A Closer Look at RPE

By Will Kuenzel

What is RPE?  It is your rate of perceived exertion.  It’s how you feel something to be.  Is it easy?  Is it difficult?  I try to explain it in as many different ways as possible.  Every person has different cues that will click and make it work for them.  It never hurts to hear these things again to gain a better understanding, or to help reinforce what you already know.

I spend a lot of time explaining the RPE (rate of perceived exertion).  For those athletes with very little time spent under that bar, they’re going to have an extremely hard time judging where they fall on the spectrum.  Even for experienced lifters, it can be confusing.  Lifting is often black and white.  The weight on the bar is very measurable.  It’s easy to determine if you got the lift, or not.  Those things are not really open to interpretation.  When you ask someone to base their lifting on how they’re feeling, we inevitably run into problems.

“How do you feel today?”  I ask my clients and athletes that question every time they walk through the door.  I’m not just making small talk, I actually do care.  It matters for what we’re going to do that day.  As a coach, I can watch technique, measure bar speed, and make notes of dozens of different metrics.  The one thing I can’t do, however, is know how you feel.  So, this is where the RPE comes into play.

Stress comes at us from a host of different directions.  Through it all though, stress is stress, is stress.  It inevitability takes its toll.  Our bodies handle all stress the same.  Physical stress, emotional stress, mental stress, and even good stress takes its toll.  It all pulls from our recovery.  Coming in to train after a long night of drinking isn’t going to produce the same session as a long night of sleep.  Just like a rough day at work where your boss has been on your case about getting some reports pushed out.  The stress of the day can, and will, have a negative impact on how we perceive our training to be.  We can’t control all aspects of our life.  Stress will have an effect.  I talk about this, and how to utilize stress, more in this article: Stress: Necessary Adaptation

Knowing that stress is going to have an impact, we can make the necessary adjustments on the fly.  The technical term for this is autoregulatory training.  It’s not quite the same as instinctive training, but close.  You’re relying on the information your body provides, along with a rough idea of how your life is going now, and including the past couple of days, to understand that some days are going to be better than others.

When I’m coaching, I can help my clients and athletes decided where they are.  I can see when bar speed slows down.  If speed and technique start to falter, we’re getting close to the target RPE.   To continue with the workout, we can adjust the weight, or reps to continue.  If you overestimated where you are for the day, you don’t just shut it down at 2 sets if you have 5 to do.  Just working up to that 2nd set and just because it got heavy doesn’t mean that you can’t scale it down.  Back the weight down to an appropriate load that will let you continue.  Get the work done.

Brian lays out the structure for the sets and reps of the offseason and meet prep in his 10/20/Life book.  The offseason relies heavily on the use of the RPE scale.  I look at it this way, the off season can have a bit more variance.  It’s the off season, no meet in sight, possibly recovering, or working on weaknesses, there’s a lot that can change within training.  During meet prep, I don’t care how you’re feeling.  You have these percentages to hit.  Get it done.  Once you’ve made the commitment to a meet, there’s a certain level of responsibility and accountability that you need to dedicate to yourself.  There is no variance.  You hit those percentages for the prescribed sets and reps.  No excuses.

  • In the offseason, you’re feeling crappy?  Okay, scale it back a bit.
  • In meet prep, you’re feeling crappy?  Nope, doesn’t matter (with obvious exceptions).  Get your act together.
  • It’s the offseason and you’re feeling great.  Awesome. Run with it.  Stay within the RPEs.
  • It’s meet prep and you’re feeling great?  Good.  Count your lucky stars and hope it holds.  You want to go into the meet feeling like that.  Don’t ruin it by over shooting things.  You want to hit an unrealistically high total?  Do it 3 meets from now.  This next meet isn’t your last.  There will be another one.  You messed up big time if it was your last meet.

Most inexperienced lifters will feel the need to go heavy all the time.  “What’s this RPE 7 crap? I lift to failure all the time.”  #TeamNoDaysOff and #TeamGrind…or some such nonsense.  Adaptation to exercise is the result of accumulated fatigue and then a period of backing off to allow for the body to compensate (or hopefully super compensate).  The goal is to be able to recover from your workouts.  The goal is not to beat the body down so bad that recovery takes longer than you have time from session to session.

Accumulated fatigue with the right amount of volume that we can recover from workout to workout.  Recovery.  That’s a key word.  When we use the RPE in the off season I will set the upper limit that I will have my lifters push to.  It will look similar to this chart:

Generally, the way I describe things:

  • RPE 10: if someone had a gun to your head, you couldn’t do another rep
  • RPE 9: At least one more rep and possibly 2
  • RPE 8: 2 more reps left in the tank with the possibility of 3 on a great day
  • RPE 7: A good solid 3 more reps left in the tank, and probably 4
  • RPE 6: 5+ reps left in the tank

Sounds good on paper, but tough to implement in real life.

To take a deeper look, let’s think about doing an RPE 7 for 5 sets of 5 reps.  According to my chart above, an RPE of 7 at 5 reps would be 74%.  I recommend starting your working sets at least at one RPE below the prescribed.  So, I’d start at RPE 6, or in this case 71%.  Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it can be.  See how it feels. If it feels good, go up to RPE 7.  If that feels good too?  Stay there.  Depending on where you are in the training cycle, it might call for you to best your previous week’s attempt there.  A five or ten-pound increase is all that is recommended.  Stay there and finish out the sets

If for whatever reason, after 3 sets you notice that things don’t feel as good any more, whether it be fatigue, or technique failing, don’t hesitate to back it down a bit.  Finish out the sets but lower the weight.  The idea is to get the volume done.

Here is this example laid out:

  • Set 1: 71% for 5 reps – felt good, going up
  • Set 2: 74% for 5 reps – felt good, and looking to beat previous week’s attempt
  • Set 3: 75% for 5 reps – felt good, stay there, don’t push it
  • Set 4: 75% for 5 reps – starting to slow down and technique isn’t as crisp, back off
  • Set 5: 72-73% for 5 reps – better than set 4 but could tell that things were fatiguing

That’s a damn good looking set up.  All the work was finished and it was all done very close to the recommended RPE.  If it takes you 5 sets to get to your top weight, then at least the first 2 sets were still warm ups and shouldn’t count.  If your muscular endurance is good then you might be able to get all the sets done at the same weight.  That’s great, but the idea isn’t the total weight but the total fatigue.  Don’t cut yourself short if you don’t have to.  Stress changes how it feels.  We want to get as close the recommended RPE and stay there for as many of the prescribed sets and reps as possible.  Low stress could mean higher weights, and high stress could mean lower weights, but both scenarios might elicit the same response in the body.  All without pushing it past the point where recovery would be any more difficult than it needs to be.

These are all just guidelines that use to help inform and educate new lifters to the RPE.  These are not rules.  I don’t like to see the guidelines bent too far, even by experienced lifters but there are always exceptions.

As an example, in the off season I hope you’re working on your weaknesses.  Picking an exercise that clearly shows those flaws might mean that the percentages will not correlate.  These percentages are based on 1rep maxes.  If you do not know those, then they’re only estimates at best.  Another reason why I say these are generally the upper limit and I don’t give a lower limit.  1rep maxes are usually (hopefully) only done under peaked and controlled circumstances. You won’t be like that year-round, so again, that makes these as the upper limit.

This is to help you understand the guidelines.  Know there are exceptions, but don’t expect them often.  Use the table as a guide, but understand that it does not, and cannot, take everything into account.  Be patient. Be persistent.  Progress comes with practice.  Don’t expect a lightning strike of results.  Whittle away at it and listen to your body.  It’s telling you what’s going on and where you need to be.  The question is; are you listening?

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Low Country Strength

Will Kuenzel is the owner of Lowcountry Strength (www.LowcountryStrength.com) in Charleston, SC. Will started his athletic endeavors as a pole vault; finishing up his collegiate career with a best vault of 16’9” at a whopping 160lbs. He the track and field world to pursue bodybuilding, his first show in 2005, he won 1st place in Men’s Novice as a middle weight. One year later he took 2nd as a Men’s Junior heavy weight. Since 2007 he has been a competitive powerlifter and totaling elite as a 220lber. His best lifts in multiply equipment are a 710lbs squat, a 605lbs bench press, a 615lbs deadlift and a 1930 total. In 2008 Will started Lowcountry Strength out of his garage. Since then it has moved into a 16,000 sq/ft facility and shares space with a mixed martial arts studio. With all disciplines of powerlifting, strongman, MMA, jiu jitsu and other sports in the Charleston area getting trained under one roof, Will heads up the strength and conditioning for a wide variety of athletes and clients.
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