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How to Use the RPE Scale for Strength Training

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

Hey guys! Have you heard of RPE in regard to strength training? Read below to learn more so you can get stronger and make sure you are keeping your body healthy as you progress.


What is RPE?


RPE stands for rating of perceived exertion. It is a scale that allows weightlifters to subjectively measure the intensity of a lift aka how difficult a lift was. The scale in its simplest form is 1-10 and described below:


10: At your max, no reps left in the tank

9.5: Could not do more reps, but could do slightly more weight

9: One rep in the tank, but it’s a grind

8.5: Could definitely do one more rep, and maybe two

8: Challenging, but two reps left

7: Three reps left in the tank, a weight to move with a power focus

6: Four reps in the tank, a weight that can move quickly

5: A weight for warm-up

4 & below: Very light weight that can be used for mobility/recovery/etc.




An adult female barbell back squatting with a coach  and sports physical therapist spotting the lift


Why is RPE a useful tool?


I like using RPE because it provides flexibility in your programming to keep you from over or under training. The truth is, we are all humans! Our bodies and their capabilities change some day by day. Most of us have jobs, families, kids, and lives outside of weightlifting and athletics. What if the night before your kid kept you up and you didn’t get any sleep? Or what if you have been stressed out at work? Or what if you went out and drank a few beers with friends the night before? These are all real-life factors that will impact how you feel and perform on any given day. Alternatively, maybe you are feeling really strong during your lift and a weight that is usually heavy for you is moving pretty well. These are examples of why it is helpful to be able to push yourself based on your RPE instead of a rigid program what was written potentially weeks or months before and does not consider your current state. You won’t feel pressured to hit a potentially arbitrary number and risk injury or under training. Instead, you can focus on working at a 6-9 out of 10 RPE (depending on your goals) and feel success with your gym time.


I also like using RPE because you don’t HAVE to know your 1 rep max amount.


What does this look like in training?


If you are focused on building strength, then programming with RPE could look like this:

Week 1: 4 sets of 6 reps at RPE 7

Week 2: 4 sets of 6 reps at RPE 8

Week 3: 4 sets 5 reps at RPE 9

Week 4: 3 sets 8 reps at RPE 7


If you are focused on power, then you might be finding a weight that feels like a RPE 7.


If you are warming up, you might work around a 4 or 5 RPE.


Limitations of Using RPE?


It is difficult to use with folks who are new to strength training as they likely have never pushed themselves to true failure before. I find that novice lifters will greatly overestimate how difficult a lift felt. They might say that a lift felt like a 9 RPE when visually their form was good, weight was moving quickly/powerfully, and they definitely had more than 1 rep left in the tank. It does take some lifting experience to be able to more accurately define what RPE you are at by the end of a set.


RPE can also be a challenge for less motivated athletes or lifters as well because it is a subjective scale. You need to be accountable, relatively motivated, and self-aware to best use RPE.



a sports physical therapist and strength coach showing an adult female client how to trap bar deadlift with good form


Takeaway:


So, if you are an intermediate or experienced lifter who wants to get stronger, build more awareness and intention around your lifts, and keep yourself from overtraining or undertraining, then you might want to give RPE based strength training a try.


I hope this was helpful. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.


Best,

Dr. Sieara

828-808-3704


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