Hearing the term RPE pop up more and more? Want to know what it means and how to use it in your own training and workouts? This guide has got you covered. We’re going to look at:
- The Basics: What Does RPE Mean?
- Why is RPE important? / What are the Benefits of RPE?
- How do you calculate RPE?
- How do you train with RPE?
- Who Should Use RPE-based training?
- RPE Training: Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
The Basics: What Does RPE Mean?
RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion, and a good RPE definition is as “a way of personally rating how hard you found a specific activity or exercise”. In most cases, RPE uses a simple 1-10 scale, where 10/10 RPE is the hardest it can be.
RPE is an essential concept within all forms of sport and exercise training and has gained popularity as a programming method in strength training and powerlifting.
What is RPE in a workout? (Practical Example)
RPE in a workout depends on the type of workout, so let’s run through a couple of examples:
RPE meaning in the gym: (strength or hypertrophy workouts) basically refers to reps in reserve (RIR) and can be used pretty much interchangeably. So an RPE of 7 would equate to a reps in reserve rating of 3, meaning that you could perform 3 more reps if needed.
RPE meaning in fitness/cardio workout: typically refers to how hard you’re breathing and how high your heart rate is. So if you performed 800m at 10/10 RPE that would be a max effort. It would be incredibly intense, you would be massively out of breath, and your heart would feel like it was beating out of your chest.
RPE in weightlifting (olympic weightlifting): RPE with snatches, cleans and jerks is a bit trickier because it’s much harder to estimate how close you are to failure. 2.5kg can be the difference between a solid make and an ugly missed lift. Instead, I’ve written about a psychological RPE scale for weightlifting that you might find useful.
Why is RPE important? / What are the Benefits of RPE?
Let’s say that two lifters (A&B) have the same workout.
- Lifter A finds the workout easy and feels fresh at the end
- Lifter B finds the workout incredibly difficult and feels like death at the end
How likely is it that both lifters get the same results from that workout?
RPE-based training allows us to assess how difficult workouts actually are for each individual, and adjust those workouts to suit our needs.
So if you use rpe, this tends to mean better results, less chance of injury, and an increased motivation to train.
What does RPE mean for you? (Inter and Intra-variability)
The beauty of RPE is that it’s a subjective metric, which means that it means different things to different people (inter-variability) as described above, and can even mean different things to the same person on different days (intra-variability).
For example, let’s say that you squat 3×5 at 100kg this week at RPE 7. But then next week you have a terrible night of sleep, a long day at work and a bunch of life stress. This time you might only squat 90kg for 3×5 at the same RPE of 7.
“Whilst the rpe definition and scale stay the same, how you perceive specific exercises and training sessions will vary day to day.”
How do you calculate RPE?
The simplest way to calculate RPE is as a scale of 1-10, where 1 is very easy and 10 very hard, and you simply rate based on feel. So if an exercise is very hard you would rate it as a 10, whereas if an exercise was very easy you would rate it as a 1.
Calculating RPE for lifting (Strength Training, Powerlifting, Strongman)
What’s great about RPE within strength training is that there are specific, quantifiable numbers that we can use for different difficulties. The table below is from Mike Tuscherer…
So we can use standardised definitions of what specific RPE ratings mean to guide our training. For example:
- RPE 6: “Fairly easy warm-up weight” or 4 reps left in the tank.
- RPE 7: “Felt like an easy competition opener” or 3 reps left in the tank
Obviously, this is specifically designed for RPE meaning with the gym (not for cardio fitness) and it’s worth bearing in mind that the RPE ratings become harder to judge and less meaningful the higher your rep scheme. I.e. it’s easier to know if you’re 1 rep from failure when performing sets of 5 than it is when performing sets of 25.
How do you train with RPE?
Across my past 8 years as a professional strength and conditioning coach, I’ve used rpe to prescribe workouts in a variety of ways. Sometimes I use RPE on its own, sometimes I mix it with percentages.
When designing a programme, I might say something like “perform 3 sets of 5 at RPE 8,” so the athlete knows that they need to do 3×5 at a weight where they could definitely get another 2 reps if they had to.
Here are three example rpe workouts to show you what I mean.
RPE Powerlifting Workout Example
- Squat: 3×6 @ RPE 8
- Pause Bench Press: 5×3 @ RPE 7
- Slow Eccentric Deadlift: 2×4 @ RPE 7
RPE Weightlifting Workout Example
- Snatch: 5×2 @ 75-85%
- Snatch Deadlift: 3×3 @ RPE 7
- Back Squat: 3×5 @ RPE 8
RPE Fitness Workout Example
- 400m run @ rpe 6
- 2x400m run @ rpe 8
- 400m run @ rpe 6
*What does rpe mean in fitness? RPE is simply a measure of difficulty, which in fitness is all about your heart rate and breathing. The faster these are, the higher your rpe.
Who Should Use RPE-based training?
RPE-based training can be an incredibly useful tool. I’m a big fan of rpe for powerlifters, rpe for bodybuilders, rpe for endurance athletes and even rpe for weightlifters once it’s modified.
However, beginners and intermediate/advanced athletes need to use RPE somewhat differently.
For beginners: Use RPE more as a loose monitoring tool
“beginners don’t tend to have accurate ideas of how hard they can actually push themselves.”
In my years of coaching, I’ve found that it’s not unusual for a beginner to say that a set was RPE 9 or 10 when I can tell you for certain that they could have actually done another 5 reps.
It’s hard to know where your limits are when you haven’t pushed up against them before. And that’s okay. You can still make great progress.
If this is you, use RPE to loosely estimate how many reps you have left or how hard you worked, and then at the end of your training block, you can try a max effort or max repetition set to see how accurate you were.
For intermediates and advanced: Use RPE honestly
For more experienced lifters, the key to using rpe successfully is honesty. If your powerlifting programme calls for an rpe 7 squat, but you have to get super psyched up and grind it out, then it wasn’t an rpe 7 squat.
“rpe workouts only work if you stick to the rpe definition honestly”
RPE Training: Frequently Asked Questions
What is 1st set RPE?
1st set rpe is your rpe rating for the first set that you perform of an exercise. For example, if you’re doing 3×5 squats at 100kg, your first set might be rpe 7, but your next sets might be rpe 8 or 9. This is why I sometimes recommend changing the weight between sets.
What are the limitations of RPE?
RPE can be tricky to use for beginners, as they need a bit of time to dial in the accuracy of their assessments.
RPE also falls a bit short when applied to movements with higher technical demand such as a snatch or clean and jerk, as you can fail a lift even with a low RPE score. (See my article on a new RPE model for weightlifting)
What is the relationship between heart rate and RPE?
For those of you interested in RPE for fitness training, there’s actually a really strong relationship between heart rate and RPE.
The ‘Borg scale’ is a 6-20 scale designed to correlate with heart rates from 60-200. So if an athlete rated a run on the borg scale as an RPE 15, they would likely have achieved a heart rate of around 150. This makes the borg scale an especially meaningful way to assess rpe in cardiovascular fitness training.
What RPE should you train at for hypertrophy?
If you’re interested in using RPE for bodybuilding and muscle gain, research shows that sets of 5 to 30 reps at an RPE of 6 and above are all good options.
Personally, I would recommend that you spend most of your time in the centre of that, so sets of 10-20 reps at RPE 8. With some time spent at the outer ranges.
RPE and periodisation (How to use rpe for long term plans)
For longer-term plans, you can use RPE on a sliding scale. Start your rpe training programme with lower rpe targets and move towards higher rpe targets towards the end of your programme.
How do I find my RPE?
With the borg scale, you can simply multiply your heart rate by 10. Alternatively, you can just estimate from 6-20 based on how hard you’re currently working.
With the 1-10 scale, you can equate RPE to reps in reserve (RPE 7 means 3 reps in reserve, RPE 8 means 2 reps in reserve) or you can simply estimate based on how hard you feel you’re working.
You’ll get more accurate over time.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Try to start using some RPE-based training in your own programmes, or consider having me draw a programme up for you with my custom programme options.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.