There have been few ideas in the field of strength and conditioning lately that have been more controversial than that of RPE. What is RPE? The term stands for rating of perceived exertion (RPE), and it’s been around for quite some time.
Rating of Perceived Exertion
Gunnar Borg developed the scale as a quantitative measurement of perceived exertion during physical activity. While obviously subjective in nature (considerable discrepancies will be seen across population samples, given the same stimulus), it can be viewed as a step in the right direction for providing exercise / physical activity prescriptions that best serve an individual given their current circumstances or fitness level. This seems like a great idea, right? Well, it is for the most part but there are some caveats that need to be considered and worked through if a coach and athlete are to use RPE productively during a training program.
Endurance to Power Athletics
Traditionally, RPE has been used in endurance athletics. Given the absurdity of prescribing exact pacing, it’s commonplace to see prescriptions like 30 min @ 13 (Borg’s scale originally ranged from 6-20). You can already see how some issues may arise, given such a prescription. What the hell is a 13? His (Gunnar’s) idea was to somewhat correlate the numbers with the heart rate of the athlete. For example, a rating of 13 would loosely correlate to about 130 bpm (beats per min). Again, there is much variation from athlete to athlete but that was the idea. And, it’s fairly accurate, given the athlete is of “average anatomy, skill, conditioning, etc., etc. Despite the initial issues a coach / athlete may have with 30 min @13, it’s far better (in the long run) than using an absolute prescription, say 30 min @ 80% of your 1 mile pace. Much can change in regards to an athlete’s ability to perform on any given day, most of which are out of their control. Certainly out of the coaches control. Having a flexible prescription that meets the athlete where he/she is on a given day is something coaches should aim for over time.
In the early 2000s, powerlifting coach Mike Tuscherer of Reactive Training Systems began using RPE to prescribe the intensity (or effort) of each set for his athletes. He revised the scale to better suit his athlete’s needs. Rather than the cumbersome 6-20 scale, Mike use a 6-10 scale. Given that your heart rate isn’t all that important in weight lifting and most exercises (in powerlifting anyhow) will be done for 10 or less reps, the scale seems to make a lot of sense. Most notably, it does NOT make the false assumption that a 5×5 session @80% is a universal stimulus. This prescription may kill one athlete while it under stimulates another. Furthermore, the athlete himself may find the prescription “fine” one day and “dreadful” another, given he’s probably a human and humans aren’t machines. A more useful prescription might be something like 5×5 @7-8RPE, this prescription gives the athlete a lot of information:
- Total # of Sets
- Total # of Reps
- Approximate Intensity / Effort (given his/her readiness for the day)
Most notably, the 5×5 @7-8RPE gives the athlete some wiggle room. The idea is that the athlete above might not have 80% of his previous 1 rep max test capacity on this day. He most certainly wouldn’t have 80% of his previous meet performance that day, given the variance in training and testing. The athlete can always give 80% of his current best on that day though and it’s this idea that we’re going to discuss today.
My hope is that I can give you 3 useful ways to begin implementing RPE into your strength training.
Method 1: Descriptive RPE
When we bring a new athlete into our gym, we teach them the basics, a squat, press, bench press, and deadlift. Every athlete will train some version of these basic lifts, with adjustments being made to suit their needs (preference, anatomy, injury status, etc.). Additionally, we keep the programming very simple. We often ask the athlete to perform somewhere between 1-3 sets of 5-10 reps per exercise. Our progression method is just as simple, we generally ask them to add 2.5 to 5 lbs. per session. This is a great way of meeting the athlete where they are at that time. We’re already asking them to show up, put on weightlifting shoes, grab a barbell (some of them for the first time), get under it 2-3 x per week, and perform challenging exercises. Furthermore, we’re asking them to show improvement nearly every session. This seems to be a good place to stop asking them to do new / difficult stuff until they have been training for a bit.
After some training, the athlete will have gotten used to the idea of showing up 2-3 x per week and working hard to get better at these basic strength exercises. It’s at this point where the prescription begins to increase in complexity. Sometimes we add exercises to the program, sometimes we change rep schemes, but most notably we begin asking the athlete to “assess the effort given during their work sets” that day. This usually happens about the time the athlete’s work sets start slowing down. This can be a while in the making, given our tendency to start light with each athlete, and their tendency to show up without any experience. At this point the athlete will begin to assess how many “reps were in the tank” during their work sets. Whether the athlete knows it or not, we’re introducing the idea of RPE. Again, at this point, we keep it simple by using a straightforward scale:
- @6 = athlete could perform 4 more reps
- @7 = athlete could perform 3 more reps
- @8 = athlete could perform 2 more reps
- @9 = athlete could perform 1 more rep
- @10 = maximal effort, athlete could not perform another rep
Practically speaking, this discussions starts when the athlete begins hitting sets the coaches feel are ~ @8. This will be most notable by reduction of bar speed during the working sets. Again, at this point, the athlete is to show up, add a bit of weight and tell us how many reps were left in the tank. Easy enough. However, what we have found is that skipping this step (assessing the effort) leaves the athlete woefully unprepared for later training blocks. As an athlete becomes “less beginner” or “more trained”, he/she will find more and more variation in their daily performance potential. The reason we can tell an athlete to add 5 lbs. is because we started very light, and we started light because they weren’t good at lifting weights yet. It’s pretty simple, right? This isn’t a dig at beginner athletes either, when I started playing guitar it sounded like someone was stepping on a cat. You’ve got to understand that poor performance is to be expected with beginners, beginners have to expect it as well or they won’t become intermediates. Given these obvious facts about beginner trainees, we find it reasonably unproductive to introduce RPE calculations this early on, however, we find it of the upmost importance to begin having the discussion at some point.
As an athlete becomes “less beginner” or “more trained”, he/she will find more and more variation in their daily performance potential.
In the above scenario, we are asking the athlete to assess his/her effort after the set has been completed, hence the idea of “descriptive RPE”. This seems to work best using this idea of “reps in reserve” as we’ve noted above. As you can see, RPE = 10 – the rating = the number of reps left. This is my personal favorite way to introduce the concept of RPE to athletes and hopefully gives us some level of precision in our assessment. Future articles will discuss other “metrics” that can be utilized to assess RPE.
Method 2: Prescriptive RPE for a New Exercise
Now that the athlete has been training for some time, we can begin adding new exercise variations or rep ranges into their programming more effectively. This is very simple to do once the athlete understands the concept of RPE.
We often begin training programs (we call them blocks) with an Intro Week. During this intro week, we keep the programming stress light to medium. We may have the athlete work to a top set and not perform any “back off
work. This will provide a slight stress reduction (recovery promotion) as well as help the athlete “settle into their program” by giving them time to assess any new exercise variations. Let’s discuss an example.
Bill has completed his Intro / Beginner block of training. We’ve determined (with Bill’s input) that some higher volume work might be beneficial so we’ve decided to introduce the belt squat as a tertiary “squat” exercise. Bill has never performed the belt squat before and therefore has no idea of his “performance potential”. Furthermore, since the exercise is “new”, his performance capacity will likely change readily during the first few weeks of his new training program. What should Bill do?
We’ve decided that Bill will perform sets of 10 on the belt squat, this should provided an added bit of volume and compliment his primary squat performance. We know that Bill’s estimated 1RM for his primary squat is ~ 300 lbs., while this information doesn’t give us an idea of what he will be doing for sets of 10 on the belt squat, it at least gives us an idea of how to begin working up.
Bill’s belt squat prescription for his Intro Week looks like this:
- 10 reps @7
- 10 reps @8
- 10 reps @9
We’ve done a couple of things here for Bill. First, we had him work up using the target rep scheme (10s in this case), this is incredibly valuable when aiming for a specific rep / RPE scheme. Can you imagine working up in 5s, 3s, and 1s to a top set of 10? It won’t go well, we’ve tried it. So, as Bill starts to feel like “work” is happening, he’ll be able to assess his approximate RPE for each set. Secondly, we’ve worked Bill to a top set. Why? Everyone knows what an @9 feels like … it’s damn hard. While much of the program Bill may work in the @8 area, starting off an Intro week with a work up to an @9 is a great way for the athlete to calculate an estimated 1 rep max (a method we’ll discuss next). This will give Bill an “idea” of his weights each week.
The 5% rule
Working off our method above, we’re asking the athlete to find an top set. In the example we used sets of 10 but it can be any rep scheme for any exercise. Many times, athletes will ask why we note the @7, @8, @9 instead of just noting an @9. We do this because as the athlete starts to reach his/her top set, they can make more informed jumps (ie weight increases). We use a simple 5% metric to get this done. Once the athlete rates a set at an @7, he/she will add ~ 5% to the bar and this will likely result in the next set being an @8 (this assumes adequate rest between those sets). How much rest, check out our article: Rest Between Sets. As you might expect, another 5% increase will likely result in an @9 or top set in this case. While this method isn’t always accurate, you’ll be surprised how well it works. We also use this concept to determine how much weight we drop for our “back off” work.
“We test our athletes quarterly because it’s fun and helps us gauge the productivity of our training ideas“.
Method 3: Using an Estimated 1 Rep Max
At this point in the athlete’s training career, they should have built up a good database of information on the basic exercises. It would be incredibly useful for the coach to take the next step and teach the athlete how to calculate their estimated 1 rep max for a given lift.
We’ve already discussed using RPE as a descriptor as well as how to prescriptively “work up” and find a top set. These are important skillsets for coaches and athletes that plan to use RPE in training and now we’re simply going to combine those methods.
You’ll find a chart below that correlates a rep scheme / percentage of estimated 1 rep max / and associated RPE. While this chart isn’t perfectly “right” for everyone, it’s a great place to start. Discrepancies will always exist but athletes can begin calculating their approximate 1 rep max on a given exercise using tools such as the chart below. It should be noted that there are many such charts that can be found online so while I personally like (and use) this chart, it isn’t “The RPE Chart” by any means.
Here is a practical example:
Our lifter Bill worked up to a top set of 10 for his belt squat prescription. He was able to hit 250 lbs. x 10 reps @9RPE. We can use the chart below to approximate his estimated 1 rep max (on this day) for the belt squat.
250/.65 = ~ 385 lbs. Why is this an “estimated 1 rep max”, because Bill hasn’t actually done a single rep at 385 lbs., rather we’re using it to prescribe working volume throughout his current block of training. Functionally, this works much like a traditional percentage based program except it allows us to :
- add exercises we don’t have a 1 rep max estimation for
- adjust the weight selection each day based on readiness to perform
It’s sort of a smarter way to use percentage prescriptions while simultaneously giving the athlete the tools needed to evaluate and auto-regulate their training. It’s about as good as programming prescriptions can get if you ask me.
Give the above methods a shot in your training if you haven’t started doing so already. We’ve found that flexible exercise prescriptions correlate to the best athlete growth over time. In future articles, we’ll address some factors that disrupt recovery and thus make flexible prescriptions necessary.
If you’re already familiar with RPE and the methods discussed above, please drop us a line and let us know how they’re working for you!
Good luck with your training friends!
James Harris, MPT
Owner, Physical Therapist