Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is simply a subjective measure of how hard you feel you are working during a particular set or exercise. It is a very valuable tool for powerlifters and weightlifters to accurately measure and adjust their training intensity on a set to set, session to session basis. If used properly, incorporating RPE based training will keep you healthier in the long term and ensure you’re not overtraining/undertraining, which can ultimately lead to less injury and more progress in the gym.
In this blog, we will discuss the benefits of using RPE, how to build an internal scale for intensity using RPE, and provide tips for implementing RPE into your training programs.
Benefits of Using RPE
One of the biggest benefits of using RPE is that it allows the athlete to train at the appropriate intensity level for their goals and abilities. This is particularly important for intermediate to advanced lifters who have already established their one-rep maxes and need a more nuanced approach to training intensity. Not every lifter responds the same to every program, some lifters will be more effective with a higher intensity and some will be more effective with a higher volume load. If you’ve been around the gym long enough, you’ve seen lifters that can hit their 85-90% for multiple reps easily and look like they’re ready to crush a new PR, but then get crushed when attempting to go heavier. On the other hand some lifters look terrible at any set involving more than three reps but can grind through heavy singles all day. It is hard to meet the programming needs of both populations if you are working with traditional loading prescriptions (3×5@70%, etc).
Wherever you are on your barbell, strength training or powerlifting journey, you’re going to understand what it feels like to put a barbell on your back or in your hands. Some days the weight feels how you expect it to feel, some days it feels light and some days it feels like an impossible task. If you powerlift or weightlift long enough you quickly realize the weight is not always going to feel the same to you every day. So many factors can go into this, such as how you slept, how you ate, how you recovered from the previous session, etc…. Being able to autoregulate on days the weight feels unexpectedly heavy or light to you is going to drastically increase your chances of progressing in the short and long term.
This is exactly where an RPE scale comes into play, programming reps at perceived intensities allows each lifter a more individualized training session. The lifter that can push volume more will have a very different relationship and intensity with a prescription of “Perform 8 reps at RPE 8” than other lifters. Ultimately, what matters most on any given training session is that you hit the proper intensity/load for that session as opposed to just being guided by a percentage that may Overshoot or Undershoot how you feel on that day
Now there are some problems with using RPE; it’s by no means a perfect system.
The main problem with RPE is that it is a completely subjective tool. We cannot objectively, and with 100% reliability, say what exact RPE a squat was. Everyone moves differently and some people will have faster or slower bar speeds. From an objective standpoint, we have to understand that using RPE does introduce a higher level or unreliability at times.
This is especially true for Novice lifters, Usually when you start you havent developed a good self awareness for how weight should feel, You just lack the reps and experience of training so it becomes easier to overshoot or undershoot your RPE prescription and this can also lead to overtraining or undertraining.
So that’s basically the catch, Just like there is a learning curve to barbell training, there is a learning curve to using RPE. Identifying how specific RPEs feel and look to you will take some time. What you perceive as an RPE 7 may look completely different than your training partner. And it may look and feel completely different on a week to week basis. But, the more you use it, 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 looks like, and the more you begin to refine YOUR OWN INTERNAL RPE SCALE!
Ok so how do we go about building our own internal RPE scale???
Wel. it starts by having a set framework we work off of on a day to day continuous basis. If you look online you will find a thousand good examples but below you’ll see ours:
A couple tips that i think are helpful to use or know are:
- Record your sets! It’s very helpful to be able to watch your videos and then be able to associate how it looked with how it internally felt
- After you finish the last rep, but before you rack it, ask yourself: “How many more reps could I really have done?
- Have your coach watch your sets and ask him what he thought the RPE was, having that extra insight will sometimes help you adjust your own internal scale especially as a beginner
- Generally speaking 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 the more sets you do because of fatigue accumulation in a training session. For instance 3×5 @ RPE 8 may not all be at the same weight, the third set will feel harder because you’ve accumulated fatigue so the same weight may end up being a higher RPE.
If you are just starting off on one of our programs or just starting to implement RPE training in general don’t expect to get this perfect right away. There will be days you overshoot and undershoot your training. THAT’S OK! It may take you a long time to confidently rate your sets properly but everyone starts somewhere! Again the best thing you can do is record your sets. Ask yourself immediately after finishing a set, “How many more reps could i really have done?” Lastly, get a good coach or training partner to watch you lift! This is such an important and almost entirely overlooked part of it! Your movement quality and efficiency play such a huge role in how things feel and how the bar moves and if you’re moving poorly everything is going to feel heavy!