• Alex Parry

RPE Meaning: Plus How to Use For Strength & Weightlifting

RPE is shorthand for 'Rate of Perceived Exertion' (a.k.a, how hard was the thing you just did?) It's an essential concept within all forms of sport and exercise training and has gained popularity as a programming method in strength-training circles.

What is RPE in a workout?

Rate of Perceived exertion in a workout depends on the type of workout. In a strength workout RPE typically refers to reps in reserve, whereas in cardio-based workouts it could be used to refer to heart rate. Within strength and conditioning coaching, I have also used what's called sRPE, or session RPE, which is a general rating of how difficult the session was as a whole.

Why is RPE important? / What are the Benefits of RPE?

Let's say that two athletes (A&B) have the same workout.

  • Athlete A finds the workout easy and feels fresh at the end

  • Athlete B finds the workout incredibly difficult and feels like death at the end

How likely is it that both athletes get the same results from that workout?

Basically nil. RPE allows us to assess how difficult workouts actually are, and adjust them to suit our own training situations and the situations of our athletes. Which means better results, less chance of injury, and increased motivation to train.

How do you calculate RPE?

The simplest way to use RPE is as a scale of 1-10, where 1 is very easy and 10 very hard, and you simply rate based on feel.

What's great about RPE within strength training, though, is that there are specific, quantifiable numbers that we can use for different difficulties. The table below is from Mike Tuscherer...

rpe strength chart

So we can use standardised definitions of what specific RPE ratings mean to guide our training.

How do you train with RPE?

As a strength coach, I use RPE in two ways, prescription and monitoring. For prescription, I might say something like "perform 3 sets of 5 at RPE 8," so the athlete knows that they need to do 3x5 at a weight where they could definitely get another 2 reps if they had to.

For monitoring, I might tell an athlete to "perform 4 sets of 12 at 100kg" and then "let me know how hard it was from 1-10."

The method I use depends on the athlete and the circumstance.

Who Should Use RPE-based training?

RPE based training can be incredibly useful for people of all fitness and strength levels. However, the way that RPE is used does have to vary somewhat. For beginners, I tend to use RPE more as a monitoring tool to get a sense of what they feel is hard versus easy, and what their individual tolerances are. The reason I don't tend to prescribe based on RPE for beginners is that they don't tend to have accurate ideas of how hard they can actually push themselves. It's not unusual for a beginner to say that a set was RPE 9 or 10 when I can tell you for certain that they could have actually done another 5 reps. In short, they haven't yet suffered enough to know what true suffering is, so they need more time to learn their actual limits.

For intermediates and advanced athletes, I tend to use RPE prescriptively (sometimes in combination with specific goals or percentage ranges) These athletes can assess difficulty more accurately, so it's a much more useful tool for them.

What are the limitations of RPE?

Like I mentioned above, RPE can be tricky to use for beginners, as they need a bit of time to dial in the accuracy of their assessments. RPE also struggles when applied to movements with higher technical demand such as a snatch or clean and jerk, as you can fail a lift even with a low RPE score. (See my article on a new RPE model for weightlifting)

What is the relationship between heart rate and RPE?

For those of you interested in RPE for cardio training, there's actually a really strong relationship between heart rate and RPE. The 'Borg scale' is a 6-20 scale designed to correlate with heart rates from 60-200. So if an athlete rated a run on the borg scale as an RPE 15, they would likely have achieved a heart rate of around 150.

What RPE should you train at for hypertrophy?

For those of you interested in RPE for bodybuilding and muscle gain, research shows that sets of 5 to 30 reps at an RPE of 6 and above are all good options. Personally, I would recommend that you spend most of your time in the centre of that, so sets of 10-20 reps at RPE 8. With some time spent at the outer ranges.

RPE and periodisation

For longer-term plans, you can use RPE on a sliding scale. Start with lower RPE's and move towards higher RPE's. So across a strength training block, I might have an athlete perform 5x5 at RPE 7 in week 1, but by week 4 they might perform 3x5 at RPE 9.

Next Steps

1) If you've never used RPE before, the easiest way to start is by keeping a training log and entering your RPE's for each exercise as you go through your workout. Over time, you'll be able to dial in your accuracy. 2) If you want more information, training tips and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list. 3) And if you're looking for 1:1 coaching or programming, feel free to check out those pages of the website. 'Til Next Time Alex

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