Would you like a fool proof way to have the best workout of your life every time you train? Looking for the perfect fitness program that will get you ripped for the beach this summer? Is your dream to have the abs of a Greek God? Well keep reading because the next few minutes will change your life!!
Perhaps that opening paragraph was stretching the truth a little. Today, we are going discuss what RPE is, how and why to apply it to your training, and some challenges, because it can be a little confusing if this concept is new to you.
What is RPE?
RPE has been around for a very long time and stands for rate of perceived exertion. A modified scale of 1-10 (original 1-20) is used, one being the easiest thing you’ve ever done all the way up to ten being the absolute hardest. When we apply this scale to exercise, we really only focus on ratings between 7-10. The reason for this is because a rating below a 7 could basically still be considered a warmup because it is so easy. Remember, for the most part training needs to be hard. Below is a RPE rating along with a description.
6-6.5 - Easy peasy, warmup type weight
7-7.5 - Getting harder, could have for sure or very likely does 3 more reps
8 - I can certainly feel this getting tough, but could have done 2 more reps
8.5 - Ok ok, I’m feeling this now, maybe could have done 2 more reps
9 - Hard, could have only done 1 more rep
9.5. - Now we’re getting near max effort. Could maybe grind out 1 more rep
10 - Max effort, zero chance I could have done another rep.
Why use it (part 1)?
Once you get accustomed to using RPE, it’s a fantastic way to self-regulate your effort and intensity. Generally staying within the 8-8.5 rating you’re doing a decent job regulating how hard you’re working. Not working hard enough, you will not be exposing yourself to enough stress, therefore you won’t get the desired adaptation. Always working in the RPE 9-10 range, where every workout you’re left crushed will introduce a level of stress your body cannot recover from, this could lead to decreased performance, burnout or injury.
Now does this mean it’s never appropriate to fall below or above the 8-8.5 ‘happy zone’? No of course not, there are times to visit those zones and say hi (while social distancing of course!). All I’m suggesting is if the bulk of your training is around the 8-8.5 effort levels you’re doing okay. This should give you the piece of mind you are getting what you want out of your training.
Why use it (part 2)? Listen to your body
The term self-regulating means that you have the ability to modify the workout in the moment. Lets say on Sunday you or your coach wrote up a workout for Tuesday evening. This particular workout has you doing some heavy back squats and the load was based on a percentage of a previous workouts 1RM (one rep max). So last workout you felt amazing, you had a great sleep leading up to the workout, nutrition was on point, zero life stress, all the stars where aligned and you squatted 300lbs for a heavy single.
Now this upcoming Tuesday you’re going to squat 270 (90% of your previous 1RM of 300) for sets of three. So on paper this all looks perfect, you’re following a percentage based protocol, and this lift should be good to go. However, what that piece of paper with the predetermined workout doesn’t know is that you haven’t slept good for three nights, your eating has been crap, there’s been some drama at work etc. All of a sudden your 1RM is no longer 300lbs and today you’re expected to squat 270 for triples based off of 1RM that isn’t your 1RM anymore.
This isn’t to bash programs that use percentages, percentage based programs have their place. I’m just showing you, in this scenario, using RPE you can gauge how the weight is feeling as you are increasing the load during the warmup. If you get to 250lbs and you know it is feeling really heavy on that particular day, you have the ability and you should absolutely adjust the weight of your top sets to what you feel is manageable for that workout. Avoid the mindset of if it’s written down gotta do it. Really pay attention how you’re feeling.
All right lets go over an example using the bench press as our exercise. Today we are going to work up to heavy sets of 3 reps @ RPE 8.
Warmup starts with a couple sets of the empty bar
Warmup continues as we start to incrementally add weight to the bar. Each set is 3-6 reps
As we add weight and start to get closer to the top weight of the day, each set is 3 reps
Now the bar is getting a little heavy, lets start thinking about RPE
Next set did 225lbs for a set of 3. I could have done 3 more reps (but didn’t). This is RPE 7
Next set did 235lbs for a set of 3. Could have done 2 more reps (but didn’t). Bingo! RPE 8
Lets do an example of higher rep sets using the barbell biceps curl. I want to perform 4 hard effective sets @RPE 8
I load the bar so it weighs 50lbs. With this weight I know I cannot do more than 15 reps, remember this takes some trial and error.
First set I do 13 reps, I could have done 15 (but didn’t). This is RPE 8
Second set I do 11 reps, I could have done 13 (but didn’t). Again RPE 8
Third set 8 reps, could have done 10 (but didn’t). RPE 8
Final set 5 reps, could have done 7 (but didn’t). RPE? You bet, 8
In this last example I’m not overly concerned about the actual number of reps. As long as you make the set is hard, the goal is reached.
RPE can be troublesome at first, it’s subjective and covers a broad spectrum of desired outcomes. You need to be very honest with yourself and your exertion level for RPE to be effective. Missing the desired RPE will for sure happen frequently early on, there will be a adjustment period. But it is a very good way to think critically about your workouts and what you’re doing as far as daily habits that support (or sabotage) your workouts.
Family guy application…
The other day I folded the laundry and my wife asked did I do a good job? After reflecting on my results and effort I estimated I folded the laundry at an RPE 4, so no, the laundry folding was not very good. Next time I’ll smash the laundry with an RPE 10!