Let's start with a simple question: How much weight should you put on the bar if you want to get stronger?
The obvious answer to this broad question is, "It depends." And it depends on a lot of things: your goals, your experience level, your injury history, where you are in your training cycle, the exercise you're doing, etc.
Some people might suggest you use a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM). Others might advise going as heavy as you can while keeping perfect form. And others might say start light and just add 5 pounds each workout until you can't anymore (often called "linear progression" or "progressive overload.")
None of these suggestions are wrong, but none of them are perfect, either. What if you don't know your 1RM? What if you can't go heavy because of an injury? And what if you've got a deadline (e.g., a competition or game) and you don't have time to start really light? This is where utilizing Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, can help.
What is RPE?
"How hard was that?"
It's a common question inside the gym. RPE is simply a way to answer that question via a numerical value. Generally used on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being easiest and 10 being hardest, RPE-based training combines objective data (the weight, sets and reps) with your subjective feelings. Between scientific research and decades of anecdotal evidence from coaches and lifters, we can confidently say that RPE-based training:
- Coincides with a given percentage of 1RM (i.e., a set of 3 reps @ 9 RPE equals about 90% of 1RM for most people)
- Helps auto-regulate training volume, which can prevent overtraining
- Coincides with bar speed, which can help select loads based on training goals (i.e, strength vs. power)
RPE-based training has been around for decades, but was popularized by Mike Tuchscherer, the founder of Reactive Training Systems. A world-class powerlifter and coach to some of world's strongest athletes, Tuchscherer has written books, delivered seminars and published countless articles on RPE-based training. He deserves a nod and a "thank you" in any article about the topic.
The most beautiful feature of RPE training is that you don't have to be married to a specific weight on the bar. It teaches you to listen to your body, and select an appropriate weight for based on how you're feeling. Simply following a chart filled with exact percentages isn't nearly as flexible.
For example, you might be able to deadlift 225 pounds for reps pretty easily on most days, but what if you just got over a cold? Or were up all night studying for an exam? Suddenly, you might only be able to lift 225 pounds for a rep or two. In order to have the most productive workout possible, you need to lower the weight to account for your fatigue.
On the flip side, what if you're feeling extra awesome? You got a full night's sleep, your nutrition is on point, and your favorite song just came on in your headphones. That 225 pounds might feel light as a feather today. Why not add a bit of weight to take advantage of you feeling like a beast?
Whether you're a powerlifter trying to break world records, an athlete training to jump higher and sprint faster, or a desk jockey trying to lose a few pounds, the weight on the bar matters. But knowing exactly how much weight to use doesn't have to be complicated. Here's how to effectively use the RPE scale to get stronger with less guesswork.
The 'Reps in Reserve' Method
Perhaps the most effective way to understand RPE is via the "reps in reserve" method. At the end of your set, ask yourself, "How many more reps could I have done?" And be honest. Subtract the number of reps you left "in the tank" from 10, and that's your RPE. For example:
- 10 RPE = 0 reps in the tank (maximal effort)
- 9 RPE = 1 rep in the tank (very difficult)
- 8 RPE = 2 reps in the tank (difficult)
- 7 RPE = 3 reps in the tank (moderately difficult)
- 6 RPE = 4 reps in the tank (not very difficult)
And so on. Remember, RPE only works if you're honest with yourself and have a true understanding of your abilities. Don't be a wimp and give yourself a 10 RPE if the last rep of the set was fast and crisp. But don't be a tough guy, either, and give yourself a 7 RPE if your spotter had their hands on the bar saving you from an untimely stapling to the floor.
RPEs for Every Goal
Now that we understand RPE ratings, we can assign RPEs to sets and exercises based on what we want to achieve.
To develop maximal strength, we want to lift heavy weights for low reps. For example, a heavy squat workout might involve:
- 5 sets x 3 reps @ 8 RPE (i.e. 2 reps in the tank, so about a 5-rep max)
Or if we wanted to work up to a 1RM on the bench press, the workout might look like:
- 1 set x 5 reps @ 6 RPE
- 1 set x 3 reps @ 7 RPE
- 1 set x 2 reps @ 8 RPE
- 1 set x 1 rep @ 9 RPE
- 1 set x 1 rep @ 10 RPE (i.e. a 1-rep max)
If building muscle is our goal, we should perform multiples sets of 8-12 reps, with at least one of those sets approaching or resulting in muscular failure (i.e. you can't complete the final rep). For example, an upper body workout focusing on hypertrophy might look like:
- A1. Incline DB Bench Press: 4 sets x 8 reps @ 9 RPE
- A2. Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns: 4 sets x 8 reps @ 9 RPE
- B1. DB Chest Flyes: 3 sets x 10 reps @ 10 RPE
- B2. 1-arm DB Rows: 3 sets x 10 reps/side @ 10 RPE
- C1. Cable Triceps Pushdowns: 3 sets x 12 reps @ 10 RPE
- C2. DB Hammer Curls: 3 sets x 12 reps @ 10 RPE
If we're aiming to improve our power output (i.e. producing force as quickly as possible, such as jumping or sprinting), we want to use exercises and weights that let us lift with maximal intent and move the bar as fast as possible. This requires the RPEs to be a bit lower. For example, a full-body workout focused on power might involve:
- A. Box Jumps: 3 sets x 5 reps @ 7 RPE (use a box height that requires some effort, but you can stick every landing perfectly)
- B. 1-arm DB Snatch: 3 sets x 5 reps/side @ 7 RPE
- C. Box Squat: 10 sets x 2 reps @ 7 RPE
- D. Barbell Push Press: 5 sets x 3 reps @ 8 RPE
Practice Makes Progress
Is RPE-based training perfect? Of course not. In fact, it takes much more practice and knowledge of your body to learn it and use it properly compared to percentage-based training or simple linear progression. But taking the time to learn to give yourself accurate RPEs and listen to your body will pay off with consistently better workouts, massive strength gains and fewer plateaus on your training journey.
Photo Credit: skynesher/iStock
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