Lesson 1: What RPE is and why you should care about it
Hi, it’s Eric Helms here.
Andy Helped me create The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books last year and I’m happy to have this opportunity to talk about something that I’m studying for my PhD, and is close to my heart – RPE.
Because I think it’s important. I think it can play an important role in helping us to reach our potential faster, and more safely…
So, first an introduction…
Rating perceived exertion on a numerical scale was conceived by Gunnar Borg in 1970. In the nearly 50 years since, we’ve found that people performing exercise can consistently rate their stress numerically and that this is paralleled by physiological stress measured by heart rate and other objective methods.
The Borg rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale was originally developed to prescribe endurance training intensity. However, when it is used on a set to set basis in resistance training it has repeatedly proven unreliable for repetition maximums, meaning sets that are taken to failure.
Oddly enough, even when training to failure, submaximal Borg RPE scores (typically 8 to 9) are reported. This may be due to the fact that the scale uses descriptors such as “moderately hard”, “very hard”, and “extremely hard” to differentiate scores. We naturally compare exertion relative to other experiences, a single set to failure might simply not be seen as “extremely hard” compared to say, when you ran the 400 meter in high school, or ran a wind sprint in full pads at the end of football practice, or ran the 2 mile at the end of a fitness test in the military. Thus, even though a 10 repetition maximum set is the hardest a 10 repetition set can be, it still is often not rated as maximal RPE on the Borg scale.
Fast forward to the early 2000’s and coach and champion IPF Powerlifter Mike Tuchscherer has gotten around this problem by modifying the scale by basing it on repetitions remaining “in reserve” at the end of a set.
Using this scale a 10 RPE corresponds to 0 reps in reserve, a 9 RPE to 1 rep in reserve, and onward in that fashion.
I contacted Mike about his system and with his blessing decided to study autoregulation in resistance training using this modified RPE scale along with preeminent powerlifting researcher, coach, and competitor Dr Michael Zourdos from Florida Atlantic University for my PhD.
Dr Zourdos led the first study to validate an RPE scale based on repetitions in reserve and I was fortunate enough to collaborate with him and his team on what I think will one day be seen as foundational research in the field of resistance training.
We found that indeed when using this scale, RPE is much closer to maximum when performing a 1RM in trained lifters and that lifters could rate RPE with a higher degree of accuracy when testing 1RM compared to traditional RPE. This means, that for the first time we have validated scientifically that this RPE scale can be effectively used to match the intensity of training to the readiness of the lifter. This is good, because fatigue management is key to long-term progression.
Lesson 2: The most important parts of a successful training plan
In order to understand how RPE fits into resistance training (recall the repetitions in reserve based scale where 10 is max, and every 1 point reduction in RPE signifies an additional repetition you could have completed), you need to understand the most important variables of programming.
Broadly speaking, no matter what your training goal is, volume, frequency and intensity are at the heart of how one programs exercise.
Volume is the total work performed. In resistance training, this is measured by the total number of sets, total repetitions (sets x reps), or the total tonnage (sets x reps x load) for each muscle group or exercise.
Frequency is how often you train each muscle group or exercise within the course of a week.
Intensity is the load you are using; both the intensity of the load which can be expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM), and the intensity of the effort of the set, which is expressed by RPE.
When expressing intensity, the distinction between ‘intensity of load’ and ‘effort’ is important.
85% of your 1RM is a specific number, but it does not describe effort.
1 rep with 85% 1RM requires less effort than 5 reps with 85%, which is near your repetition maximum at that load. Meaning, 5 reps with 85% 1RM might be a 10 RPE, but 1 rep would likely be ~6 RPE.
Also, strength is dynamic. You hit the gym some days and they’re unusually kick-ass, or unusually poor, right? Sleep, nutrition, stress and prior training all impact your current strength. You can use RPE to ensure you are training at the appropriate intensity of effort when your strength is higher or lower than expected. This is important for managing fatigue, and better fatigue management is going to net you faster results.
Here’s what we know about Volume, Frequency and Intensity
From meta analyses (studies of all the studies on a given topic; the highest quality of scientific evidence) published in 2016, 2014, 2010, 2009 and 2005 on volume, intensity and frequency, we know a few things:
Volume: Hypertrophy tends to increase as the number of sets increase. However there are diminishing returns. In a single workout, you get close to two thirds of the stimulus just from doing your first hard set. Subsequent sets provide additional stimulus, but with each successive set, the stimulus is less. Over the course of the week, the relationship between overall number of sets and hypertrophy is stronger. This also appears to be true for muscular strength, but the relationship is less clear.
Frequency: Frequency is the organization of volume. Training each muscle group only once per week is a suboptimal approach for hypertrophy. Doing less volume per session, and more sessions per week to achieve similar volume in a week, with less fatigue per session, increases hypertrophy as well as strength compared to higher volume, less frequent training. There is enough data to be confident that these benefits start to peak with a 2-3x/week training frequency. There may be benefits to even higher training frequencies in the appropriate circumstances (say a lagging body part or lift), or with advanced athletes using a high weekly volume, however more research is needed to confirm this.
Intensity: Maximal strength is best gained with a percentage of your 1RM that is high enough to transfer to a 1RM. The intensity of load needed to get the maximum training effect increases with training age. While intensities in the 60-80% 1RM range are effective for novices, trained lifters and athletes need more sets in the 80-85%+ range to maximize strength adaptations. For hypertrophy, both low and high loads can be used, however loads over ~60% of 1RM seem to provide a slight advantage. For loads under 60% 1RM, sets need to be taken to failure to provide a similar stimulus to loads over 60% 1RM.
However, training to failure opens up an entirely new can of worms that must be considered, and RPE is a useful tool to manage fatigue and put failure in the appropriate context. If you don’t, training to failure too often will hold you back from making the gains as quickly as you otherwise could.
Lesson 3: Using RPE to manage fatigue
So, we know that strength is not stable, as it fluctuates session to session based on stress inside and outside of the gym. And you now know from the discussion in the previous email that RPE can be a useful tool for making sure the appropriate intensity of effort is used on a set to set basis given this.
To put this another way: by adding an RPE guideline to each exercise in our training programs we can ensure that we don’t hammer ourselves too hard when we train, or underperform when strength is unexpectedly high.
Some of you might be a little confused right now if you were under the impression that training to failure was a good idea to do on every set or the majority of sets if your goal is hypertrophy.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. Recall from the last email that volume is a key component for hypertrophy training. So let’s take a hypothetical situation where you decide to take 3 sets with your 10 rep max (10RM) to failure on all sets and see what your volume is if you don’t change the load.
If you go all the way to failure on set 1, doing 10 reps and then maintain the same load, you will more than likely drop to ~7 reps on set 2, and then down to ~5 reps on set 3. That means a total of ~22 reps performed with a 10RM load.
Let’s say instead, you stayed 1 rep shy of failure on your first set and did 9 reps. More than likely you’d be able to maintain 9 reps on set 2 but be pretty damn close to failure, and then on set 3 only be able to get 8. In this case, you got 26 reps with a 10RM load, which is four more reps. Can you honestly say that the former is better for hypertrophy given the importance of volume?
Well, we don’t have to speculate, because we actually have data to show that training to failure results in similar adaptations to not training to failure, except training to failure results in being in a less recovered state. So there is nothing to gain, but potentially something to lose in that you’ll be able to train less frequently.
Fatigue management is very important for making progress. Especially if you are using the principles from the last email – using a more moderate volume, higher frequency approach. If you are training a muscle group or exercise more frequently, you have to be strategic in your load selection to avoid overburdening yourself and subsequently underperforming due to being in the haze of recovery from the last session.
This is where RPE comes in…
You may have a high volume moderate load upper body session earlier in the week, and then a heavy load upper body session with moderate volume later in the week. Training to failure on the first session of the week can suppress force production and generates muscle soreness to a greater degree than staying short of failure, and this can interfere with that heavy session.
So, instead of cranking out a bunch of sets to failure during session one, leave 1-3 reps in the tank at the end of your sets with compound exercises and only take your last set of your isolation work for each muscle group to failure. This can make a big difference for fatigue management. The end result is that you’ll go into your heavy session fresh and ready to perform, meaning greater gains and less likelihood of injury in the long run.
Lesson 4: How to use RPE in your training
In this email, I’m going to show you a direct example of how to use RPE in a training cycle so you can apply these principles to your own training.
As we previously discussed, the RPE scale based on repetitions in reserve can be quite accurate if you have experience with it and are not a novice lifter. Having lifting experience ensures you have a better idea of what it feels like to be near or far from failure, and how strong you are at different rep ranges. Also, having practice with the scale ensures you get better at using it as a tool.
For this reason novice lifters will not use RPE to formally guide their programming, but rather should simply record RPE values after each set to familiarize themselves with the scale and “anchor” the experience of different intensities of effort, with the RPE scale. Once they have this experience with the scale and have at least a solid 6 months of lifting under their belt, they can then actually use RPE to guide their load selection.
Remember, for novices especially you want to stay further from failure as a general rule. This is a time where almost any stimulus will act as progressive overload and produce gains, and it’s also very important to ingrain good motor patterns. Thus failure is unnecessary and potentially counter productive as it’s harder to keep good form while you are close to failure. If you are a novice trainee (or coach novice trainees) then you want to feel that you have at least one or two more good reps left in your tank at the end of all sets, and this will be an RPE of 8-9 at most.
Now, if you’re a non-novice lifter, before trying to implement a program primarily guided by RPE, I would still recommend tracking RPE (without using it to guide programming) for at least a few weeks. Just perform your regular training routine, and then after each set pause to think how many reps you felt you could have still performed (without any form breakdown), then jot down the appropriate number on the RPE scale in brackets next to wherever you usually log your workouts.
Here’s the scale again:
If you’re doing a basic 5 sets of 5 linear progression for example, using the same weight across all your sets, and this session you lift 130 lbs, then your training notation may look as follows: 5x5x130 (6,7,7,8,8). That’s an RPE of 6 for the first set, 7 for the second and third, and 8 for the fourth and last. This won’t be accurate just yet, but the idea is to get better at using this scale over time by the time it comes to truly count.
I’ll say that again – spend a few weeks getting used to the scale before starting a program that is guided by it. Don’t let your ego get in the way. I’ve seen plenty of advanced trainees in the course of my research who needed this time before being able to use it effectively.
Here’s a detailed example of how we might put the RPE principles into action with one of our athletes.
The following is a 4 week training cycle that is appropriate for an intermediate lifter with the goal of gaining strength and size, who has experience correctly performing the squat, bench, and deadlift, with a frequency of training each body part with at least moderate volume at least twice per week.
This training block would best be used as an “intensity block” after a lighter, higher repetition and volume cycle of training. (This is a form of periodization, which refers to organizing training in blocks to enable us to make faster progress. If this isn’t familiar to you right now don’t worry about it. We’ve explained it in detail in our book, but all you need to know is that this is a purposeful higher intensity, lower volume block of training after a period of higher volume). This cycle concludes with strength testing, which can be done either by testing 1RM or by performing as many reps as possible (known as an AMRAP) with a load you don’t think you’d currently be able to get more than 6 reps with. (It’s your choice whether you want to do a 1RM or 2-6RM test).
Here are the rules for this intensity block of the training cycle:
- The RPE range for the main lifts (squat, bench and deadlift) is 7-9 RPE, meaning you should be able to still perform 1-3 repetitions at the conclusion of all sets. This allows you to maintain solid form and reduce injury risk and manage the higher fatigue levels that are generated by compound lifts.
- For the secondary lifts it is 8-10 RPE (0 to 2 repetitions remaining at the conclusion of all sets on exercises that are not squat, bench or deadlift). These lifts can be taken nearer to failure as they have a lower biomechanical complexity and thus lower injury risk, and generate less fatigue.
- Additionally, 10 RPE’s should only occur on the last set of secondary lifts, if they occur at all. This helps to ensure that you don’t have to reduce the load or lose repetitions on any subsequent sets.
- For each exercise, I would advise choosing a load you can do for the target rep range on the first set that is near the bottom of the RPE range (either ~7 RPE or ~8 RPE depending on whether it is a main or secondary lift). Then, keep the load the same on subsequent sets. You will find each subsequent set’s RPE will rise with cumulative fatigue, so it’s important to keep it at the bottom of the range.
- In the final week the RPE values are lowered because it is a taper prior to testing.
Monday: Squat 3 x 8, Bench 3 x 8
Wednesday: Deadlift 3 x 3, Bench 3 x 6
Friday: Squat 3 x 4, Bench 3 x 4
Saturday: Lat Pulldown 3 x 10, OHP 3 x 10, Row 3 x 10, Calf Raise 3 x 10, Curl 3 x 10, Pushdown 3 x 10
Monday: Squat 3 x 7, Bench 3 x 7
Wednesday: Deadlift 3 x 2, Bench 3 x 5
Friday: Squat 3 x 3, Bench 3 x 3
Saturday: Lat Pulldown 3 x 9, OHP 3 x 9, Row 3 x 9, Calf Raise 3 x 9, Curl 3 x 9, Pushdown 3 x 9
Monday: Squat 3 x 6, Bench 3 x 6
Wednesday: Deadlift 3 x 1, Bench 3 x 4
Friday: Squat 3 x 2, Bench 3 x 2
Saturday: Lat Pulldown 3 x 8, OHP 3 x 8, Row 3 x 8, Calf Raise 3 x 8, Curl 3 x 8, Pushdown 3 x 8
Monday (7 RPE target on every set): Squat 3 x 1, Bench 3 x 1, Deadlift 2 x 1
Wednesday (6 RPE target on every set): Squat 2 x 1, Bench 2 x 1, Deadlift 1 x 1
Saturday: Mock Meet or AMRAP testing
What we’ve done here, is display the final mesocycle (a 4-6 week block of training) of a longer period of training which combines elements of linear, daily undulating and block periodization. Within this block, we started with higher volume and lowered it as intensity increased (hence the linear element), while also undulating the repetition targets on a day to day basis within the week.
Lesson 5: The Wrap Up
Allow me to cover some of the questions I anticipate may be asked about the contents of the course you’ve just gone through.
What do I do if I can’t keep to the RPE guidelines for the weight I had planned to lift, part way through a series of sets?
Let’s say your programming calls for you to lift four sets of front squats for 8 reps at a 7-9 RPE.
Here’s how I’d note that: Front Squat: 4×8, 7-9 RPE
You choose 200lbs which is a weight you’d usually find to be a 7 RPE. Everything feels fine in the warm up, so you select 200lbs. (If you felt weaker that day during the warm up, you’d select a lighter weight.)
In your first set you lift 8 reps, and it feels like an 8 RPE. This is unusual, but it doesn’t bother you. In the second set you lift 8 reps and it’s a 9 RPE. In the next set you reach a 9 RPE after only 6 reps, where you finish the set. In the fourth set you drop the weight down to a load where you feel you can perform all 8 reps.
This is how you could note that down in your training log: 200x2x8, 200x1x6, 180x1x8
Don’t panic when this happens. Recall what we talked about earlier in this email series, strength fluctuates session to session based on stress inside and outside of the gym. Also, next time you’ll know that maybe on that second set of 8, where you hit a 9, you should have made the decision to drop the load preemptively for set 3. Live and learn!
So my RPE can change from session to session? What’s the best way to determine my RPE for any given exercise on any given session? I’m under the impression that I have to progress week by week.
Your RPE won’t change session to session, but the load you lift may need to change so that you can keep to the RPE ranges. This means that you won’t necessarily keep to the exact progression pattern that you have been planning on using.
Strength fluctuates day to day with life stresses, sleep, nutrition, cumulative fatigue, mental state and hydration. The idea of RPE is to allow for us to “auto regulate” our training so that we don’t hammer ourselves too hard on the days we’re down, and to take advantage of the days we are unusually strong. The goal is to progress session to session if we can (multiple progression models are covered in our book), however progress won’t always be linear. RPE is in this way kind of like a safety valve. If some days you feel weaker after the warm-ups, go with a lighter weight. If the warm-ups feel amazingly light, instead of making the usual progression you could go for a heavier weight.
What should I do if I can’t follow a progression pattern several sessions in a row? What do I do?
Ha, well, I could talk all day about this. It could be that you have an issue with a build up of fatigue and need to take a deload to let that dissipate, however, there are many other things it could be. You may need to change your progression pattern, diet quality, food quantity, sleep more, lower outside stress…
How often should I strength test?
This really depends on your training age, and reasonable expectations. A true rank beginner will be stronger every time they repeat the same exercise for at least a few months. However, past that point the rate of progress will start to fall off substantially. Intermediates might be able to progress week to week in early stages, and eventually month to month, and then onward from there. A good decent rule of thumb is to test your strength every 4-8 weeks as an intermediate and every 8-12 weeks as a more advanced lifter.