What is Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)?

Rate of Perceived Exertion
-Clark Hibbs

“So today we have 3 sets of 5 reps in the back squat. We want this to be challenging, but not too heavy, so we want this to be around a 7/10 RPE. Any questions?” 

“Yes, what the hell does RPE mean?”

Very, very fair question. Let’s keep this short. 

RPE is an abbreviation for “Rate of Perceived Exertion.” RPE is a way for us to prescribe the appropriate stimulus for workouts without pigeonholing people into specific weights that might not work for the day. 

In a perfect world, you would get 8-9 hours of sleep a night, be constantly hydrated, have zero stress, be PERFECT with our nutrition, and be able to perform perfectly in every single workout. In that perfect world, we could perfectly prescribe the appropriate amount of progressive overload based on a periodized progression that worked from high volume low weight to low volume high weight. At least, that’s what all of the exercise books teach us. 

But we live in a realist world full of stress, bad nights of sleep, dehydration, and days where our only goal in the gym is “just to move.”  Because of this realistic gym, a “perfect” program is not the right move, especially for a gym that caters to so many different people! 

However, we can still get the right stimulus and honor the intention of the workout by using a scale of perceived exertion for the day! 

Think about it like this… your 1 rep max deadlift is 250 pounds. Using a periodized percentage based program, we would base percentages off of that 250 pound deadlift. So we could say we’re going to perform 6 sets of 8 at 75%, or 6×8 at 185 pounds. Simply enough, yeah? 

But what if the day before this workout you had a super stressful day which lead to way too much coffee, dehydration, crappy sleep, and terrible nutrition? Well, that 185 pounds might be perceived by your body like 250, and you won’t be able to get the right stimulus of the workout. It will feel like you’re deadlifting a truck.

Not only that, you’ll probably feel pretty mentally defeated as well. Not good if you’re trying to keep consistent momentum with your workouts!

Instead of trying to go off of an arbitrary number, what if instead we said “6 sets of 8 at a 7.5/10 RPE” based on how you’re feeling today? You can be much more successful this way!

Here’s how an RPE scale should look: 

Was this too easy to count as a true work set? No? Next. Yes? ➡️  5.5/10
Was this fairly easy like a warm-up weight? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 6/10
Was this borderline warm-up weight? Starting to feel tough? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 6.5/10
Was the speed fairly quick, but required conscious effort? Had 3-4 reps in the tank? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 7/10
Could you have definitely done 3 more reps? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 7.5/10
Could you have definitely done 2 more reps? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 8/10
Could you have maybe done 2 more reps? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 8.5/10
Could you have definitely done 1 more rep? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 9/10
Could you have maybe done 1 more rep? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 9.5/10
This was complete maximum effort with no room for extra reps.  Yes? ➡️ 10/10 (1RM)

Is it a perfect system? Nope. Is it a good way to get pretty close to the right intensity for each day? Absolutely. 

Instead of pigeonholing yourself into what you think you “should” be doing on a certain day, we can use a simple RPE scale to make sure you still get the right stimulus, and honor the intention of the workout. 

Speaking of honoring the intention of the workout… we could even take this a step further and put an RPE scale for our metcons as well! Check it out (little more tongue and cheek here): 

I am binge watching The Office again No? Next. Yes? ➡️  1/10
I am walking around the mall with grandma No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 2/10
Grandma got some coffee, we’re walking a bit faster No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 3/10
Sweating a little now, but still able to chat with Grandma. No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 4/10
Juuuust above comfortable. Had to ditch Grandma. This feels like a bit of a workout. No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 5/10
Having to take breaths in between words. Heart is pumping. No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 6/10
I can talk, but please don’t talk to me. This is getting tough.  No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 7/10
Omg you can not talk to me right now I’m focusing on trying not to die. No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 8/10
Do you feel like dying a bit? No? Next. Yes? ➡️ 9/10
Are you dead now?  Yes? ➡️ 10/10

Or, if we wanted to put that into actual cardio terms or running terms… 

5/10 RPE – easy jog. Can chat the whole time. 

6/10 RPE – Trying to be slightly ahead of normal pace, but can sustain this for a long distance.

7/10 RPE – More than a jog, less than a run. Can sustain short distance.

8/10 RPE – 1 mile run, running hard. 

9/10 RPE – 400m sprint. Only sustainable for a few rounds with rest in  between.

10/10 RPE – 100m sprint. Not sustainable. Truly max effort. 

See how we can sort of gauge this? It doesn’t always come down to seeing that actual weights and time caps on the board. Sometimes we need to ditch what the board says entirely and simply think, “How am I feeling today? What RPE can I go at to honor the intention of the workout?” 

So next time you’re faced with a strength set, don’t think, “What did I do last time we did this?” or “What was my score?”  Think, “How am I feeling today?” and perform the workout at the correct RPE scale. 

See you at the gym!



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