RPE has become trendy in the strength training community
It is often used to solve the shortcomings of % based training
It's likely that RPE can only be used accurately by advanced lifters
Utilise AMRAP sets to test your ability to subjectively select intensities
Over the course of the last 5 - 10 years, the use of the ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ scale (or RPE), has become highly popular as a method of prescribing intensity in strength training programmes. However, it is my opinion that this scale is in most cases misapplied and ends up negatively affecting the progress of the trainee.
But first, a bit of background on RPE. The idea of using a subjective rating of exertion as a measure of exercise intensity is nothing new. The Borg scale has been used for endurance exercise since the 1980’s. This scale rated the intensity of exercise from 6 - 20 (I have no idea what happened to numbers 1 - 5). However it was specific to endurance activities like running and cycling.Then in the 2000’s, a highly accomplished powerlifting athlete and coach by the name of Mike Tuscherer popularised an RPE scale that was specific to strength training. The scale is measured from 1 - 10 and is applied to a given set. The idea is that if you rate a set as a 5/10 on the RPE scale, then you were 5 reps away from failure. This is why RPE is sometimes also referred to as Reps In Reserve (RIR).
Mike Tuscherer popularised the RPE scale. He's also incredibly strong.
Until the concept of RPE was introduced, resistance training was traditionally prescribed as a percentage of the trainee’s one-rep max (1RM). As anyone with experience in strength training will know, one of the main downsides to using a percentages approach is that it does not take into account the day-to-day variability in strength that inevitably occurs. For example, if the programme calls for you to do 70% of your 1RM, but you were up late drinking the night before, that 70% could actually be more like 80% due to your fatigue levels. This is where RPE supposedly comes in. The idea is that if you instead prescribe the weight as a rating on the RPE scale, the trainee can then auto-regulate (self select) the weight based on how strong they feel. Therefore if you tell someone to do 3x8 at an RPE 7/10, they are supposed to use a weight that they could do 11 reps with.
"...when novice lifters were allowed to self-selected training loads, the loads used range from just 42 - 57% of 1RM"
On the surface, the logic behind RPE is sound. My gripe with RPE however is that many of the coaches who are now using it are making a critical mistake: they are assuming that their trainees know how to use it. I have seen coaches training beginners with an RPE programme, which is completely absurd. Novices have no awareness of how hard they are capable of pushing and have no prior training experience with which they could compare the RPE of a set to. In other words, if you’ve never been pushed to a 10 before, how could you possibly know what 7 feels like? For example, this study (1) found that when novice lifters were allowed to self-selected training loads, the loads used range from just 42 - 57% of 1RM. Similarly, this study bu Zourdos et al. (2) found that novice squatters were significantly less accurate at assigning an RPE value to their sets than experienced squatters were.
"If you’ve never been pushed to a 10 before, how could you possibly know what 7 feels like?"
But the shortcomings of RPE are not just for novices. It's my experience that for many, this inexperience persists into the intermediate stage of lifting. I have seen this firsthand from training myself and other intermediates. For several years, I was a believer that RPE was the way forward. All of my training was programmed based off RPE, as were the programmes of my clients. Then about a year ago I began incorporating AMRAP sets into my programming. These were sets where i would try to do as many reps as possible, just short of absolute failure.
"Simply put, your body will lie to you."
I cannot tell you how many days there were where I came into the gym and felt like absolute shit. I would unrack what should be an RPE 6, yet it would feel like an RPE 9. However, to my surprise, the majority of these times I would end up hitting rep PRs. My lifts began to advance at a rate I hadn’t seen in years. I realised that my idea of what my body was capable of had become completely skewed by RPE. I had begun to equate a lack of mental energy with a lack of physical energy, and that was often incorrect. Simply put, your body will lie to you. Training is supposed to be hard and it will get harder the stronger you get. What felt like an RPE 9 in year 1 could be an RPE 5 in year 4.
I tested these findings on other intermediates I train and found that they also were poor at predicting their abilities. I have had athletes manage 15+ reps on a weight they predicted they could do 5 with, just because they didn't truly know how to push.
VIDEO: Watch at 8:45. George Leeman can take himself to the high ratings of the RPE scale to the point where he's screaming at himself to get the next rep. But can you?
Now, am I saying that RPE is completely useless? Absolutely not. I definitely believe that there are people out there who can use this scale effectively, although I would say the majority of them are likely advanced lifters. I am not an advanced lifter, and neither are my clients nor are 99% of the Earth’s population. Mike Tuscherer himself is an advanced lifter and so are many of the athletes he trains. Yet I constantly see people who are far from advanced using this scale. Despite 10 years of training experience, I cannot effectively use this scale, and therefore I think it's near useless for the majority of people.
If you want to put your ability to use RPE to the test, I have a challenge for you: do what I did. Warm up, then select a weight that you think you could do 5 reps with at an RPE of 8 (so a weight you could do 7 reps with if you really had to). Then do an AMRAP with that weight instead. You might be surprised with the outcome.
Glass, SC, and Stanton, DR. Self-selected resistance training intensity in novice weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res 18, 2: 324-327, 2004.
Zourdos, M. C., Klemp, A., Dolan, C., Quiles, J. M., Schau, K. A., Jo, E., ... & Blanco, R. (2016). Novel resistance training–specific rating of perceived exertion scale measuring repetitions in reserve. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 30(1), 267-275.