If you’re into powerlifting or weight training, you must have heard many technical words. One particular term that is thrown around a lot at the gym is RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion.
It is an effective method to measure the intensity of your workout sessions. The RPE method of evaluation uses a scale to help lifters judge how hard or easy their workout sessions are designed to be.
The Rate of Perceived Exertion test can give you a subjective idea of your workout’s intensity. Professional athletes prefer measuring their progress by using the RPE scale instead of counting their repetitions because linear progression is difficult after a point.
While RPE is a commonly used technique in the world of bodybuilding and weightlifting, it is useful in strenuous situations. Some researchers even apply the principles of RPE in workplaces to gauge the stress of employees.
RPE training is an effective way to improve the effectiveness of your workout routine. It gauges the difficulty of each repetition and allows the lifter to decide if they want to increase the weight for the next set.
By doing so, lifters increase or decrease the plates depending on how the lifting movements feel. It eliminates the existence of pre-defined weights, giving bodybuilders better control over their time at the gym.
What is RPE in Lifting?
RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion, uses a scale of 1 to 10 to define the intensity of a weight-training session.
The primary objective of RPE in lifting is to allow bodybuilders to set realistic fitness goals and track their progress.
This is especially true in the case of seasoned powerlifters. For them, progress stops being linear after a certain point. They cannot keep increasing the weights they lift or the number of their repetitions after each workout.
What they can do, however, is train till the point of exertion. At the same time, they need to do that in a controlled, sustained manner. Otherwise, they’ll end up overtraining one set of muscles and overlooking the others.
With the help of the RPE scale, lifters can measure how difficult it is for their body to work with a particular weight. This will allow them to adjust the rest of the workout session accordingly.
On some days, the body just feels better. It becomes capable of lifting heavier than it does on other, average days. To take advantage of such situations, RPE helps in maxing out the intensity of any workout session.
This also implies that following a rigid workout schedule based on pre-defined weights might be wasteful sometimes. To get the best of your body’s capability, measuring how easy it feels to lift a particular weight and adapting accordingly can be effective.
The RPE methodology notes your heart rate, temperature of your body, rate of breathing, how much you are sweating, and muscle fatigue perceptions to gauge how hard your body is working during weightlifting sessions.
From thereon, it’s as simple as assigning a numeric value to the difficulty of your previous set.
The RPE scale is pretty simple to understand. Think of it as a ruler that measures the intensity of your physical activities.
You begin with the number 1, which basically indicates that the exercise is too easy for you. Your body does not even have to make an effort to complete a repetition.
From thereon, you keep increasing the intensity of your workout, moving up the scale to 2, 3, or any other higher number.
Lastly, you have the number 10, which is the absolute maximum intensity level. When you’ve reached the number 10 on the RPE scale, you won’t have any energy left to complete another repetition.
Here’s a clearer picture of what the RPE scale looks like:
Standard RPE Scale
Maximum intensity; you don’t have enough in the tank for another repetition or weight
Could not have done more reps but could have done slightly more weight
High-intensity workout; you’ll have to grind to get another repetition
Could have done one more rep and slightly more weight
Heavy weight; you can hit 2 more repetitions at this level
Could have done 2 more reps and slightly more weight
Could have done 3 more reps
Could have done 3 more reps and slightly more weight
Slightly lightweight; useful for pushing in quick repetitions. Could have done 4 more reps
Lightweight; too easy, useful for warm-up exercises
4 & Below
Extremely lightweight; useful for recovery, gauging form, and mobility training
Using RPE is a good move for professional athletes who haven’t quite figured out their one-rep maximums for different exercises. It also allows bodybuilders to adapt their training sessions based on how they feel.
If their body feels stronger on good days, and they are working at RPE8 with a weight of 225 lbs, they can hit another plate and bring the weight to 230-240 lbs, depending on how easy it feels for their body that day.
Similarly, they can decrease the intensity level of their workout on hectic days.
How Do I Calculate My RPE?
There are two types of RPE scales that you can use to judge your workout’s intensity.
The more objective one was developed by Borg, and it uses a scale of 6 to 20. The Borg scale is based on the principle of heart rate. You can calculate your RPE by simply dividing your heart rate by 10.
So, if you’re resting, your heart rate must be around 60 beats per minute. When we divide it by 10, we get 6, which is the lowest end of Borg’s RPE scale. Similarly, the number 20 on Borg’s scale indicates a heart rate of 200 beats per minute.
The other RPE, which is traditionally used in bodybuilding and weightlifting, uses a scale between 1-10. This scale uses a more subjective method of gauging the activity level of an individual.
The scale is not based on heart rate or any other objective data. The RPE we use in training and at the gym is more about our personal interpretation of what our body is feeling. We have to judge if our body is working at the RPE level 8 or RPE level 9, depending on how intense the task appears to be.
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How Do You Use RPE When Lifting?
RPE training can be highly effective when you’re doing it right. For one, you don’t have to lift weights based on your one-rep maximum. Using RPE in workout sessions allows greater flexibility.
In comparison to using pre-defined weights on the basis of your 1RM, RPE training is less rigid and simpler. For instance, your schedule can look like this:
- 3 sets at RPE 7
- 4 sets at RPE 7
- 3 sets at RPE 8
- 4 sets at RPE 8
The primary advantage of using the RPE technique is the prevention of muscular injuries and overexertion. If your body is feeling tired, you can reduce the weight. But you’ll be still working at the same intensity level. Hence, your workout’s efficiency will remain the same.
It’s common knowledge that lifting heavier weights is not the only way to gain muscle hypertrophy. It’s all about working your muscles to the point of exertion and fatigue.
With the RPE training model, you can do exactly that.
In this technique, the initial warm-up sets are exceptionally important. You’ll be using lighter weights for warm-ups. It should feel like RPE level 4 or 5 on the intensity scale. But if your usual warm-up weight is feeling like RPE3 or RPE4, you could increase the weight you’ll work with during the main sets.
Such flexibility is what allows bodybuilders to get the best out of their bodies.
When To Use RPE in Training?
There are many methods of gauging a workout’s intensity. The most commonly used technique is the percentage of 1-rep maximum. Most coaches ask bodybuilders to lift weights according to their 1RM.
For example, lifting 85% of their 1RM can be beneficial for bodybuilders to overcome plateaus, promote hypertrophy, and so on.
But what if you don’t know your 1-rep maximum? In this case, the RPE scale can help immensely. The use of RPE in weightlifting is efficient when you want to gain strength but don’t have a clear idea about your 1RM.
The biggest advantage of RPE training is that intensity becomes subjective. For example, if a lifter is tired, then their usual 225 pounds become too heavy for them. Ultimately, they are not able to perform well on such days.
As far as RPE is considered, weights are obsolete. If you are having a hectic day and lifting 200 pounds feels as difficult as lifting your usual 225 pounds, you’re working on the same RPE level. That indicates that you’re working out on the same level, if not more.
RPE training also establishes better mind muscle connection while working out because you have to constantly think about how hard your body is working.
Another situation where using RPE can be beneficial is when you’ve hit training plateaus. Working out based on your body’s capability can help you progress past the plateau and gain strength effectively.
Similarly, RPE training can also be combined with using the percentage of 1RM in the case of accessory lifts. For example, although the percentage of 1RM is good for determining the weight while powerlifting, it’s irrelevant in the case of accessory exercises like triceps extensions, where RPE is more suitable.
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What RPE is Best for Strength?
If you’re focused on building strength with your workout sessions, it’s better to go for RPE 8 or RPE 9 intensity levels.
Such a training program will allow you to push low-volume, high-intensity training sessions, which are key for strength-based workout routines.
What RPE is Best for Hypertrophy?
Anywhere between RPE 6 and RPE 7.5 is ideal if you’re focused on promoting muscle hypertrophy during your gym workout sessions.
Working out at this intensity level will allow you to follow a high-volume, moderate-weight training program which can effectively promote muscle protein synthesis and increase hypertrophy.
What RPE is Moderate Intensity?
If you’re looking to work out at a moderate intensity, go for RPE 6 or RPE 7. That should allow you to lift fairly quickly without making it seem too easy for your muscles.
Ideally, RPE7 is good for pushing in moderate workouts and can effectively contribute to muscle hypertrophy and gains in the long run.
What RPE Should a Warm-Up Be?
Warm-ups are exceptionally important when it comes to RPE training. They allow a bodybuilder to gauge how their body is feeling in relative terms.
Generally, RPE5 is ideal for performing warm-up exercises before hitting the actual strides. Anything less than that might be too easy to activate your muscles and pump them enough for the upcoming session.
What RPE Should a Cooldown Be?
Cooldown exercises offer tons of advantages. Apart from reducing the risk of injuries, they also regulate blood flow and prevent heart or muscular stress. They’re also effective in toning down your body temperature and blood pressure before you leave the gym.
An effective cooldown session can be performed at RPE 4 or RPE 5, depending on how burnt out you are feeling after your workout.
What RPE Should You Train at Powerlifting?
The RPE range for powerlifting should be anywhere between 7-9, depending on your fitness goals and objectives.
When it comes to powerlifting, you should choose the RPE level in such a way that you can still push in 1-3 repetitions after the final rep. That is, you should be tired from the high-intensity workout, but you shouldn’t be exhausted.
In this way, RPE training will improve your powerlifting capabilities by reducing injury risks, allowing you to maintain proper form, and cope with high fatigue levels.
What RPE Should You Train at Bodybuilding?
If your focus is on building a good body and achieving greater hypertrophy, you should hit anywhere between 6 and 8 on the RPE scale.
The intensity levels between RPE6 and RPE8 are ideal for allowing bodybuilders to train at the high level frequently and consistently. Lifters will achieve maximum muscle hypertrophy at this level.
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To Sum Up
The RPE scale is an effective tool for measuring the intensity of your workout. This is especially true if you don’t have a defined 1RM.
By using RPE you can accomplish your fitness goals efficiently by making the best of your body’s capabilities.