Citations: Zourdos et al., 2015; Helms et al., 2016
Rating of perceived exertion (RPE) for strength and hypertrophy, do you use it? Save this for your next lift!
What is RPE?
Rating of perceived exertion or RPE for short is one of the most widely used and validated ways of assessing one’s perceived response to exercise.
Traditionally, it was validated in response to heart rate and mainly used in aerobic fitness.
However, the popularity and validation of this took has increased in use in strength training as well. It is a foundational concept in Exercise Physiology and a very useful tool!
RPE is a way to self-assess the intensity of the exercise you performing. Most commonly on a 1-10 scale. Not only is this concept heavily foundational within the field of exercise science, it’s now been validated within lifting populations as well and has its own lifting specific scale, which I use with my clients!
And while you might say “I’m not an elite lifter though!”. It is STILL a fantastic tool not only based on the literature but for both you and my TLM clients who are widely just every day women, moms, students trying their damn best to chase big bold fitness goals. It’s also a great opportunity to actually listen to your body, the feedback it gives you, and learning how to properly challenge yourself in the gym without always going to max.
Why use it for strength?
The use of RPE during strength training allows an individual to auto-regular their exertion of the load they are moving. Meaning you are not stuck to a %1RM for each lift and can say “hey this feels easier/harder” and adjust weight accordingly between sets.
This allows for more self-control of exertion day-to-day and week-to-week does not appear to have negative impacts on training stimulus.
RPE allows you to better auto-regulate your exertion day to day and week to week; which allows you to work your lifting INTO your life, rather than against it on days you may be a bit more fatigued or energetic. The beauty of auto regulation and listening to your body!For many of us, we either underestimate how much more weight we can be moving or try to max out every day. However, we don’t need to do everything at an RPE10 (on a 10/10 scale) For most large muscle strength and hypertrophy lifts we usually want to aim for around an RPE8/10 which feels like you could do at most 2 reps left if you absolutely had to (trust me, this is still HARD). For our smaller muscle group accessory moves (think “bro lifts” like tricep extensions or bicep curls) we can get away with a little more RPE9/10 or failure work.
For novice trainees, I would spend your time focusing on form and feeling comfortable with movement patterns, rather than RPE or even keeping at a lower RPE till you are comfortable & are at a later training age.
Ok, but how?
Since the literature supports sub-maximal efforts (despite what your favorite fitspo says) of 2 RIR (reps in reserve) or ~RPE8 for most lifting efforts for strength/hypertrophy to elicit maximal stimulus without reaching non-recoverable lifting volumes… it’s a great tool!
A great example of this is you are having a great day, your food and sleep are on point, you walk into the gym – it’s deadlift day. You go to hit your 3×6, last week you did 3×6 at 225, 235 and 235 but you feel amazing. You load up the bar, 225 moves like air, you go up to 235, its an RPE7, you go up next set to 245, RPE8 – a new PR. The next week though you feel sleepy, groggy, you’re about to get your period and go to the gym for deadlift day. You go to do your 3×6 deadlifts, you get up to 225 again, it feels okay maybe an RPE7, you hit that 235 and NOPE, RPE9-10, you go back down to 225 for your last set. You are listening to your body, working with it, and you are still making progress.
However, I will add — many people don’t push themselves to full exertion in the gym so might have trouble truly knowing what an RPE8 or 2 reps left in the tank feels like. It’s a skill that takes time! And if you’re someone who’s hesitant to go up in weight/“hard in the gym” just push a set to its max and see how many more reps/work you can do and you’ll be surprised how much you might be holding yourself back. This looks like your normal 3×10 at 20lb bicep curls, but taking those all the way to failure and realizing you can do 3×20 and that you definitely need to increase your weight.
However, don’t be fooled when I say “submaximal effort” a true RPE8 is still going to feel HARD, but not impossible. Many people don’t push themselves/weights hard enough in the gym to elicit enough stimulus.
Start with determining your true maximal effort, don’t be afraid to go “all-out” on a set to see what you can do. You may surprise yourself!