Using RPE in Novice Training

Training and Fatigue Management

Anyone that’s done any serious training for any appreciable length of time can espouse the importance of staying healthy and managing the fatigue associated with repeatedly picking up heavy shit. In today’s article we’re going to discuss some practical strategies for dealing with fatigue for novice trainees. We’re going to discuss a little history on the subject, some key terms, and finally some practical applications.

Trainee Classifications

To provide a little clarification I’m going to lay out the classification system we use here at the gym. Having a general classification system helps us determine what type of strength programming might work best for any given athlete. It’s important to remember that these classifications, while useful, aren’t set in stone and do not exist with hard boundaries. Our continuum includes 2 broad categories and are based on programmatic needs.

Novice Trainees

For programming purposes we define a novice as any trainee NOT NEEDING any special fluctuations in programmatic variety (intensity, volume) NOR do they need specific time periods devoted to any particular quality (hypertrophy, strength, etc.). This is in direct contrast to traditional programs that last ~ 12 weeks and work from hypertrophy phases down to power or peaking phases. The wise coach would recognize that his novice trainees can make progress with no variation in volume, intensity, sets, or reps. If progress can be made faster, we would argue that it should be done that way.

Post-Novice Trainees

The post-novice trainee will certainly require fluctuations in programmatic variety (volume, intensity) and may also benefit from specific time periods devoted to particular qualities. A typical post-novice program might utilize sets of 8 at the beginning of the week with 3s in the middle, and 5s (#fahves) at the end. Additionally, we may utilize greater exercise variation in post-novice programming (competition squats, front squats, pin squats, etc.). Further articles will focus on post-novice training programs, for the purpose of this article I’d like to discuss the novice in greater detail.

Perceived Exertion

In the 1950’s a researcher named Gunnar Borg was working on a numerical scale to assess how patients “perceived their workload”. The idea was to develop a quantitative assessment of their perceived exertion during a given physical activity. While the idea was a bit radical at the time, the Borg Perceived Exertion Scale is now commonly used in the fields of medicine, numerous occupations, and a wide array of sports training methodologies. In medicine, the scale has been adapted to reflect perception of shortness or breath, angina, and musculoskeletal pain.

The original Borg scale ranges 6 (no exertion) to 20 (maximal exertion) and has since gone through several clinical adaptations (CR 10 scale). While these values are a bit odd, many healthcare practitioners have observed the loose correlation of perceived exertion and heart rate. For example, during a treadmill test a patient reports an exertion level of 10/20 and the practitioner may observe this value loosely correlates to 100 beats per minute, likewise, an exertion reporting of 15/20 would loosely correlate to 150 beats per minute. Of course, factors such as training history, familiarity with the test, and chronological age would greatly disrupt this relationship, so it’s a loose correlation at best.

Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

  • 6 (no exertion)
  • 9 (very light)
  • 11 (light)
  • 13 (somewhat hard)
  • 15 (hard)
  • 17 (very hard)
  • 19 (extremely hard)
  • 20 (maximal exertion)

As you can see, the scale is logical and pretty easy to use, particularly with the added heart rate component. With a little practice, one can reliably discuss how they are feeling during a given physical activity. Traditionally, the Borg RPE scale has been used for exercise prescription and programming conversation in endurance athletics (marathoners, cyclists, etc.), however, around 2005 Mike Tuscherer of Reactive Training Systems, began implementing an adapted RPE scale for the purposes of powerlifting. Over the past 10-12 years the scale has been gaining acceptance and popularity. This is likely for a couple of reasons (1) Mike’s athletes are brutally strong AND healthy, and (2) fatigue and exertion are there in your training whether your’e rating them or not. Accepting and understanding RPE only gives coaches and athletes another language with which to discuss training. Of course there are many coaches and athletes that simply don’t think RPE can be accurately used to prescribe training, the often cited reasons include (1) it’s too hard to be accurate, and (2) people need to “sack up” and get it done. While it does take some time to get familiar with the scale, it’s far from “too difficult to get right”. Rather, it forces the athlete to think, if only for a few seconds, about their training and that really isn’t too much to ask. With a logical progression and a little practice, anyone can accurately use RPE.

RPE Scale for Resistance Training (RT)

  • @7 (could do 3 more reps)
  • @8 (could do 2 more reps)
  • @9 (could do 1 more rep)
  • @10 (maximal exertion, could not do any more reps)

With Mike’s modified scale, we are using an @10 to represent a maximal effort. This makes sense as we’re not looking at heart rate response during resistance training but rather we’d like to talk in terms of our perceived maximal number of reps possible at a given intensity (weight). Some athletes and coaches will also implement half RPEs in an attempt to be even more accurate (@8.5 for example). This can be useful but not necessary as we’re not really concerned with laser precision, we simply want to use a language that represents the effort with reasonable quantitative value.

At Brentwood Barbell we introduce RPE in our NOVICE linear progression program. During this time, the athlete is practicing the “main” barbell lifts often, completing schedule weight increases per session (5 lbs for lower body lifts and 2.5 lbs for upper body lifts) and also assessing their “effort” per set. It’s important to note that novice trainees have the most difficulty implementing RPE as they have no training experiences with which to draw from. Why do we use it during their LP then? Simple, we want them to practice using it now so they can be better at it later. As stated previously, they are going to perform their scheduled weight increases regardless … why not take the time to write down how hard it was. Even if it’s way off base, with a few weeks of training they’ll get better. Ultimately, the use of RPE will move from descriptive to prescriptive. Let’s take a closer look.

Brentwood Barbell Novice LP

Session A

  • Squats 3-6 reps x 3 sets @9
  • Bench Press 3-6 reps x 3 sets @9
  • Dead Lift 3-6 reps x 1 set @9

Session B

  • Squats 3-6 reps x 3 sets @9
  • Press 3-6 reps x 3 sets @9
  • Dead Lift 3-6 reps x 1 set @9

As you can see the trainee is getting a lot of good basic barbell practice. He is making his scheduled jumps of 5 and 2.5 lbs respectively and working a simple A-B-A, B-A-B weekly rotation. Let’s unpack some of the additional information included in this layout above.

Fatigue Management via Rep Drops

You’ll notice a rep range for each exercise (3-6). We’ve chosen that range as it represents the best place to start for both strength and hypertrophy gainzZz. As the novice continues his/her progression we would expect the RPEs to slowly increase because he/she is adding weight every session. This will certainly take some weeks but make no mistake, eventually @9-10 will fill the notebook along side his/her training numbers. As the RPEs begin climbing for 6s, the novice can simply “drop a rep” to stay within his/her desired RPE. Here’s an example of a squat session using these concepts:


  • 6 reps @10
  • 5 reps @9
  • 4 reps @8

In this example our novice hit a ball-busting initial set going all out. Excellent, he is getting better and learning how to train. He was also wise enough (with the help of his RPEs and the coaching staff) not to kill himself. At the end of the day, he hit 15 reps at an average intensity of @8, this will allow him to continue his linear progression for longer than simply “sacking up and getting 6”. Additionally, training the rest of the week is far more likely to be manageable.

After the novice (linear) phase of training, there are more advanced versions that associate percentages of estimated 1 rep maxes with a given RPE (for example, 5 reps @7RPE correlates to 79% of your estimated 1 rep max). This is a bit down the road in terms of using RPE prescriptively but becomes very useful after the novice phase of training.

Keeping Stress Productive

While the novice program is built upon increasing absolute intensity, ulimately the use of RPE, will allow us to prescribe relative intensity rather than absolute (weight on the bar). While this ambiguity is annoying for some athletes and coaches, prescribing absolute intensity is really not a great long term option. It’s incredibly inaccurate and inappropriate to work with an athlete based on the assumption of some fixed capacity. On a good day an athlete may exceed is his/her previous performance best by 5-10%. Variability in performance of course works in the opposite direction as well. Nutrition, sleep, and other life stresses all play major roles in your ability to lift a barbell on any given day. “Sacking up” is cool and I’m not suggesting that you can’t or shouldn’t work your ass off … you should, but hitting triples @87% off a number you hit 3 months ago might not always go all that well. As coaches, we want to take advantage of the kick-ass days and dial it back a bit on the shitty days. Having a tool like RPE moves us one step further in that direction.