Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is a person’s rating of how difficult it was to perform an exercise. In regards to resistance training, it would be how hard a particular set felt to complete. This indication of required effort can allow us to approximate the intensity (load) of the exercise, without actually knowing the true percentage relative to a person’s 1-Repetion Maximum (1-RM). While the Borg 15-Point scale is taught to most students of exercise physiology, I personally use a 1-10 scale popularized by elite powerlifter and coach, Mike Tuchscherer of Reactive Training Systems. It is my opinion that this 1-10 scale is more practical for resistance training and easier for athletes and clients to conceptualize. Tuchscherer provides the following figure in his article, “Beginning RTS” to explain this 1-10 system.
RPE offers a number of benefits for strength and conditioning coaches to take advantage of when programming for their athletes. However, there are also a few disadvantages that must be taken into account as well. In this post, I will explain the advantages and disadvantages of using RPE for sport performance programming and offer my own experiences in its use.
Advantages to RPE
RPE can be very helpful in situations when you don’t know the athletes’ 1-RM’s. For this reason, I find RPE to be useful in circumstances when an athlete is returning to consistent training following a break. Potential examples include, reintegration to team training following rehabilitation from injury, and early off-season training following a break from sport and training. Additionally, RPE can be useful for in-season training when strength levels fluctuate due to changes in daily readiness and fatigue. It could be useful and productive to have the athlete work up to a top set at a given RPE rather than try to hit percentages based off of a previous 1-RM that was performed on a day they were fresh. Keeping track of RPE still allows you to track and monitor athletes’ general strength levels over time while also allowing them to make adjustments based on how they feel that day.
When I was in the collegiate setting, I used an RPE based load selection protocol with all of my assigned teams, depending on where we were in the year. 1-RM’s fluctuate due to a number of factors such as fatigue, skill retention, and attention. When entering the early off-season, many of the athletes had not trained consistently for a few weeks. Therefore, their skills in completing the tested exercises, as well as their actual strength levels had decreased somewhat. Their old 1-RM’s were no longer useful as they would not be accurate. Due to a lack of practice of the tested exercises, and a lack of recent exposure to high intensities, I did not think it was a good idea to do 1-RM or estimated 1-RM testing until the athletes had been exposed to some training with gradually increasing volumes and intensities. For this reason, I used RPE based load selection for the first 1-2 mesocycles (2-6 weeks of planned training) of their programming while they increased general fitness and practiced the core (tracked and tested) exercises. After these 1-2 mesocycles, we used a 1-6 maximum repetition test to acquire an estimated 1-RM. I used the previous cycle’s loads and RPEs to determine approximate testing loads. I then used a percentage based load selection for the following mesocycles, based off of testing.
Disadvantages to RPE
It is subjective. Everyone perceives their efforts in completing various exercises differently. If you and I have the same 1-RM of 315lbs, we may each give 275lbs different RPE ratings even though it is technically the same percentage of our 1-RM. Additionally, athletes must be educated and experienced enough in training to provide an accurate RPE. I learned this firsthand when I used an RPE system with novice rowers with little prior resistance training experience. After two months of training with RPE-based load selection, I switched to 5/3/1 inspired programming with the percentages estimated off of the previous cycle’s loads and RPE’s. Many of the rowers hit 15-20 reps in their plus sets when they were given an 8+ top set that was meant to be 70% of their estimated 1-RM. Typically 70% would allow for the completion of 10-12 repetitions at and RPE of 10 (maximal effort). This experience made me realize the limitations of RPE with new trainees. These rowers did not have enough resistance training experience to know what level of effort was required to lift weights of various intensities. For this reason, they significantly overestimated their RPE with loads that were actually much less of the true 1-RM. With this in mind, you must take athletes’ training ages and experience into account when deciding to use RPE based programming. In the future, I would reserve RPE based training for athletes of higher training ages and experiences who can provide you with relatively accurate ratings of their efforts.
RPE is useful when you have experienced trainees and expect fluctuations in their strength levels. Using an RPE based load selection system for in-season training can give athletes the flexibility to adjust their exercise intensity based on their level of readiness that day. It can also give the coach a way to assign exercise intensities in the absence of an accurate 1-RM. RPE can sometimes be difficult to use due to its subjective nature. Newer trainees may not be able to conceptualize and use it in the manner expected. If you have not felt what the effort of performing a true 1-RM feels like, then it can be difficult to accurately assign RPE’s to efforts.
Please share your experiences with RPE-based load selection in your own and your athletes’/clients’ training in the comments.