Learn how to use the RPE Scale and why it’s valuable

Are You Even Training Hard Enough?

What is RPE, and why is it important?

Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

Understanding the RPE scale and how to use it definitely deserves a spot on the “List of Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Training”.

What is RPE?

For starters let’s get the acronym confusion out of the way, RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion — Now, did that help explain what RPE actually is? Probably not, so you don’t really need to care.

The Borg RPE scale, developed by Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg, is a numeric representation from 1–10 used to indicate a person’s perceived level of exertion during exercise.

Essentially, this is a scale that people can use to determine how much effort they are putting into an exercise. This can be a little tricky to understand — even more so to put into practice, take a look at the image below:

When weight lifting, use the number of reps you “have left in the tank", or could still properly perform in order to determine which RPE rating you would assign to that set.

In this case, you should treat an RPE 10 as the “absolutely impossible" rep, complete failure to finish the rep, think of “being rescued by a spotter".

Each rep you leave “in the tank" is 1 step away from an RPE 10.

How to Use the Scale for Weight Lifting

Let’s say you’re shoulder pressing, you complete 9 perfect reps and stop. You know clearly, that was not an RPE 10 because you didn’t come to complete failure.

If you completed that set and thought to yourself “I could have done 2 more reps”, mark the set down as an RPE 8 (10–2 = 8). Next set, grab the same weights and try to complete at least 1 more rep (or even 2) and reassess how you feel.

If you are able to complete another rep (now 9) and you still feel like you could do another 2 more, clearly the first set was NOT an RPE 8 — adjust your perception of what an 8 on the scale feels like during this exercise in order to make more accurate decisions in the future.

If the opposite happens, you’re unable to complete the 9th rep properly, and feel like there are still 1–2 reps left in your tank then the first set was accurately perceived as an RPE 8. The caveat here is that back-to-back sets will have fluctuations in the number of reps you can comfortably perform due to accumulated exhaustion.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

This is why when I mark down my RPE for sets I usually mark it as a range: (ie. set #1 = RPE 7–8, set #2 = RPE 8, set #3 = RPE 8–9). The next time I am performing this exercise I would be able to see that because of exhaustion the sets became harder, however I was working around an RPE of 8 during the exercise.

There is a pretty strong argument for practicing a “complete failure” set for various different exercises in order to accurately know what an RPE 10 actually feels like. This will help you make more accurate predictions of what RPE level you are hitting while you are feeling tired.

It’s easy to think “Wow that was so hard, a definite 10”, but if you have never felt a true RPE 10 then you would never really know how hard you can push yourself.

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Value of Using the Scale for Weight Lifting

Once you have learned how to use the scale you’ll be able to predict how much effort you will need to exert to perform an exercise with a certain weight/rep range combination.

This is helpful for determining what weight you should be using the next time you perform the same exercise, which lends itself perfectly to progressively overloading the exercise.

If you’re not familiar with progressive overloading take a read here:

It’s important that you be very honest with yourself, remember this is completely personal and is meant to help you grow.

Think about the last time you did a really easy set at the gym, maybe you were warming up your chest with just the bar for bench press, or using a resistance band (~5lbs) to warm up your shoulder before pressing.

Would you say that those warm-up exercises would fall on a 1? 2–3? Maybe, for you, something like this would be an RPE of 5 — THAT’S OK!

My point is, this is a personal perception of your own exertion level, it doesn’t matter what anyone else feels while performing the same exercise with the same weight. This scale is unique to you!

Hopefully this gives you a starting point to working with the RPE scale, next time you’re doing any exercise try to predict what level of effort you are exerting and see h

Happy lifting friends!

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Dalton Graff

Dalton Graff

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Software developer, passionate about travel, fitness, and being a good husband.