye of the coach, training partners and your internal sensations become super important to make intra-session and inter-session training decisions.

Enter: RPE.

RPE is a valuable tool that helps us understand and respond to our training. It’s cheap (oh yeah!), it’s not tangible so it doesn’t need to be set up (thank goodness, who has extra time these days?), and it adapts to YOU over time. Using RPE over a long period of time can help you (and your coach if you have one) track and interpret your training as well as be a useful tool in conjunction with visuals (whether in real-time or video submission) for your coach.

Here’s the catch: because RPE is subjective and you can’t see or feel it, it’s not easily understood and utilized by everyone. Just like there is a learning curve to barbell training (ehemmm...do you remember the day you first put a barbell on your back?! Baby deer!) there is a learning curve to using RPE. It takes some time to begin to identify how certain RPEs feel and look to you. What you perceive as an RPE 7 may look completely different than your training partner. But, the more you use it, and the more you can associate what you “feel” with what you see in a video, or what your coach or training partner says your set looked like, the more you begin to refine what your RPE scale is.

OK, can you please explain how this RPE thing works? Sure! It’s pretty simple.

The portion of the RPE scale we care most about is RPE 6 through 10. Each RPE is associated with feeling like you have a certain number of reps “left in the tank” after the LAST rep of the set you’re doing. Whole number RPEs are “definitive” reps left in the tank and a .5 means you have a definitive number of reps and “maybe one more” left in the tank. Ok, maybe that’s a little confusing so I’ll give you an example: RPE 8 means I definitely have 2 more reps in the tank whereas RPE 8.5 means I definitely have 1, maybe 2 reps left in the tank. I use the word “definitely” in both scenarios lightly, because, after all, this is SUBJECTIVE, folks!

Below is an RPE chart with mindset and speed descriptors that can help you assign an RPE your set.

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A couple of things to know when it comes to RPE (and why it’s super subjective!):

  • After you finish the last rep, but before you rack it, ask yourself: “How many more reps could I really have done?”

  • The higher the RPE is, the more “accurate” it will be and the lower an RPE is the less “accurate” it will be.

  • Higher volume sets (aka sets with more reps) are harder to gauge than lower volume sets.

  • RPE for the same load can change in a training session the more sets you do.

What RPEs are best for your goals?

  • RPE 8-9 is good for strength-focused, higher intensity and lower volume training.

  • RPE 6-7.5 is good for hypertrophy-focused, lower intensity and higher volume training.

  • RPE 9.5-10 should be used sparingingly and is associated with technical breakdown and increased injury risk.

  • RPE 7.5-8.5 is best for a well-rounded strength-building program with moderate intensity and volume.*

*This RPE range minimizes injury risk exposure because when there is moderate volume there is less form breakdown from fatigue at high rep/light weights and there is less form breakdown and physiological overload from super high intensities.

The RPE Learning Curve:

If this is your first day taking RPE for a spin, don’t expect you’ll get it right on your first try. It’s going to take some time to refine your RPE skills. And how long it takes isn’t the same for everyone! Newbie lifters will take a pretty long time to develop their RPE skills. Probably just as long as it takes them to run out their novice gains! Why? Because sh*t is easy in the beginning whether you think it is or not! Most new weights “feel” heavy to a novice lifter because, plain and simple, they haven’t lifted challenging weights or been exposed to true grit and grind! But, for a good chunk of time those “hard” sets still move and look super fast so it takes a bit for a novice’s internal RPE scale to fine tune itself and match the speed of their lifts.

This. Is. Not. To. Say. a novice shouldn’t use RPE. Quite the contrary! Novices SHOULD use RPE in the early stages of their training careers so they can TRAIN their RPE scale just like they train each lift and allow it to adapt over the course of their training.

What novices SHOULDN’T DO is use RPE to choose their loads. They should simply practice assigning RPE to the loads they are doing each session.

During this time, coaches, training partners, and smartphone recordings can help you correlate what you feel with what you see. You’ll notice as you become a more advanced novice that your RPE skills become tighter and match a bit better to your bar speed. This is a great tool as your novice gains begin to wear out and can help you transition each lift into intermediate programming.

If you’ve been using RPE for a while you probably know that feeling, “oh boy, 135lb feels like 315lb. Today’s gonna be a tough session.” Or, “wooooweeee 315lb moved like 135lb, today we’re gonna PR!” For intermediate and advanced lifters RPE is great to help programming do what it’s intended to do. If you’ve got a 3x4 at 405lb programmed for the day and the first set is an all out grind (RPE 9.5-10), that’s a good indication that maybe it’s not a great idea to do the remaining sets at 405lb. So you’ll be tuned in to adjusting the load to avoid missing reps and possibly overtraining or hurting yourself. If the prescribed loads are too hard or too easy, this can give you an indication that maybe the program needs to be adjusted. RPE can also be used to find loads for each training session instead of using prescribed loads. The differences and benefits are beyond the scope of this article but both have a place and time and are great methods if used appropriately.

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So now that we’ve got an understanding of why RPE is a subjective tool, what it means, and how it varies depending on where you are in your training lifetime, how do you start using it or refining it?

Here’s the down and dirty way to start using RPE:

  1. Print out, take a screenshot, or write the scale above on your hand (just make sure not to fall asleep at your desk!).

  2. In your next training session ask yourself “how many more reps do I have left in the tank?” after each set. Too easy to count? No need to assign an RPE.

  3. Film your last warm up and all your working sets on your smartphone.

  4. Look at the video and see if the bar speed matches with the RPE you thought it felt like was.

  5. Compromise and assign an RPE in the middle of what you thought it felt like and what it looks like to you on video.

If you do this for a few weeks you’ll start to have a good sense of what your RPE scale is. You can also check yourself by asking your training partners and coach (if you have one) to chime in. The more input you have, the more you come to realize RPE. Tag us in a video on Instagram (@prorehabstrength) so we chime in and help you with your RPE practice!

Need a little more help? Check out our coaching options where you’ll get weekly video analysis, custom programming, and weekly review of your PRS training log so we can really refine your RPE skills together.

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