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January 8, 2019 Dan Raimondi

Rating of Perceived Exertion

In short? It’s a numerical value that describes how hard something is/was.

Originally used in endurance training, it can also be applied to strength training. First popularized by Mike Tuscherer, it’s commonly used as a way to gauge how hard a set was. After a set is completed, you’d work your way down the chart (listed below) to estimate how difficult the set was.

RPE Chart from Eric Helms on Stronger by Science

The easiest way to begin using this chart in your training is simply by assigning a numerical value after you complete a set. Start at the top: was the effort an all-out maximal attempt? If not, move down the line, continuing until you’re roughly what you think it was. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Over time your abilities with it will get better.

Do you have to use this? No, you don’t have to. But it is certainly helpful. It’s a great tool for coaches and athletes to communicate how difficult something should be. You don’t get stronger in a perfectly linear way. Some days things are going well and some days- when life gets in the way- it’s just not there. Instead of forcing yourself to add more stress to the equation, you can use RPE to scale back and still get the workout completed.

The subjective nature of this turns some folks off. It’s comforting to have a number in mind going to the gym. “I plan to squat 315 x 5 x 3 sets” is more concrete and predictable than saying “Work up to 5 reps @ 8 RPE x 3 sets.” You can use both a % of your 1 repetition maximum (or an estimate) and RPE to hone the weights for the day, using another RPE chart below.

From PowerliftingToWin

Using this chart, you can do a few handy things:

  1. Estimate 1 repetition max. The equation is simple: Weight x 100 / % from the chart. If you squat 405 x 1 rep at an 8 RPE, you’d find the corresponding % on the chart. 1 rep @ 8 is approximately 92% (Note: RPE is the vertical axis, and repetitions are the horizontal axis). 405 x 100 / 92 =440.
  2. You can estimate how much weight to use on a given day if you know roughly your 1Rm, the reps, and the RPE. If the coach writes x 5 reps @ 8 RPE x 3 sets, you can use 81% as a starting point. So if our 440lb squatter was given this program, they could have 355lbs in their head for this workout. And here’s the best part: if he or she squats 355lbs x 5 reps and it’s easier than an @8 RPE, they can go heavier. If it’s harder, likewise, they should go lighter. You have the benefit of a concrete number to start with, and the ability to adjust if needed.
  3. Track estimate 1RM’s without having to go to the edge. Performing heavy singles with a few reps in the tank can be useful for tracking progress over time without having to go to a true 1RM.

But, it’s still a subjective tool. What if I can’t judge very well? A video is your friend here. Film yourself lifting, and try and compare the difficulty and speed of the reps with other sets. Many find- myself included- that sets often feel tougher than they actually look on camera. A good training partner or coach can also be useful.

For more information about using RPE in your training, check out these links:

Alan Thrall RPE explained Part 1

Alan Thrall RPE explained Part 2

RPE Origins Barbell Medicine

How to Use RPE