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September 11, 2022
RPE-based training is the newest trend to hit the fitness community, promising superior workout results. We've seen this a hundred times before, and while many of these trends are a fitness fail, RPE may just be the exception.
RPE stands for Rating of Perceived Exertion, and in a nutshell, it's a form of self-regulation in which your training is guided by how you feel. And no, we're not talking emotions like happy or sad here. We're talking muscle fatigue and physical sensations.
Studies have shown it can be extremely effective when used properly, so today we're covering all things RPE.
We'll go over:
Can you really use an RPE scale based on subjective measure to get strong? Let's see.
One of the greatest detriments to gym culture is simplistic memes that portray a false or exaggerated message. Perhaps the worst is: "No Pain, No Gain."
While experienced lifters understand the underlying message of this saying, we don't love phrases that imply you must push yourself until you feel pain. It's not good, or necessary.
Case in point, common questions typed into search engines involve things such as googling whether DOMS is necessary and if it's essential to be sore after working out. But over-training to the point of pain can lead to injury and burnout, which is exactly why it's crucial to monitor how you feel and your workout intensity.
This brings us to the primary focus of RPE training. We'll delve into the details below, but the RPE scale is used to monitor intensity and fatigue when lifting weights and during general activity.
In an ideal world, we would all be focused on good sleep habits and our nutrition would be on point 100% of the time. But that's obviously not how real life works.
The proposed variables mentioned above can greatly impact how we're feeling on any given day. So much so that our strength and energy levels can vary daily. As a result, a weight that is normally easy to lift might be more challenging on a day when we're tired or have low energy.
Instead of just going home because you can't perform the prescribed reps and load from your percentage-based training workout split, RPE takes these variables into account. Basically, it allows you to alter your training intensities based on how you feel.
It's obviously more complicated than that, so let's dive a little deeper.
RPE stands for "Rating of Perceived Exertion" and is a method of training that uses subjective feelings to judge exercise intensity. The original idea of using perceived exertion to rate intensity was constructed by researcher Gunnar Borg in 1982¹. So, in reality, it's been around for a while but has only become popular in strength training in the past decade or so.
Its original purpose was to provide a universal scale that individuals could use to distinguish the intensity of physical activity. Some of the uses Borg intended it for include medical, occupational, and sports purposes.
Borg created the original RPE scale to allow for a more precise explanation of how hard physical activity was and to allow patients to communicate more effectively in medical settings.
The Borg scale uses perceived exertion scales of 6-20 to distinguish training intensity. Here's a look at the ranges and the exertion level each represented.
As you can see, this allows a person to provide a much more accurate description of the intensity of an activity. So, we might rate a heart-pounding, high intensity assault bike workout as a 17, close to maximal exertion, and a slow walk around the block as a 7.
A common question is why 6-20?
The Borg scale rating scale was supposed to align with an elevated heart rate¹. For example, the activity is very easy if your heart rate is at 70BPM. While good in theory, Borg determined this wasn't a concrete method as people have different systems.
Regardless, it proved more confusing when introduced to the general public, and a new modified RPE scale was introduced that used a 1-10 range and 0.5 increments.
We finally get to the RPE scale that's most used in the fitness community. This scale also ranges from 1-10, but the 0.5 increments are rarely used. Further, you will basically only ever see 5-10 used.
The easiest way to think about the strength training RPE scale is by looking at its range matched with exercise intensity levels. For example:
Many people ask how to calculate RPE. In reality, you don't need to calculate it.
Remember that RPE is completely separate from using percentages. In other words, you will not need to calculate an approximation every session. Or any session. Ever. Just worry about crushing your leg workout - no math equations necessary.
That said, we'll give you some examples of what it looks like. This will let you associate some common rep schemes with RPE.
A common rep scheme used for strength training is 3 sets by 3 reps at 90%. If you use a 1-rep max chart, you will find that you can perform 4 reps with 90% of your 1RM. Therefore, if you lift a weight 3 times when you can lift it 4, that's about an RPE 7.5-8.5.
Now let's take 3 sets by 8 reps at 80%. Using 80% 1RM should allow 12 reps max. Therefore, you're around an RPE 7-7.5.
With this in mind, most of the time, you will use an RPE 7-8 for your lifts for hypertrophy. On occasion, you may go up to 9 or 10, but this is usually when you're either doing high-rep volume work for muscular endurance or performing maximum effort.
Reps in reserve is a recent evolution of the RPE scale that uses subjective measures for regulation. However, instead of asking, "What's your perceived exertion?" it asks, "How many more reps do you have in the tank?"
Reps in reserve, or RIR for short, is much easier to explain than the Borg RPE scale, modified or not. It simply makes you guess how many more reps you could potentially do.
For example, if you were told to perform a 225 pound bench press with a 2RIR, you would perform as many reps as you could until you felt you could do 2 more until failure.
This begs the question: Which is better? If you ask us, they're fairly equal. Both use subjective feelings to measure different intensities based on how your body feels. This means there will naturally be some errors regardless of which you use to determine your effort during your upcoming chest and shoulders workout.
Some have tried to correlate a 1:1 ratio between using an RIR scale and an RPE scale. For instance:
This only works if your maximum effort would allow 10 reps. For example, if your maximal effort only allowed 6 reps, a 2RIR would be very easy and feel lighter than an RPE 7.
However, there is some evidence that lifters are better at predicting RIR than RPE². Further, there's probably a higher number of people who prefer RIR simply because it's easier. But again, its effectiveness comes down to knowing yourself. The longer you've been lifting, the easier this will be for you to estimate.
That said, at the end of the day, a lifter is not really calculating his subjective feelings after every rep. It's more of an idea than hard science. So, if you find that one tends to be fairly accurate compared to the other, use it.
Using RPE is easy. You basically write out the same program (we suggest using the FITT principle to guide you when putting together a routine), except you use RPE instead of weight.
It's up to you if you prefer the modified RPE scale or want to stay old school with the Borg scale. As long as you understand it and are consistent, it doesn't matter.
Using RPE for strength training vs. hypertrophy is very simple as when you're training for strength, you’re working with heavier weight and low reps (1-6). In other words, you can't be that far off.
Strength training is where RPE's ability to determine fatigue shines. For example, pretend you want to work in the 3 rep range with 90% of your estimated 1 rep max being 100 pounds. A traditional rep scheme would be written as: 3x3 at 90 pounds. Using RPE training would simply forgo the 1 rep estimate and look like: 3x3 at RPE7-8.
Now again, this is just showing how the percentage looks different. In reality, you can do this for any rep you want to use in the strength spectrum of 1-6. For example:
So you see, the weight is indifferent. You just need to decide what your strength training program calls for.
Using RPE for building muscle isn't all too different, except you would use a rep scheme that allows higher reps of 8-12.
Again, apart from special circumstances, studies show that using an RPE7-9 is ideal³. While this should be what you aim for, don’t stress too much about being exact, especially when you first begin. Your ability to accurately judge physical sensations will improve the more you lift.
That said, remember that RIR tends to work better when judging the intensity of higher reps as seen in hypertrophy training.
The great thing about RPE training is that it's based on peer-reviewed studies. So let's look at the benefits of RPE when used in an actual training cycle.
As mentioned, RPE is a type of self-regulation as you work through your 6-day workout split. As a whole, we love self-regulation as it allows our training to adapt to how we're feeling. It basically allows us to perform optimally on any given day.
Many people will talk about how self-regulation is great for mitigating fatigue or adapting to a bad day. All of this is true, and we'll talk about that next.
There's also another way to look at this. Self-regulation allows you to rip it when you're feeling good! We've all had those days when we get to the gym, the weight feels light, our pre-workout is working overtime for us, and the bar speed is fast.
RPE allows us to add more weight and take advantage of those days! This does not mean you can go for a one rep max. It just means you should lift some heavy weights within the prescribed rep scheme.
The most useful benefit of RPE is to effectively keep fatigue in check. When used correctly, a lifter has a much lower chance of exerting himself or herself too hard.
For example, when using a load percentage, the lifter is locked into that rep scheme, whether it's 4x4 at 85% or 3x15 at 70%. Maybe they can handle this on a good day, but no one has good days 100% of the time.
This means that if a lifter has an off day at the gym, they must complete their program regardless of how they're feeling. Doing so puts the lifter at a greater chance of injury or missing the prescribed scheme, which can further demotivate them (we've all been there). Even if they hit the weight, it can be too much and further increase their fatigue, which is not ideal for muscle recovery.
However, if using RPE, they aren't forced to use a specific weight. Of course, the athlete needs to put in the appropriate effort, but they can lift according to their energy levels. Not only does this help keep the program a "success," but it also prevents the build-up of unnecessary fatigue and injuries.
But this isn't just theory, as scientific research backs it up and shows it does so at the physiological level. Studies show that athletes can effectively use RPE to progress while improving markers of fatigue such as blood lactate⁴.
Oh, and it's free!
If you have ever run a professional program that uses percentages, you know how complex they can get. Not only do you need to know your 1RM and personal gym record, you must also do a bunch of calculations for each session.
With RPE, you don't need any of that. You simply perform an exercise within the appropriate rep range. Keep doing this until you hit the appropriate RPE level.
Some lifters simply like the flexibility that self-regulation provides. This is especially true for the lifter who is busy or isn't emphasizing the importance of sleep as they're more prone to fatigue.
Again, you need to have that gym maturity to know when you're actually fatigued or just lazy. However, knowing you have a structured program that allows you freedom can make lifting more enjoyable as you don't have to use a specific weight.
From our personal experience, guys who use RPE tend to be very structured and train hard. They're just smart about it.
No method is going to be completely perfect. Here are a couple of the setbacks commonly seen with RPE training.
The key component of RPE training requires a self-reported analysis of body sensations. So right away, we have the human variable at the forefront, which guarantees some inaccuracy.
While lifters who have been around a while can report fairly accurately, beginners may struggle with this. It's not that they're lying about how hard an exercise is; rather, they just don't know what hard is.
If a trainee has not routinely completed a true one rep max, how can they use a scale based on that sensation? Further, if a trainee has never seen how many reps he can do until 100% muscle fatigue, how are they able to accurately judge?
This is actually the biggest reason new lifters should get a qualified trainer. Multiple studies have shown that when left to their own devices, novice lifters pick lighter weight and perform fewer reps when lifting alone than if they had some help.
Regardless of who is using it, RPE is still less accurate than an objective measure such as a percentage. People are people, and they make mistakes. It happens. That said, will it make much of a difference?
Mehhh. Not much, if any, especially in the long-term.
For theoretical purposes, consider that a good percentage of people lift in a gym with only 2.5 pound weight increases. This means they can only make 5 pound jumps when implementing progressive overload. In this situation, it's impossible to use the correct load using percentages, at least on a consistent basis.
While that affects RPE, the point is that only a portion of lifters even have the correct equipment to be precise.
It's clear that a person's state of fatigue can influence perceived exertion. This is based on a true physiological relationship. However, a few stimuli commonly seen in the gym can artificially alter our perception.
For example, one of the main benefits of caffeine is that it can decrease pain perception and can lower RPE responses⁶. This seems to be seen more in taking pre-workout for cardio training, but we can also see this play out in the weight room.
Music is also another common stimuli in the gym, and it can also lower the RPE response to training⁷.
This is not intended to criticize RPE, as we think it's great. Rather, we're highlighting this to further illustrate its vulnerability, so you can be aware as you're using it.
While we like using RPE and find it very useful, it does not mean everyone should use it in their fitness routine. As mentioned above, the primary drawback is that it requires a person to have a very good grasp of how hard they can actually push. Further, it's just not totally necessary for some populations. Here's who should avoid RPE.
There's no need for a novice lifter to utilize the RPE scale for three reasons:
Even if this group does become too fatigued, it's because of unideal programming, and RPE won't help. Beginners should keep it nice and simple and focus on adding weight and perfecting their form as they work through an effective program, like this great 3-day workout split.
There is nuance to the subject, but RPE training is usually seen in strength training rather than with bodybuilders. The best bodybuilders try to build up volume with a large portion of sets taken to near-failure.
In other words, a bodybuilder could use RPE, but every exercise would be prescribed RPE9. While those training for hypertrophy can still use RPE, it's not really needed most of the time. In these situations, it may be useful to just use RPE for the first couple exercises.
Now, let's look at who should use RPE-based training.
A non-lifting athlete's training usually emphasizes managing fatigue, especially around their sports season. Their lifting routine is designed to support their athletic performance so their gym goals look different than those of recreational lifters.
Therefore, using a system that is built on managing fatigue makes perfect sense.
Intermediate and advanced strength training programs is where RPE-based training really shines and is used most often. These lifters not only have the strength required, but also a good sense of gym maturity.
A great thing about RPE-based training is combining it with other training methods. In fact, good programs will mix RPE with percentage-based training. For example, look for a hypertrophy program that prescribes a specific rep scheme for the first couple of exercises, which are typically the most important ones, with the rest of the training based on RPE.
When the big moves are finished, you then have some freedom with the load and rep scheme for the remaining exercises. Of course, you still need to fall within the given range.
For example, it may look like this:
As you can see, a target rep range is still prescribed. However, instead of weight, an RPE level or range is used. Again, the point is that it's being used to describe how hard a lifter should lift for successful hypertrophy training.
In conjunction with the above section, while the RPE is very effective in managing fatigue, you must still progressive overload! This just means that you will need to continue to monitor your loads and gradually increase the intensity.
This can be done in various ways. Some will pay attention to the final rep to calculate if they can add more. Others will use periodization training models.
Just remember that RPE is a tool to use in conjunction with progressive overload. Be sure to monitor your training log to ensure you're progressing over time.
We love RPE and self-regulation in general. And trends in the strength and conditioning world suggest we're not the only ones. This is likely due to increased awareness of the effects of fatigue.
While objective, the use of monitoring bar speed in velocity training is another non-percentage method to prescribe loads. If anything, this tells us the importance of keeping fatigue in check and recovery on point. With those taken care of, your gains will soar.
If at all interested, we highly suggest all qualified lifters try RPE or RIR during your next barbell back day. You'll probably dig it.
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