RPE: what and why

Let’s talk RPE!

‘RP-what’? I hear you cry.

RPE is trainerspeak for Rate of Perceived Exertion. Simply put, it’s a measure of how difficult a given exercise felt, on a scale of 1-10. A 1 would be ridiculously easy and a 10 would be a maximal effort.

Since talking with emojis is now a thing, here’s Strength System’s revolutionary RPE scale.

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In general you want most of your exercises to be at an RPE 7-8. In other words, you could probably do another 2-3 reps on a given exercise if you really pushed as hard as you could. 

Why is this important?

Well, RPE is a great way to do something called ‘autoregulation’. As human beings, we all have good and bad days. There are days where we feel like we can conquer the world with a blindfold on and standing on one leg. And then there are other days, where simply rolling out of bed in the morning is hard.

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We can’t just train on the good days. There will be days where you’re not feeling it, but you still need to get your workout in. 

That’s where autoregulation and RPE come in.

Let’s make it practical: suppose you deadlifted 100 KGs for 5 reps last week, at what felt like an RPE 7. You might now expect to hit 105 KGs for 5 reps this week. But you’ve had a pretty bad day: you slept 5 hours, got stuck in hellish traffic all day, and your dog is sick.

Guess what? You might not have that 105 kg deadlift today. Instead, you might work up to a set of 5 at 90 Kgs at RPE 7 and call it a day. 

Congratulations, you just did some autoregulation!

The advantages of an RPE-based approach are pretty clear:

  1. You can account for random, unpredictable stressors in life. Humans aren’t machines, progress isn’t linear, and RPE gives you the flexibility to work with this.

  1. You can make sure that you hit the ‘sweet spot’ for progress. If all your exercises are an RPE 6 or lower, you’re not going to see results. If you only work at RPE 9 or higher, your technique is going to suffer.

  1. It allows you to honestly assess your own effort. This is a skill in itself, and will sharpen over time. Most of us actually overestimate our RPEs and how hard we’re working: it takes several months/years of calculating your own RPE to truly judge it accurately. The more accurately you can assess your own efforts, the more productive your own training is going to be. 

Do say: That squat was an RPE 8, I think I’m good for today. 

Don’t say: That squat was an RPE 10. Let’s go up in weight!

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