Smarten Up Your Strength Training with RPE

Whether you’re a powerlifter, weightlifter, or just a regular gym rat, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of frustration. Your performance in the gym seems to fluctuate week to week or session to session, seeming about as reliable as the 7-day weather forecast. Unfortunately, unpredictability is part and parcel to performance. 

Leading up to your workout you could be feeling great. Say you got your 8 hours, your diet has been going well, and you had a great day at work. You’re on cloud 9… until you get under the bar. The weights are moving so slow you’re convinced the gym must have switched their plates from pounds to kilograms overnight and didn’t give you the memo. On the other hand, you might plod into the gym the day after a night of too many adult beverages, proud of yourself for leaving your bed, and somehow miraculously set a new PR. Despite our best intentions, there are no guarantees when it comes to performance. Nailing down the basics of sleep, diet, and stress management can take you a long way, but there are many, many other factors in play here – a lot of which we can’t control or plan for. 

So what do we do on the days the iron throws you a curveball and the whole workout feels like a wash? Well, the answer is rarely ‘nothing,’ or to call it a day. We need agility and flexibility built into our training programs to accommodate this – a concept referred to as ‘autoregulation’. A super simple way to start incorporating autoregulation into your training is by using Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE is a self-rated zero to ten scale that seeks to measure your effort for a given exercise. Zero represents absolute rest, and 10 represents maximal effort. RPE intends to guide the external intensity (amount of weight used) and the number of repetitions we perform for each exercise. We can use this to vary the sets/reps in relation to how we’re performing on that particular day, and match it to the desired training adaptation.

Consider this example:

Let’s say the goal of this program is to improve your strength in the deadlift.

Program A calls for 3 sets of 5 reps.

Program B calls for 3 sets of 5 reps at 80% of your 1 repetition maximum.

Program C calls for 3 sets of 5 reps at an RPE of 8.

Let’s break this down. In program A, the only information we have is the volume (number of sets and reps). There is no indication of the amount of weight we should be using, or how difficult it should be. This presents a couple of issues. Firstly, if we’re trying to improve strength, we know the intensity has to be sufficient enough (ie. a certain percentage of your 1RM) to provide the appropriate stimulus. Without any sort of guide, you’re effectively in the dark on how hard those 3 sets of 5 should be, and you may end up completely under-loading the exercise. On the other hand, maybe you succumb to the urges of your ego and put too much weight on the bar – those 5 reps looking grueling and sloppy. Both of these situations are most likely not going to be conducive for achieving the long term results you’re seeking. 

In program B there’s a bit more direction. The problem is, your 1 rep max today, for reasons previously stated, may differ from what it was last week, meaning that 80% is also relatively not what you think it is. You don’t know what your 1RM is on any given day unless you test it every session or guestimate it using calculators – which are not the most reliable, and vary between different exercises. Having a rigid intensity prescription, therefore, doesn’t account for days the weights feel a bit heavier, or the days you’re feeling like a million bucks and ready to push it. 

Lastly, in program C, we have both a prescribed volume and a relative subjective intensity at which it is to be performed (8 RPE). Here we have the flexibility to adjust for the previously mentioned situations and adjust the weight based on how we’re feeling. This allows us to match the weight to our perceived effort, thereby matching the stressor to current capacity and ultimately yielding better training outcomes.

It should be said that there’s definitely a learning curve when first using RPE that requires some calibrating and fine-tuning. It’s hard to know what an 8 or a 9 truly is until you’ve experienced what each feels like consistently, but over time you become more comfortable evaluating your effort. Luckily, we can also use something called Repetitions in Reserve (RIR) as a more user-friendly way to conceptualize RPE.

RIR essentially attaches a relative amount of ‘reps in the tank’ to each RPE value. For example, a rating of 10 on the RPE scale, in terms of RIR, indicates that you felt you could not have done any more reps with the given weight. As we go down the scale, an RPE of 9 would mean you could have done one more rep, an RPE of 8 meaning 2 reps, and so on. The following graph helps illustrate this. 

So, coming back to our 3 sets of 5 example, if we wanted to figure out a weight equal to an RPE of 8, an easy way to do this would be to start at a light weight for 5 reps and slowly build up. After each warm-up set, evaluate your effort during the set and compare it to the RIR scale. Once you hit around an RPE 5-6, start making smaller jumps in weight until you reach the point where, after 5 reps, you feel like you could have maybe done 2 more reps. Congratulations, you’ve found your 8 RPE! From there, you would perform the remaining 2 sets at the same weight, or, if fatigue starts to set in, adjust the weight down slightly to stay at an RPE of 8. 

A general rule of thumb is that it’s acceptable for RPE to increase up to 1 point with subsequent sets (so not to exceed 9 RPE in the provided example). As said before, it takes some practice figuring out what an RPE of 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. feels like. It’s possible, even likely, that you’ll completely overshoot or undershoot at first. This is totally okay. It’s a process that requires refining, but the dividends it pays towards improving strength training performance is invaluable. Play around with this on the first couple of exercises during your next workout and let us know what you think. Feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions about how to implement this concept into your training. Happy lifting!

We offer a number of programs and options for care that are focused on both performance and rehabilitation.