Fitness vocab: RPE

Consider this Furthermore series further education for fitness. Here, we help define the terms that all athletes should know.

TERM: RPE

DEFINITION: RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion, which is the numeric estimate of someone’s exercise intensity. The ratings were originally based on those in the Borg scale, a way to measure how hard you’re exercising, which ranges from six (no exertion) to 20 (extremely hard).

Today, most people use a modified RPE scale that ranges from zero (resting) to 10 (pushing as hard as you can). To figure out RPE at any point during a workout, consider the effort it takes to talk, how hard it is to continue at your current intensity, the pace of your heart, and your breathing.

For a challenging workout, aim for a six or seven, says Christopher Minson, Ph.D., a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon in Eugene: “This means you’re working at least moderately hard and you can’t easily carry on a conversation without some breathlessness.” If you’re having a hard time talking at all (your answers sound more like grunts than words), you’re reaching your max effort.

Understanding Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

For as long as we can remember, we’ve been using perceived scales. Whether it’s the smiley face pain scale at the doctors’ office, or your post-Spartan Race surveys, it is not uncommon to rank our perceptions for simple tracking. And this is where the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE) comes into play.

In fitness, we often like to use the RPE scale to identify where our exertion level is at and where our target exertion should be in any given exercise. This allows the fitness novice to decide which weights to utilize to see the maximum benefit from each exercise. Our brain perceives our exertion at a higher level than our body.

Related: 7 Mindsets to Achieve Extraordinary Success

New to RPE? Start with a Running Workout

“The best way to gauge RPE is to pay attention to your running speed during your running workout. If you find yourself able to hold a conversation more easily or breath more comfortably at a faster pace than before, then, most likely, you have progressed,” says Spartan Director of Fitness Sam Stauffer. “This requires you to take a mental (or actual) note of how you feel and breathe at a certain speed. Check as your training routine goes on. The same applies to a workout so long as the variables don’t change.”

What is the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale?

Use the list below to decipher where you are at with each exercise you perform during your Spartan WODs. The aim of each exercise is to reach a 9-10 on the scale by the end of your program.

SPARTAN PRO TRAINER TIP: A workout journal is an absolute must. You can’t track what you can’t measure. “Having written notes of how you felt, what you did, the weights you did, etc. is beyond valuable when it comes to progressing,” suggests Stauffer. Plus, it’s a great way to track your progress—day over day, week over week—as you push to your edge.

Related: How to Get Ready for a Spartan Race

Use Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale to Prevent Injury

Injury prevention is Spartan’s number one goal. That said, using RPE is an alternative way to keep yourself in check. “If you find yourself too high on the RPE scale, i.e. always out of breath or feeling over-exerted, you may be overdoing it,” says Stauffer. “With this in mind, you may have harder days programmed into your workout routine and reaching higher on the RPE scale may be necessary.” Use it as a litmus test and stay honest with yourself to make sure you’re pushing to your edge, but avoiding risk of injury.

“Simply put: You want to overreach, not overtrain. Overreaching is the art of pushing yourself just outside of your boundary to promote growth while overtraining is redlining your body (like a car) without the proper rest and recovery,” says Stauffer. “In other words, the difference is following a preconstructed program that already includes rest and recovery rather than doing HIIT workouts every day of the week.”

What Is The RPE Scale?

We don’t have to tell you that what’s easy for you might be difficult for someone else, and vice versa, but consider two parkrunners who run 5K in 20 minutes. For one, it’s a lung-burning PB, for the other an easy recovery run. You can measure the distance and the time, but what about the exertion? That can be compared using the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale – probably to the annoyance of the exhausted runner, but they won’t have the energy to protest.

How do you score RPE?

The below is the standard for the RPE scale. At the lowest end of the scale are your easy, not-a-chance-of-sweating activities. Up at the highest end, you have your absolute max. In a physically fit person the lower end are activities like sitting upright or standing still, while at the higher end you’re practically breathless and sprinting – that feeling you get when you’ve emptied the tanks.

Score Perceived Exertion
6
7 Very, very light
8
9 Very light
10
11 Fairly light
12
13 Somewhat hard
14
15 Hard
16
17 Very hard
18
19 Very, very hard
20 Max

Picking the right score is less straightforward since it’s all about your subjective perception. To get the most accurate RPE score, you’ll need to do a bit of personal reflection. Not looking deep into a mirror and asking yourself “Who am I?”, but instead taking cues from your body and getting a sense of how it reacts to different levels of exertion. Consider paying attention to the following in your next few workouts: how hard are you breathing? How much are you sweating? Do your muscles feel very heavy?

How to use the RPE scale

This is not just a way to bore your partner/friend/goldfish with additional detail on your training – it’s a way to ensure you’re constantly challenging yourself to the right level. If you think 15 press-ups is a 10 on the RPE scale, then for starters you’re getting pretty good at press-ups, but also you might want your partner to add a plate to your back. If that plate takes the press-up from a 10 to a 20, take it off quickly and find another, easier way to increase the challenge.

It’s also a decent way to keep tabs on your heart rate zone when doing HIIT if you don’t have a heart rate monitor (or you forgot to charge the battery). You should be able to multiply your score by ten to get an approximate heart rate. When we tested this, we found that our RPE score translated to a pulse within five to ten beats of the one tracked by our heart rate monitor.

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Table

The RPE Scale is a common method for determining exercise intensity levels. It is commonly used in some research studies for that purpose, but may also be used in training programs to describe the intensity of training sessions. The scale of perceived exertion is how hard you feel your body is working, and so is a subjective measure.

The scale is based on the research of Borg, and is sometimes called the Borg Scale. You can download a copy of this RPE Scale for printing.

There are several versions of this scale. Below is shown the category-ratio version with the ratings between 0 (nothing at all) and 10 (very very hard). This is also called the Borg CR10 Scale. There is another very similar RPE scale also developed by Borg, with the ratings between 6-20, and the CR100 (centiMax) scale, a more finely-graded scale. See also novel variations of this scale using hand signals.

  • Borg GAV. Borg’s Rating of Perceived Exertion and Pain Scales. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1998.

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Related Pages

  • See more about using the RPE scales, including another very similar RPE scale, with the ratings between 6-20, and the Borg CR100 (centiMax) Scale — a more fine-graded CR-Scale.
  • See also the variation of this 10 point scale using hand signals, and Rob’s 5-Point Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale
  • PA-R, a scale for rating physical activity.
  • Rating of Fatigue — a scale for measuring fatigue
  • other athlete questionnaires
  • about the Likert Scale

How To Use The RPE Scale For Strength Training (Plus What The Research Suggests)

A recent study that was accepted in May of this year by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research may shine more light in using RPE when prescribing training intensities. In some instances – RPE scales can be just as – or more effective than standard intensities established by periodized training percentages.

Before diving into what the research suggests, it’s important to understand what RPE is first.

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

What it is: RPE is a way for coaches and athletes to self-regulate their training intensity. When used in a personal setting it can be a way to determine your training intensity, as opposed to using percentages. On a coaching level RPE can be a way to gain an understanding of an athlete’s level of exhaustion, plus what they have left in the tank.

Who it can benefit: Science has shown benefit in both novice and experienced lifters, but experienced lifters tend to benefit more (as they have a higher training age).

How to use it: The ratings go from 1-10, 1 being absolutely no effort, 10 being your maximum. It’s important to develop what these numbers mean to you. Often they’re very similar among coaches and athletes, but they can vary a little. The below numbers are my interpretation and often are similar with other coaches in the strength world.

10 – At your max, you have no more reps

9 – There’s another rep in the tank, but it’s a grind

8 – You’re beginning to hit your 2-4 rep stride

7 – Often the weight that can be moved with power, but still facilitate strength (5-7ish reps)

6 – Weight that can moved quick and utilized with speed work (+/- 8 reps pending on speed/training goal)

5 – This weight that can be used as warmup and prep for heavier weights

4 & below – Lightweight that can be used for mobility, recovery, and form emphasis

**Every athlete and coach should develop their RPE numbers dependent on their training age and understanding of their lifting habits.

What The Current Research Says

The study referenced in the intro looked at the relationship between RPE and velocity during the squat, bench press, and deadlift during a 1-RM lift (with powerlifters). In the table above there’s mention of bar speed, hence the often use of looking for correlation in research between RPE and velocity (bar speed).

The authors found that when athletes hit their 1-RM and were asked about RPE they were generally consistent across the board. The squat, bench press, and deadlift RPEs were as follow: 9.6, 9.7, and 9.6 with a +/-.5 variation. From the above RPE list, a 9.6 would be consistent in suggesting an athlete doesn’t have one more rep in the tank, which suggests RPE could be a beneficial tool for prescribing training intensities.

When it came to 1-RM RPE and the velocity of the bar, their research suggested consistent findings as previous research, which is was an inverse relationship. As RPE increased the bar’s velocity decreased. The authors suggested developing a “velocity load profile” for even more accurate training intensity prescription. This can be interpreted as documenting your bar speed and relating it to RPE across all lift intensities to create a more accurate RPE scale.

What Previous Research Says

A study published in January in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the use of the RPE/RIR (reps-in-reserve) scale and bar velocity in experienced and novice lifters (performing squats to be exact). The reps in reserve scale they used is below.

10 – Absolute maximum

9.5 – No more reps could be performed, but weight could be increased

9 – 1 more repetition could be completed

8.5 – 1-2 are in the tank

8 – 2 reps are left

7.5 – 2-3 reps are left

7 – 3 reps are left

They had the lifters split into the experienced and novice groups, which was dependent on their training ages. Squatters performed a 1-RM squat followed by squats at 60, 70, and 90% of 1-RM. Then following the completion of the 90% set, lifters performed 8-reps at 75% of their 1-RM. Something interesting about this study was the difference in how the experienced and novice lifters interpreted higher training intensities.

Authors documented that over 93% of the experienced lifters recorded a >9.5 when hitting their 1-RM. On the contrary, only a little over 57% of novice lifters recorded a >9 at their 1-RM.

The above numbers are important and should be something considered when using RPE with different lifters. Experienced lifters understand their bodies better and what they can handle, which would be why they were more accurate when deciding RPE at high intensities. A novice lifter may underplay the amount they can move for a certain numbers of reps.

When it came to bar velocity, the authors documented an inverse relationship with RPE and velocity both experienced and novice lifter, which is similar to the previous study. Concluding their analysis, the authors suggest that using RPE/RIR as an effective way for prescribing training intensities in athletes.

A video posted by Mike Dewar (@mikejdewar) on Dec 21, 2016 at 3:01am PST

Practical Takeaways

Research suggests RPE as an effective way for lifters to decide training intensities. Although, there should be considerations when using this scale for training in experienced and novice lifters.

Experienced lifters: RPE can be more effective as there’s more of an understanding of what they body can perform. Also, there’s a better understanding of 1-RM training percentages.

Intermediate lifters: RPE can be used effectively, but there could be some variance in understanding what a true 1-RM is. Without ample training history, it can be more difficult to gauge high intensities.

Why RPE: While training percentages can be effective ways to periodize strength programs, they don’t account for daily life stressors. An example could be an athlete training at high intensities for a long duration who may be approaching burnout, but is still programmed to hit high intensities. Use of RPE could save a lifter from burnout and be an effective way for listening to the body and prescribing deload weeks.

Important: When a lifter’s RPE gets to high intensities and reps may not be left in the tank, sometimes weight can still be increased (as suggested from the last study’s scale). Take this into consideration when utilizing RPE at 90%+ intensities.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

The following article is from chapter two of Michael Tuchscherer’s book, The Reactive Training Manual: Developing Your Own Custom Training Program for Powerlifting.

This chapter concerns the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) system in reactive training. Pay attention because if you don’t get this right, the entire system can be thrown off to a degree. This information is absolutely essential to making the program effective as you advance to higher stages.

RPE is how hard something feels to you at the time. It is a subjective measure of your strength at a given time. We rate this on a scale from one to ten. The higher the number, the harder the set felt. You can develop your own or use the one that we will discuss in this chapter. The main thing is that you’re consistent.

Let’s start with why you should use an RPE scale as opposed to a percentage program. Even though percentage programs are easy to use, they’re very limited in how accurate they can be. There are many things that throw off your percentages. The longer you go in a training cycle, the less accurate they become due to your own individual strength adaptation. Each athlete is different because of differences in training history, fast to slow twitch ratios, illnesses, good and bad days, and general sleep patterns. Basically, life happens, and you won’t always be 100 percent when you come in to train.

An RPE overcomes this stuff by allowing you to regulate training based on how hard a weight feels (which is all a percentage tries to do anyway). By using an RPE, you can regulate training more effectively and do so in a way that automatically takes into account all of the individual differences mentioned above.

If you’re curious as to what RPE is, here’s the scale that we use:

10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank

9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank

8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left

7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”

6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force

5: Most warm-up weights

4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle

An RPE below four isn’t important.

Here’s how it works. You apply it to a set/rep range. For example, if you were going to do 5 X 5 at an 8–9 RPE, you know that you’re doing 5 X 5 with a weight that is between an eight RPE and a nine RPE. So you should select a weight that will allow you to do between one and four more reps than the set requires.

If the RPE system seems awkward at first, don’t worry. You’ll get used to it and be able to use it quickly. An easy way to gauge the RPE of a set is to ask yourself how many more reps you could’ve done with a particular weight. Here is where honesty is the absolute key! If you’re too macho and say, “Yea, I could have done one more” when you know that the set was maximal, your training will be thrown off. This tends to be tough for the training hotheads who always want to go heavy but also for the timid who are afraid to push themselves. You must be disciplined to use this method effectively!

There is also a chart that I developed that roughly correlates an RPE and rep range to a percentage. It should only be used as a guide, not to attempt to derive a max.

As you can see, for each rep range and the correlating RPE, there is a percentage. Eighty percent is where peak force is produced. Be careful with how much time you spend in the 90 percent plus area. The closer you are to the upper right corner, the more accurate the chart is.

Here’s how to use it. In the above example, you can see that we did 5 X 5 at 8–9 RPE. Using the chart, this roughly correlates to 70–7 percent. The next time you may want to pick a protocol that allows you to train in the 80–85 percent range or even the 90 percent plus range. The choice is up to you and how you want to program your training, but this tool can help you approximate how heavy you have been going in terms of percentage.

So using this knowledge, here is what happens to your protocols:

Volume (sets X reps)

· 6 X 3 at 8–9

· 6 X 2 at 8–9

Speed work ups:

· 8 X 2 at 6–7

Then work up to 1 X 2 at 8–9

· 5 X 5 at 9–10

· 6 X 4 at 8–9

Intensity

· 1–3 rep max

· 3 X 3 at 9–10

· 4 X 2 at 9–10

· 4–5 X 1 at 9–10

Just to reiterate, RPE allows you to regulate your training intensity based on your condition right now, not your last meet, yesterday, or even your last set. It allows you to quantify where your preparedness is at any given time. This is an extremely powerful tool and one that will be invaluable in the reactive training system.

Should we do more RPE 7, 8, or 9 work? It depends.

We use RPEs in training to define the effort. The last rep of each set is proximal to some level of your fatigue. Let’s say you maxed out and didn’t leave any reps in the tank. This means you reached your fatigue limit and would call it a RPE 10. In powerlifting, it’s commonly not prescribed to train at this level of exertion for every set. You would run out of gas pretty quick, and likely fail to recover and adapt. But what about other levels of exertion, like RPE 7, 8, or 9? How should you split your time between these exertion ranges?

Distribution of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

The distribution of RPEs means how much volume (tonnage or number of lifts) you’re doing at various RPEs. For example, if 100% of the reps you do in training are at RPE 8, then there is very little distribution. You’d be training with the same exertion all the time (minus your warm-up sets). Therefore, your relative intensity would always be 2 reps below your max capacity.

How Should Your Distribution Be Split?

So, how much volume should you do at RPE 7, or RPE 8, or RPE 9, over the course of the training cycle? Do you want to undulate your distribution so that some weeks have more volume at the higher end of the RPE scale, and some weeks at the lower end? Or should there be a consistent split between your RPE distribution?

I guess the answer is always: it depends. Obviously, any training concept or application doesn’t exist in a vacuum where all inputs equal the same outputs for every athlete and situation. Training for high performance is complex and nuanced, and there are likely more ‘it depends’ answers to the questions we ask.

To further complicate things, there isn’t a lot of written on the distribution of RPEs in powerlifting. My hunch is that RPEs are prescribed with a mix of (1) a coaches’ intuition on what he or she believes will yield the greatest results, (2) whatever the most common practice is at any given time (i.e. the most popular thing athletes are broadly doing on the internet), (3) whatever an athletes believes he or she will respond favorably to, and (4) whatever emerging literature or research is being published (which is not a lot compared with other areas of study).

These heuristics for programming are totally fine. But, this is why a lot of answers to questions are ‘it depends’.

Why should we care about distribution of RPEs?

Put simply, distribution of RPEs measures how much volume we’re accumulating as it relates to our fatigue limit. This is the idea of relative intensity. Remember, there’s a difference between intensity (% of 1RM) and relative intensity (how close you’re working to fatigue). Even if you’re lifting lower absolute intensities (60-65% of your 1RM), you can still achieve higher RPE ratings if you’re performing these intensities for higher repetitions (if you want a quick primer on “relative intensity”, which is what RPE measures, then click HERE).

So, when we look at how we’re distributing our volume across various RPEs, we’re actually trying to see how much work we can do at or close to our fatigue limit, and still recover and adapt positively. Of course, there may be periods within the training cycle where you might be able to handle a lot of volume at higher RPEs because in the short/medium term you’re able to recover and adapt. However, what are the implications long term of always training at the higher end of the RPE spectrum? Are you still able to recover and adapt adequately? Do periods of higher RPEs need to be coupled with periods of lower RPE work? And if so, how low in order for us to still achieve a training effect?

Case Study: 16-Week “Meat and Potatoes” Training Cycle

It seems like we’ve already asked more questions than answers. So, it may be easier to look at an example to work our way back to an effective understanding. Let’s see how Bryce Krawczyk of Calgary Barbell designed the distribution of RPEs between the volume and strength phases in the 16-week “Meat and Potatoes” Training Cycles.

Volume Phase

This phase of training is focused on hypertrophy adaptations through higher overall volumes, mostly as a result of higher rep ranges being prescribed (between 5-10 reps). The average number of total lifts each week is 179, with the highest being 210 and the lowest being 140. In terms of exercises, while there are training days that incorporate the competition movements, over 50% of the volume is accumulated with secondary movements (variations of the squat, bench, and deadlift).

Week 1-4

Within the first four weeks, the distribution alternates between RPE 9, RPE 8, RPE 7 accordingly. On weeks 1 and 3 the distribution is 5% (RPE 9), 45% (RPE 8), and 35% (RPE 7). This switches on weeks 2 and 4 where the distribution is 15% (RPE 9), 35% (RPE 8) / 45% (RPE 7). On average, there is more volume accumulated in the RPE 7-8 range throughout the first 4 weeks of this training cycle. However, the distribution never swings more than 45% for either of these ranges — it’s balanced by other levels of exertion.

Week 1:

Week 2:

Week 3:

Week 4:

Weeks 5-8

On weeks 5-8, the distribution begins to shift toward the higher end of the RPE spectrum. On average, the distribution is split between 20% (RPE 9), 60% (RPE 8), and 20% (RPE 7). Whereas in the first four weeks there was more of a balanced distribution between RPE 7-8 work, we begin to see the majority of the volume accumulated in the RPE 8 range later in the volume cycle.

Week 5:

Week 6:

Week 7:

Week 8:

Strength Phase

This phase of training is focused on strength adaptations and peaking your competition lifts for a 1RM test. It also includes a ‘taper’ week, which is the conclusion of the full 16-weeks of programming. The rep ranges drop compared with the last phase, and stay between 1-5 reps. The average number of total lifts each week is 79, with the highest being 126 lifts and the lowest being 3 lifts (on the de-load week). This is almost 100 reps less total reps on average compared with the volume phase, and you’ll notice each week has a step-by-step reduction in number of lifts. Each workout is characterized with 1-2 top sets based on RPE, and finish with several back-off sets that add additional training volume.

Within the first four weeks, the distribution favors the RPE 9 and 8 ranges. On weeks 1 and 2 the distribution is 27% (RPE 9) and 57% (RPE 8). There is also a relatively small percentages of volume in the RPE 7 and 6 range — 12% and 4% accordingly. The shift to the strength phase is already characterized by a greater percentage of RPE 9 exertion when compared with the volume phases.

Week 1:

Week 2:

Week 3:

Week 4:

On weeks 5-6, the distribution continues to favor RPE 9 and 8 ranges — 32% and 55% accordingly. On week 7, the number of total lifts for the week drops to the lowest out of the training cycle (23 lifts); however, the distribution swings favorably to RPE 9 with a program high of 65% of total reps being accumulated in this range. This is characteristic of an ‘over-reaching week’ where the majority of the volume is accumulated at peak intensities. On week 8, only 3 lifts are performed in the competitions movements (3 reps at RPE 7.5), which represents the de-load week before testing.

Week 5:

Week 6:

Week 7:

Week 8:

Discussion

Using this training cycle as an example, we can see some obvious patterns and draw important conclusions.

Volume Phases

In the volume phases, there is a trend to favor RPE 7 and 8 ranges, which aligns with Bryce’s philosophy of ‘easing into the training cycle’ and increasing technical prowess.

Bryce explains, “The volume phase starts with a low stress introductory week, which could be run immediately post-meet or after a gym-test…The program has a great deal of reps in sub-maximal zones to cultivate technical perfection in the competition movements”.

While there are several reps being accumulated in the RPE 8 and 9 ranges, they are not heavily distributed, and balanced with a majority of RPE 7 or lower work. We can assume that the specific goal of the program should dictate the distribution of RPE. If you’ve just finished a period of high stress, over-reaching, then it should likely be followed by lower RPE work. This is the idea of a ‘sustainable training design’, balancing high stress and low stress. In addition, if the goal is to improve the technical components of the lift, then a valid process would be to start with relative intensities that allow you to maintain perfect form, and increase intensity alongside the skill acquisition.

Additionally, we must also think about how much volume spent in higher relative intensity zones is enough to create the desired training effect. In other words, what is the threshold that we need to cross in order to see a positive adaptation? Clearly, we don’t need 100% of our reps being accumulated in the RPE 9 and 10 zones to create an effect. This is where I find it helpful to use the ‘high bar analogy’. In track and field, you want to jump high enough to clear the bar, but any effort you exert that allows you to jump way higher than the bar is likely wasteful.

In the volume phases, we never see more than 50% of the reps being accumulated in RPE 8 or 9 zones. What this means is that half of the training is done in RPE 7 zones or lower in the volume phase, and half is done in RPE 8 zones or higher. It can be concluded that Bryce has set up this training cycle so that the bar, the threshold to positively adapt, is a 50/50 split between higher and lower RPE zones. Obviously, this threshold will vary for most people, but understanding your baselines, your starting point, will allow you to optimize this distribution over time.

Strength Phases

In the strength phases, there is a higher distribution on RPE 8 and 9 ranges. For example, we see between 25-32% of the total reps being accumulated in the RPE 9 range. This is a significant increase in distribution from the volume phases. With that said, the strength phases have almost 50% less total number of lifts as compared with the volume phases. Therefore, it can be assumed that at lower overall number of lifts being performed an athlete might be able to tolerate more lifts at higher ends of the RPE spectrum.

Why might this be the case?

High volume training programs elicit greater metabolic stress. As a result, athletes might require more reps at the lower end of the RPE scale in order to recover and continue to adapt. When volume begins to decrease in the strength phases, especially by a rate of 50%, an athlete should be in a good position from a stress-recovery standpoint to handle higher RPE work.

As we begin to peak for competition, reps will drop between the 1-3 range. Both the absolute intensity (% or 1RM) and relative intensity (RPE) should increase. The idea behind increasing these variables is to facilitate neurological adaptions that involve a more efficient activation pattern of the specific muscles involved in powerlifting. You can only do this with high-intensity training. Put simply, the goal of powerlifting is to move as much weight as possible for 1 rep, and at some point you will need to have a stimulus that works toward this end goal.

How do we work toward this end goal to peak on competition day?

You will notice that only on weeks 5, 6, and 7 of the strength phase that the RPE distribution is heavily favoring RPE 9 (32-65%). Through these last final weeks, an athlete should positively adapt to higher intensity (gain strength), and begin to assess their upper capacities (set attempts for competition).

Bryce explains, “the lifter should not only be good at heavy singles, but also be able to make excellent attempt selections based on the trend of estimations throughout these blocks”.

However, an athlete can only linearly progress their top sets in the 1-3 rep range for so long before they’re unable to add weight. For example, an athlete will not be able to continue to add 10lbs each week forever and ever. The goal here is to get enough heavy work in this phase, but ensure that plateaus don’t occur before the competition. You want to put your best numbers, your heaviest singles together on competition day. That’s the benefit of swinging your distribution to the higher RPE range for a span of 2-4 weeks prior to the competition. The exact number of weeks where you’ll train at the higher RPE range will vary, but by trying out different lengths leading up to competition, you will find an optimal peaking strategy.

Conclusion

Through this example, I hope to have convinced you that RPE distribution should change. There are several general principles we can learn from this article, including how volume and intensity over the training cycle should impact our RPE distribution. However, our original assertion of how it should change ‘depends’, especially when we’re looking at individual cases. The best way to start learning about your individual differences is to establish a baseline by using best practices. What this means is taking the general prescriptions that exist, such as the Calgary Barbell Meat and Potato cycles, and after running through several peaking cycles, assess your performance. You might realize small changes that you can make in order to continue to add more kilos out of your training inputs. #TrackAnalyzeTrain

GETTING STARTED

Want to start establishing your baselines and understand which peaking strategies work for you? Try the Calgary Barbell Meat and Potatoes training cycle on MyStrengthBook. You can track your training metrics alongside each phase of the program.

Most athletes pay over $150-200 for online coaching, but Bryce’s training cycles are available on MyStrengthBook for only $29/month. You’ll also get the benefit of being able to track his programs using the MyStrengthBook analytics platform to better understand what you do in the gym.

To get started sign-up for a FREE TRIAL, go to the Program Library, and add Bryce’s training cycle you’re your calendar.

Now available for both iOS and Android.

RPE: What Is It, and How Can It Improve Your Workout?

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Fitness types are obsessed with numbers. If it’s not our bench press max or 5K time, it’s our body fat percentage or arm girth. We want hard evidence that we’re getting fitter, faster, stronger.

But there’s a fundamental flaw in the lab-rat approach to fitness. We may think we’re the Terminator in the gym, but we’re not cyborgs. We’re organic beings, and our bodies rarely respond to training predictably from one day, workout — or even set — to the next.

How to measure the output of such fickle creatures? One such means is the Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale, or RPE.

What Is RPE?

As the term suggests, rate of perceived exertion is a subjective (egghead term: psychophysiological) measure of how hard you feel you’re exercising relative to what you believe is your maximum intensity — regardless of whether you’re running, cycling, rowing, swimming or lifting weights. Indeed, it can be used for just about any form of exercise, and when used regularly, it can give you vital clues to your body’s response to exercise, and how you can adjust not only your laps, intervals, loads, sets, and/or reps in your current workout (whatever kind of cardio or strength training it may be), but also how to plan out your exercise program in the long term.

That makes it a powerful tool for auto-regulation, which is the adjustment of your training based on your body’s real-time response to an exercise or workout.

Why Use RPE?

Progress comes in fits and starts. One day you feel fast and energized during your morning runs; the next you feel sluggish and flat-footed. One week you’re banging out extra reps in the bench press and squat, and the next you struggle to even make it through your third sets. Ignore such fluctuations and you risk overtraining or under-training, and even injury. Heed them, however, and you can reach your goals faster while minimizing those risks.

RPE formalizes the concept of “listening to your body” during a workout, which means you can use the RPE scale to determine whether it’s a good day to push harder (such as when 6 mph on the treadmill delivers a lower RPE than normal) or back off.

And since it’s entirely personalized to how you feel during a specific workout — rather than a universalized scale of what your body should be able to do — it informs you exactly when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

It also eschews any instruments or technology; all the Borg RPE requires is your ability to count — and fairly rate your own effort. That last part means that it’s not always the most accurate way to gauge training intensity (more on that in a bit), but it is the most readily accessible.

RPE Scale

The standard RPE chart looks like this.

RPE Rating Level of exertion
6 No exertion
7
8
9 Very light
10
11 Light
12
13 Somewhat hard
14
15 Hard (heavy)
16
17 Very hard
18
19 Extremely hard
20 Maximal exertion

Why 6-20? “It’s designed to correspond roughly with heart rate divided by 10,” says Dr. Eric Helms, an exercise scientist at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand. At rest, he explains, a fit person typically has a heart rate of about 60 — so their Borg RPE will be a six; during maximal exertion that same exerciser may hit 200 — so their RPE will be 20.

Factors Influencing RPE

Heart rate — which can be affected by determinants like age, fitness level, and prescription drugs — is not the only factor in gauging perceived exertion. “The Borg RPE scale is an overall rating of all the signals your body is sending you,” says Helms.

Those signals also include: muscle burn, sweat and respiration rates, ability to speak, and even anticipating the end of an exercise. Taken as a whole, these factors give you a Borg RPE, which can change significantly throughout the course of a single workout.

Let’s say, for example, you’re doing a workout. Light stretches at the beginning of the workout might rate a nine or a 10; lunges might get you to 15; and jump squats push you to 19. Overall, you might rank your “session RPE” — your overall effort level for the workout — a 15 or 16: somewhere between “Hard” and “Very hard.”

Of course, someone else might do the same workout — same reps, tempo, weights, and rest periods — and perceive the workout as harder or easier; his or her effort may also peak at different times.

How to Calculate RPE

RPE’s subjectivity can make it seem arbitrary. “Studies show that people are often poor judges of their own training intensity,” notes Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., and Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “They tend to overestimate how hard they exercise.”

To help make RPE more objective, Helms suggests a technique called “anchoring,” in which you link effort levels to a given activity at a known intensities. For example, you might run on a treadmill, gradually increasing speed over a 20-minute period until you hit peak effort, noting your perceived exertion along the way.

How do your legs feel at each level? How is your respiration? How hard is your heart pounding? Using this strategy, says Helms, regular exercisers can make more reliable RPE estimations from one day to the next.

How to Use the RPE Scale in Your Workouts

Like any other fitness technique, RPE training requires practice. To do that, start recording your highest RPE during exercise, as well as your session RPE once you’re done.

How high do you go in any single session? Does it fluctuate based on the day of the week, the time of day, your diet, the type of workout you perform, or how many days in a row you exercise? Make sure you’re making apples-to-apples comparisons — don’t compare a sprint workout to a yoga session. And don’t assume that higher is better.

If you know from experience that running on a treadmill at 4 mph usually feels like an 11 or a 12, and it feels like a 14 today, that’s a sign you should back off. If you have the opposite experience, consider pushing yourself harder.

Similarly, if you’ve been hitting 15s or 16s on average for several weeks, it might be time for a recovery week. Conversely, if you’ve been holding yourself to a 14 in a new class or workout program, you might experiment with nudging yourself up to a 16 for a workout or two.

For Cardio and HIIT

Once you get comfortable with the RPE scale, start assigning yourself session RPE goals for each workout. This doesn’t have to be complicated: if you discovered that Mondays are high energy days for you, take advantage of that by trying to hit a 17 consistently every Monday workout. If you’re performing steady-state cardio — say, an easy three-mile jog — you could aim to make the whole workout an 11 or 12.

For interval workouts — such as high intensity interval training (HIIT) — one oft-used approach is to perform your interval sprints at an increasing intensity, separated by rest periods of equal or greater duration. So you might start with a five-minute warm-up at a 10 RPE, then perform a one-minute sprint at a 13; drop back down to a 10 for two minutes; then perform a sprint at 15, and repeat in this manner, eventually maxing out with a full-blown, one-minute sprint at an 18 or 19 RPE. This is an especially effective approach when you’re doing outdoor cardio, like trail running or road biking, and have no other way to monitor your intensity.

For strength training

If you’re into serious lifting, you may benefit from using a slightly modified system called the “RIR” — or Reps in Reserve — scale. It’s a 0-to-10 rating based on the number of reps you estimate you could do if you worked to exhaustion with a given weight.

The RIR numbering system takes a little getting used to, because, unlike RPE, a lower number indicates a tougher set: if you rate a set a “1 RIR,” for example, you’re estimating that you could have done just one more rep before reaching technical failure, or the point at which your form breaks down. (By the way, that’s always the point at which you should end a set — going until “absolute failure,” or the point at which you are physically incapable of completing another rep, increases your risk of injury.) A “10 RIR” rating, on the other hand, is very light work, while a “5 RIR” falls in the middle.

RIR helps you to record — and prescribe — effort levels in each planned set of your workout template. If you’re doing dumbbell curls one day, for instance, you might write the following in your journal:

3×12 @ 2 RIR

That’s three sets of 12 reps, with two reps in reserve at the end of each set. So you choose a weight based on past experience and crank out three sets.

If, on completion of your third set, you rate your RIR a 5 — that is, you have five reps left in the tank — make a note of that and bump your weight up next time. If you struggle to complete your first two sets, and you hit technical failure (0 RIR) after nine reps in your third set, go a bit lighter next time. Since effort is a major factor in progress, RIR helps keep you on track by ensuring that you always work at the intensity that’s optimal for how you’re feeling in each workout.

Many trainers suggest that you stop shy of technical failure, even on your toughest sets — so it makes sense to shoot for about a 2 on the RIR scale in most sets in most workouts. It won’t turn you into a hulking cyborg, but RPE can help keep you on track, pain-free, and moving steadily toward your fitness goals.

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Think about the last time you did a long, hard run: Was there a point where you felt like you were going to die? If you’re reading this, then you obviously survived (congrats!)—and you probably finished the run, and maybe even walked another mile or so later that day to get beers or pizza.

That’s because exhaustion doesn’t come from physical limits (like glycogen depletion or dehydration), coach and author Matthew Fitzgerald explains in his book How Bad Do You Want It? Exhaustion is actually more of a psychological barrier, according to research by Samuele Marcora, a professor who studies the psychobiology of endurance performance. You hit the wall when you reach the maximum level of perceived effort you’re mentally willing to endure.

If you’ve ever had a treadmill class instructor yell at you about running at a 7 out of 10 effort, then you know what a rate of perceived effort or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is. But is it something you proactively track? It should be.

What Exactly Is RPE?

Your rate of perceived exertion is a subjective assessment of how physically and mentally difficult an exercise is for you. “It’s not a number that you should be using in isolation to dictate a training plan, but it’s something that can better inform your training so you can be more efficient and optimize your workouts,” says Megan Roche, M.D., an athlete, endurance coach, and clinical researcher at Stanford University.

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Since the 1960s, scientists and coaches have used a scale ranging from 0 to 10 to subjectively assess effort, with 0 being no exertion and 10 being the highest level. (“That was modified from a scale from 6 to 20; the idea was that when you added a zero to the number you chose, it should equate to your current working heart rate,” explains Polly de Mille, an exercise physiologist with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and a USAT-certified triathlon coach).

So, really, it’s just an arbitrary number—but one that gives a runner a way to track performance without fancy tech and while considering all the other variables that affect performance. Yes, activity trackers such as WHOOP and the Polar Vantage are incorporating fancy new technology to track training load, but “RPE clues you into your body’s actual response to what you’re doing,” says de Mille—which is so important because of the role perception of effort plays in running.

Training helps your body get fitter, but it also helps your brain become more comfortable with higher levels of perceived effort, Fitzgerald writes in his book. In other words, you have to train your brain to be uncomfortable just as much if not more than you train your body. “By training with RPE in mind, it extends your ability to withstand that hard effort,” says de Mille. When those higher levels of perceived effort become easier, that’s when you can really start to push your performance to the next level.

How to Use RPE

Most runners use metrics such as pace and/or heart rate to determine effort ahead of time. Setting a specific RPE for a workout, though, can help you account for the effect that external stressors (think: dehydration, altitude, lack of sleep, or poor nutrition) have on your performance.

Any of those stressors will make your body work harder than normal to hit your goal RPE. In some cases, that could help you learn how to be comfortable at an uncomfortable certain pace; in other situations, you may have to adjust your workout to avoid overdoing it.

Assessing RPE, though, is highly subjective (it’s always hard to be honest with self-judgements). To help runners better track how intensely they worked out, Strava recently introduced a Perceived Exertion feature. The effort zones in the app break down like this:

  • Easy (1-3): Could talk normally, breathing naturally, felt very comfortable
  • Moderate (4-6): Could talk in short spurts, breathing more labored, within your comfort zone but working
  • Hard (7-9): Could barely talk, breathing heavily, outside your comfort one
  • Max effort (10): At your physical limit or past it, gasping for breath, couldn’t talk/could barely remember your name

If these descriptions sound familiar, it’s because they are often the same descriptions used to outline heart rate zones. So how do these RPE zones translate to running workouts? “Levels one to three should feel like a traditional recovery effort,” says Roche. “Four to six might be something a little bit more strenuous, like a tempo or threshold run, and then seven to 10 are really working into those high-intensity interval and speed efforts.”

But because the 0-10 rr scale is totally subjective, it’s important to figure out what feels “easy” and “hard” to you, not what someone else deems so.

How RPE Helps You

While a coach likely won’t prescribe a training program based on RPEs, you should be paying attention to your RPE while you run. That’s because running workouts shouldn’t be one-intensity-fits-all. Slower, easier runs serve as aerobic conditioning or recovery, while harder speed work and intervals push your max heart rate and ability to sustain higher-intensities for longer.

The more you take note of your effort level, the better you’ll get at accurately gauging it, says de Mille. And the better you can gauge your intensity, the more you can push yourself and the less likely you are to push yourself too hard.

That has two benefits: First, it keeps you from falling into the moderate-intensity trap, that comfortably efficient pace that inevitably leads to a rut because you’re never doing low- or high-intensity, you’re just…running.

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And if you’ve been following a training plan but the same workouts are actually starting to feel harder, “that pattern of increased exertion is actually a sign of overtraining,” says Roche. “If you’re tracking that, you can identify where it started and adjust your future training.”

Like pace and heart rate, RPE is just another tool in a runner’s arsenal—one that reminds you to trust your body and not just swear by high-tech devices. “Data, especially data in running, can be imperfect, which can negatively impact the course of a run,” says Roche. “I really like athletes to run by feel because I think it prevents judgements and provides a more holistic look at a run.” Because solid training is about the big picture—not just the data points on your activity tracker.

Ashley Mateo Ashley Mateo is a writer, editor, and UESCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World, Bicycling, Women’s Health, Health, Shape, Self, and more.

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