What is it?
RPE stands for “rate of perceived exertion”. More simply, RPE is just asking yourself how difficult was the set you just performed or, how many more reps did I have in reserve (RIR). This rating of how difficult a set was or how many reps you had left can be reflected or detailed using a 1-10 scale. 1 being almost no effort at all (I could do 9+ reps) and 10 being absolute maximal effort (I couldn’t do anymore reps or add anymore weight). Depending on the coach or how you personally get the most out of RPE, will dictate whether you opt for a more FEEL based approach on RPE or a reps in reserve based approach (neither of which are wrong, just different). An easy example to explain this would be an athlete who moves a weight, with what looks like relative ease, but then reports that it felt very hard and heavy. This athlete may be better off making their RPE judgements based off of bar speed and reps in reserve, as opposed to how difficult the set felt. This is where RPE can become a little tricky but also very individualised and custom to a particular athlete. Oftentimes, a mix of both bar speed/RIR and perceived effort is the best course of action and works very well for managing fatigue.
Below are two attached graphics that do an excellent job at illustrating the differences between these two approaches or different ways of phrasing the same RPE.
So why do we use RPE?
The most attractive thing about RPE and why it is so widely used is its built-in auto regulation. It considers how you feel on any given day and what your preparedness level might be for a particular session and matches that with your training. If you’re particularly stressed, under-slept or have any external factors affecting you negatively, RPE is an excellent tool to use to match our readiness to train with the weights we’re about to lift. On days we feel less than average, our weights might go down a little bit and on days we feel super strong, we can push the envelope and up our weights. This style of training manages fatigue brilliantly and stops athletes from digging their metaphorical fatigue hole even deeper, by continuing to add load to the bar on days they already feel tired and fatigued on.
How to implement RPE:
Now that you’ve got a better idea of what RPE actually is from a theoretical standpoint, it’s time to learn how to implement it practically into your training.
There are many ways to start implementing RPE into your own training and everyone has a different approach or method. The first thing to note is that you need to know what an RPE 10 feels like to be able to know what an RPE 9 and RPE 8 feel like too. You don’t have anything to draw from if you’ve never experienced true maximal exertion. A tool I’ve commonly used with new lifters is using machine AMRAPS to teach RPE. I will assign a set load to their main compound movements and attach an RPE rating to an accessory movement, let’s take an AMRAP set @RPE 8 on a hack squat for example. Before the set begins, I’ll ask the athlete to take a set weight on this machine to what they think is an 8 RPE or to when they think they have 2 reps left in reserve instead of asking for a number of reps. Most of the time they will stop far earlier than what an RPE 8 or 2 RIR is. Once they stop and say that the set is at RPE 8 or 2 RIR, the set will continue and I’ll ask them to perform an AMRAP to see if their prediction was accurate. Most newer trainees miss the mark by up to or more than 5 reps. This kind of tool can be very useful in teaching a new lifter what 2 reps in reserve actually feels like and gives them a lived experience to draw on what an RPE 8 actually feels like. The same approach can be used with more experienced trainees who misjudge their RPE as well. Using this approach on machines gives you a safe environment to practice high effort sets without technical breakdown and learn to feel what hard training feels like and what these 7,8 or 9 RPE sets are. Once they’ve spent some time learning with AMRAP sets like these on machines, you can start the transition to their barbell training (this can be done at the same time if you like).
In my experience, the best way to start learning RPE with the barbell is to set up a camera and film your set: Before watching the video, give the set an RPE or RIR rating directly after finishing the set based on the graphics above. Proceed to watch the video (and/or send it to your coach for their RPE estimate) and give yourself a new RPE or RIR rating based on how the set looked on camera, did the RPE match the bar speed or was your perceived exertion during the set higher or lower than what you saw on the video? With continued practice and diligence with this process, your personal connection to what an RPE 6 or RPE 8 is will become more accurate and you will slowly begin to experience and make use of the advantages RPE based training can have over a more static approach like the sole use of percentages.
Common mistakes with RPE:
RPE can be difficult to use, and the FEEL based aspect can sometimes make lifters rely too much on emotion and can cloud their judgement on how a set feels. Some common mistakes I see with those new to RPE are:
- Thinking an RPE 8 -9 is a max out.
- Thinking an RPE 6-7 is a warm up .
- Picking loads for their sets without doing an exercise first to see how you feel.
- Not understanding their personal connection with RPE (lifters who move slowly undershooting because the bar speed slowed down).
Benefits of RPE:
- Fatigue management.
- Gives you the opportunity to handle heavier weights or PR during training blocks (specifically on singles) when you feel really strong. Most percentage based programs won’t call for a single at above 100% of your max so you don’t usually hit PR’s when running percentages during a meet prep.
- Gives autonomy to the lifter so they can feel in control of their own training.
Drawbacks of RPE:
- Can be poorly used if the athlete is inexperienced or hasn’t mastered their load selection.
- Some athletes enjoy/need to be told what to do re: weight selection.