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Rating of Perceived Exertion - RPE
How “Hard” Should I Train?
This may seem like a funny question for some people. In our world of “more is better” or “no pain, no gain” one would think that for maximum results a person should train as hard and as much as they can. This is simply not true in the world of strength and conditioning. In this article I will discuss a method of regulating your physical exertion levels specifically related to resistance (weight) training. The method that will be discussed is Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE is most commonly used in cardiovascular training but can just as easily be applied to strength training.
What is RPE?
RPE is a subjective rating that the trainee assigns to the intensity of his/her exercise based on their perception of how hard the physical exertion was. Let’s look at an example where we use 3 ratings of exertion high, medium and low. If a person has a maximum strength on the bench press of 200 pounds and they lift 100 pounds 1 time then their RPE should be low. Now let’s say they lift 175 pounds 1 time. Their RPE might be medium. Finally, let’s say they lift their maximum, 200 pounds once. Their RPE on this will be high. Weight however is not the only variable that will have an impact on RPE. Number of repetitions will also affect the RPE. If the same person bench pressed 175 pounds 4 repetitions then they might have a RPE of high because of the muscle fatigue that sets in as more reps are performed. There are many other variables that would affect the RPE such as speed of movement, rest time between sets, number of sets etc. This is a very simple example but it should convey the concept of how RPE can be applied to strength training.
Practical Application of RPE within a Strength Training Program
At Body Results we currently use RPE within the parameters of a 10-point scale with 10 being the highest RPE. A RPE is assessed on each set and the overall workout is assigned a score based on the average of the highest RPE sets. Each repetition performed in a set should follow very closely to the desired form (technical execution) of the lift. Performing an exercise using unprescribed form can result in injury and/or undesired training effects. Below is how we define each of the 10 points on the 10-point RPE scale as applied to strength training.
Body Results 10-Point RPE Scale for Strength Training
Example of RPE applied to a workout with the Bench Press exercise
Let’s say the trainee was planning to perform 4 sets of 5 repetitions on the Bench Press. The trainee has a 5RM of 215. If the trainee does set one with 215 pounds for 5 reps, rests 4 minutes before set 2 and tries to perform 5 more reps they will probably fail on the 5th rep. The body will not fully recover after a maximal set in order to perform another within 5 or even 10 minutes. This means that if the person wants to perform 4 sets of 5 reps they will have to use a weight that is below their 5RM. If the trainee use his 7RM of 200 and does 4 sets of 5 the RPE on the first set will probably be between 7 and 8. The RPE on the last set will probably be a little higher than set one but still an 8. If this was the main exercise for the workout then the workout would get a RPE of 8 because the hardest sets averaged a RPE of 8.
How can RPE be used to make progress?
Now that you have a tool to rate the physical exertion of your workouts, you can use this to experiment to see what level of RPE you need make the best progress in your training. Other factors will influence what RPE is optimal for your training. Some variable are volume of overall training, years of training experience, strength levels and nutrition. It has been my experience that a person with less than 2 years of strength training can make progress at a higher level of RPE than after they have been training for several years. My recommendation for someone with greater than 1 year of strength training experience would be to keep their average workout RPE at 8 or less. The recovery time seems to stretch out too long as one approaches a rating of 9. RPE could be used in conjunction with a rep/set progression such as the 5% Solution for setting the starting point and monitoring each training session.
Stay tuned for Part II. Also let us know what you think. Email Doug.