*Before we dive into this topic I would like to extend my gratitude to Mike Tuchscherer. Without his influence this article would not be possible, as he is the reason the RPE scale made its way into powerlifting, weightlifting, and other barbell sports. Nearly everything I know about this topic comes from the countless hours he has spent developing his thoughts and, subsequently, his framework for training strength athletes.*
I’m certain there is an overwhelming amount of information regarding autoregulation and the rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE), along with its relevance and usefulness in the barbell sports online (see: Reactive Training Systems). I still decided to write this article as a way to bridge the gap between the use of autoregulation and a particular type, the RPE scale, in powerlifting and the use, or lack thereof, in weightlifting.
Autoregulation can be defined as, “the practice of adjusting training variables in response to athlete feedback” (Ornsbee et al., 2017). In weightlifting it is well understood and common for this to be done by the coach, adjusting the weight on the bar because of what they see, hear, and think the athlete is capable of for the next set, exercise, and session. In a perfect world we would all train in weightlifting gyms, have an incredible relationship with a very developed coach, who precisely understands our performance capabilities for each and every training day… You get my point. Most of this is unrealistic and even the best coaches may not be able to reliably help (read: guide) the athlete to put the ‘right weight on the bar for the right number of reps’, as Mike Tuchscherer would say.
If the autoregulation is built into the coach and their ability to interact with the athlete, what happens when there is no coach or she/he may not be available that day? Broadening the scope a bit further, what about the development of a plan to peak the athlete for competition? It is well-understood humans are poor at forecasting, so predicting performance days, weeks, months, even years in advance is the definition of a crapshoot (Kiely, 2011). The solution then becomes creating athletes with the skill(s) of monitoring and adjusting their training on the fly and building flexibility into the long-term framework, attempting to predict less and react more.
Enter: The RPE Scale
The utility of the RPE scale and its application to resistance training and strength development is receiving more support as research continues to come out on the topic, showing the prescription of training loads via RPE to be equally as or even slightly more effective than fixed loading (Helms et al., 2018; Graham & Cleather, 2019). Practice has also borne this out, as many great coaches utilize this tool within their framework, even guys like Travis Mash (“Velocity and the RPE Scale”, 2017).
Maybe we should back-track slightly and examine how the RPE scale came to be a tool of strength coaches and athletes around the world. The scale was introduced to the sport of powerlifting by Mike Tuchscherer, previously being used in the aerobic fitness world, known as the Borg 15-point (6-20) scale, but also used as a 10-point scale (Borg category ratio, aka Borg CR-10) (Ormsbee et al, 2017). The scale starts at 1 indicating the least amount of effort and rises to 10, indicating the greatest exertion possible – a true maximal effort. In powerlifting this is a repetition-centric scale, which is also how it will be used throughout the article. Since its adoption the scale currently looks as such:
As you can see the scale increases in .5 increments until it reaches a truly maximal effort, which means no additional repetitions could be completed. It is useful to note that this scale in particular does not include 1-4 on the image. This is because those numbers are somewhat meaningless, indicating varying levels of the warm-up, and difficult to accurately gauge (Hackett et al., 2017).
RPE exists outside of its use, as proximity to failure is an inextricable part of training. The scale is used to assign training loads, which can easily change the weight based on the desired effort level. I think of RPE prescription as a more specific, yet general approach to programming training stress. It varies, in that there is no concrete prescription, but is specific to the athlete’s abilities on a given day. The implementation of this tool will vary from coach to coach and even sport to sport. The entirety of this article will examine RPE use with the lesser skilled lifts (squats, presses, deadlifts, rows, other isolation movements), excluding snatches, cleans, jerks, and most variations of those movements.
An example of RPE use within a weightlifting program. TS = Top Set.
Why use RPE?
There are many reasons why the RPE scale could be used effectively in your or your athlete’s training. Many of these points seem obvious, but one may be less so. Instead of trying to list them all out I will choose a few that I feel are most relevant and convincing.
1 – Prescribing a Specific and Appropriate Amount of Training Stress
A program is an overarching prescription, a collection of specific exercises, training volumes (sets/reps/weight), intensities (%1RM/RPEs), and formulations to achieve specific ends. If an athlete says they are in a peaking block then you can assume with good probability that the intensities are higher for the competition lifts and possibly strength work, with lower volumes across the board. This is, of course, a generalization, but it is a strategy common amongst weightlifting coaches. The idea is that these prescriptions drive the response, which is in this case, a higher competition-style 1RM snatch and clean and jerk.
From the outset I think we all know strength fluctuates on a somewhat regular basis, maybe not day-to-day, but week-to-week, surely. This can be due to a predictable response from the athlete to a training stimulus (think “microcycle”), à la Bondarchuk, or for a host of other reasons (Jensen, 2016). The host of other reasons is exactly what you think; expectations and beliefs surrounding the training program and process, environmental stressors, nutritional state, psycho-emotional state, they all play a role in the adaptive response (Kiely, 2018). If you do not feel like you are physically prepared for the training session on that day it may show. The weights move poorly, once you miss a lift it leads to a string of poor decision making, further solidifying your belief in a poor performance. RPE is a way to accommodate these fluctuations, assigning the specific and appropriate amount of stress to drive the training response.
The use of RPE can lead to the appropriate weight being put on the bar for that training day and even utilized as a guide for prescribing volume. The difficulty of a set should reflect the desired response. A back squat set of 3 at RPE 10 will challenge the organism (throwback to Bob Takano’s book, “Weightlifting Programming: A Winning Coach’s Guide”) in a different way than a set of 3 at RPE 5, assuming we live in a vacuum and a single set will be the sole driver of a training response. The same can also be said and done with training volume. Instead of assuming an athlete will accomplish a particular amount of work at a prescribed percentage you could provide a range of difficulty and an RPE stop. The athlete works up to a top set at an assigned RPE then does drop sets at a certain percentage less than the top set, directed to do X number of reps, stopping the sets once they reach a predetermined RPE (Helms et al., 2018).
- Athlete starts exercise by working up to a set of 5 at RPE 9
- Back off sets are done at 5% less weight until they hit an RPE 9
- Bigger percent drops will allow for more volume before RPE stop is reached
If the athlete reaches a 9 early then they call it, but if they feel good and the weight is moving well they will complete all of the prescribed sets, accumulating enough work for that day. A range does not need to be given, but can serve as a guideline.
As you can tell this section is extensive, but really illustrates why RPE is so useful in a training context. Assigning volumes and intensities may give you a concrete goal (i.e. 120 reps of squats at an average of 76%), but does not accommodate the unpredictable fluctuations in performance day-to-day. Even with a coach present athletes may still feel obligated to “get the work done”, no matter how rugged, because that is what the paper says. Assigning RPE top sets, or climbing sets, as a way to accumulate volume is beneficial in doing the right amount of work to stimulate the appropriate training response. Weight and Stress aren’t 1 to 1.
2 – Removing the Guesswork
This point encompasses a few different aspects of training, some of those not alluded to above. RPE will allow a coach or athlete to remove some of the guesswork in designing a training program. Imagine using different exercises, implements (bars, in this case), adjuncts (external tools altering the movement: bands, chains, boxes, pins), repetition ranges, or creating a program for a new athlete. All of these circumstances provide a challenge, anticipating an athlete’s abilities and response to training.
Squats, pulls, presses, all of these lifts are skills. Moving the bar from the front rack to behind the neck for a push press may seem meaningless and arbitrary, but it influences the execution of the movement, potential cueing, comfort, and, likely, the amount of weight you are going to be able to put overhead. If you have removed an exercise from your program for a while or have never done it then you know there is a transition period where nothing may feel quite “right”, the weights are down compared to the other variations of the movement, and the learning curve is steep. When assigning weights to a newly introduced movement you really have no idea what to expect. Sure, you can take a shot in the dark, but it’s all guess and check. RPE allows for the rapid individualization of load to accommodate the learner’s abilities. Maybe the transition is fast, maybe it is slow, but if you give a range of weights, say RPE 7-8 or two to three reps from failure, then the athlete self-selects the correct weight on that day to kick start the development of that skill.
The same could be said for the use of new implements or adjuncts to your training. Different bars, bands, chains, boxes, pins, you name it and there is a potential purpose for its involvement in your training. Those training adjuncts or different implements all create an air of uncertainty. RPE again removes the guesswork and allows for the appropriate load to be lifted on that day, taking into consideration novel movements, ranges of motion, and skill execution.
Adding in new exercises, implements, and adjuncts to your training can cause quite a bit of uncertainty, but in no instance is uncertainty higher than when you are programming for a brand new athlete. Besides what they have done using other systems or methods, a lot of what you do from that point on is provide a stimulus and note the response. This can be tricky, as it is hard to know what intensities they may benefit most from, which rep ranges, volumes, or exercises. A useful way around this is to provide set RPEs, RPE stops, and if you are really in the mood to individualize the plan (S/O Zac Robinson for the idea), AMRAP sets with an RPE cap with drop sets using the AMRAP as a guide. All of these are tools in the toolbox, but build in flexibility. It is a fact that athletes vary in their ability to perform repetitions at a given percentage of their one-rep max. Some athletes may be able to back squat upwards of 26 repetitions at 70% of 1RM, while others only perform 6 (Cooke et al., 2019). It is useful to consider this beforehand and not after the fact, as it can be somewhat avoided.
3 – Communication
A final point, not limited to people who program using RPE, is a benefit that is often overlooked, but meaningful in many ways. The ability to communicate more precisely how challenging a set was can lead to more effective decision making later on in the training session or in following workouts. Instead of saying, “It was heavy” or “It was light”, you can say it was a particular RPE, indicating an exact number, obviously depending on the correctness of the rating of repetitions away from failure. That clarifies the difficulty of the set, removing vague, less-useful descriptors.
This benefit is not specific to RPE prescriptions, but extends to any athlete, on any program. If I do a 5×5 at 83%, but on set two I hit an RPE 9 it may be unlikely I would be able to finish the prescribed sets/reps/weight. Taking this into account or telling this to a coach allows for clear, purpose-driven decision making. Maybe we wanted this to be a moderate stress day, but now it is inching towards near-maximal efforts and we can recognize this. Instead, if on set two I say that the weight is heavy it gives room either way for less specific changes.
Is RPE Use Contraindicated?
1 – Beginners
This point has been made many times, assuming someone is new to weightlifting, strength training, powerlifting, or what have you, they should not use RPE. Again, this is a dichotomous view of the situation. No one is saying that RPE should be the sole driver of a rank beginner’s programming. Often times, even with more advanced lifters, a percentage will be paired with the RPE to guide decision making. It should not be overstated that developing the skill of training is what we are after. The 1RMs an athlete achieves during the “beginner” phase has little bearing on long-term development and potential for progress. What does matter is their understanding of training, how to select the right weights on a given day for the desired outcome, and the ability to repeatedly show up to the gym, day after day, month after month, year after year, because consistency and adaptability matters.
Another consideration is the rate of progression for a beginner. Assigning a particular increase, be it in pounds or %s, assumes from workout to workout or week to week that the improvement is predictable and linear. As discussed above, this is not the case. Bad workouts happen, even for rank beginners. That flexibility should be built into the program, instead of throwing weights on the bar and hoping things turn out well. This point bears repeating, as it will be re-visited a few more times. The change in training based on objective and subjective performance markers (bar speed, weight on the bar, perception of effort) likely does happen in most instances, but this call to action is for a systemized way of approaching the process.
2 – Training too Hard or Not Hard Enough
Another common criticism of the use of RPE for prescribing training is the perceived implications, training too hard or not hard enough. An athlete lacking intrinsic motivation or hyper-focused on the goal, instead of the process, may put the wrong weight on the bar.
In the former circumstance, the athlete may be repeatedly undershooting the desired difficulty for the day, say an 8 RPE which is two reps in the tank. Instead, they feel like they are working hard enough, but only working at a 6 RPE. This is again a common misunderstanding because the perception of effort is with regards to an objective measure: repetitions in reserve. Failing to put the right weight on the bar is a misstep by the athlete, not the tool. Education from the coach, an understanding of the desired process, and good communication helps obviate this issue. The problem could also arise from the RPE prescription, which will be touched on in the next criticism.
The flip side of this scenario is an athlete constantly overshooting the desired RPE. Similar to the response above, good communication is key. Understanding the process, having clear goals, but allowing the training to take you there is a good first step. Training to get stronger over time will lead to the desired outcome. Training to get there today will likely leave you frustrated and hitting up again constant roadblocks. Some coaches program high RPE sets and even push athletes to take weights they may miss. This comes back down to the coaching style and communication. Taking this into consideration, programming for athletes with different tendencies may require different prescriptions. AMRAP sets may serve as a gut check for athletes who constantly over- or undershoot.
3 – Errors in Reporting RPE
The third criticism distills down to the actual accuracy of an individual’s rating. Say the athlete has the intention of hitting the appropriate level of effort, an RPE 8 in this case. How do we know that was actually an 8?
There has been quite a bit of research done looking at RPE ratings and the accuracy of those ratings across the scale. The overwhelming majority of the data suggests that accuracy declines as the ratings decrease and the number of repetitions prescribed increases (Zourdos et al., 2019; Hackett et al., 2016).
Note: The Zourdos study referenced above is very interesting in that it had the participants perform as many reps as possible with 70% of their 1RM in the back squat. They were blinded to the weight on the bar to keep them from anticipating the number they would get. During the set they were instructed to call out when they were 5, 3, and 1 repetition from failure (RPE 5, 7, and 9). The results indicated exactly what I stated, showing that accuracy was worse the further they were from failure, with the repetition-in-reserve difference being greatest at a 5 RPE (5 reps), then 7 RPE (3 reps), and closet at 9 RPE (2 reps). Although the range did vary, as some people were spot on at a 9 (4 participants), with another participant being 6 reps off.
This does not negate the use of RPE, but more so frames its use. Benchmark sets can be implemented to guide training decision making. Using multiple sets at ascending RPEs could seemingly allow for more accurate ratings, instead of taking a shot with a single set. Other approaches include using a top single at a given RPE, which would be one of the more accurate ratings, and then using the estimated 1RM to guide the volume work.
- An athlete starts the workout with a single at an 8RPE
- The athlete figures out the estimated 1RM with an RPE calculator
- Sets are done until the top number is hit or a 9 RPE is reached (4-6 x 5 at RPE 8)
That single could be used for the rest of the week or microcycle to guide rep/set prescriptions.
What can we do to avoid inaccurate ratings? I am not sure anything can be done. I say we work diligently to hone the skill of rating our sets and over time try to be less wrong. Incorporating different lines of evidence will also help, ie percentage of estimated 1RM, rep max PRs, other historical data, etc. The use of RPE is not to get away from doing work or reducing the workload of the coach. In fact, you could say this approach is more work, in that communication with and education of the athlete is paramount. Instead, the use of RPE is to ensure that the work we are doing is more individual and more specific to the person on any given day.
RPE is a tool and a form of autoregulation designed to address the unpredictable. It’s a scale providing a measure of one’s potential effort with a given weight, for a specified movement. The use of the tool can help facilitate clear and concise communication between the coach and athlete, through measures of effort and capability.
It would be a fool’s errand to think anyone can perfectly predict training, rate every set with the utmost accuracy, and accommodate subtle, but meaningful day-to-day fluctuations in performance. The goal should be to move our ratings closer to become more accurate, instead of throwing our hands up in the air with a thought of imperfection. RPE is designed to attack the guesswork and individualize the training process, which makes complete sense when considering the above information.
Common criticisms seem to be against the implementation or execution of the tool, since it is really an objective measure. If you think otherwise, that would be like denigrating volume tracking, because of the impossibility of perfectly quantifying “volume”. The total training load is still there in its many forms regardless. RPE is a tool to do the right amount of work for the individual, without straying too far away from or too far past the redline.
Ormsbee, M. J., Carzoli, J. P., Klemp, A., Allman, B. R., Zourdos, M. C., Kim, J., & Panton, L. B. (2019). Efficacy of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion for the Bench Press in Experienced and Novice Benchers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33(2), 337-345.
Kiely, J. Planning for physical performance: the individual perspective. In: Collins D, Button A, Richards H, editors. Performance psychology: a practitioner’s guide. Oxford: Elsevier; 2011. pp 139–60.
Helms, E. R., Byrnes, R. K., Cooke, D. M., Haischer, M. H., Carzoli, J. P., Johnson, T. K., Cross, M. R., Cronin, J. B., Storey, A. G., & Zourdos, M. C. (2018). RPE vs. Percentage 1RM Loading in Periodized Programs Matched for Sets and Repetitions. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(247), 1-10.
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Mash, T. (2017). Velocity and the RPE Scale. Retrieved July 4, 2019, from https://www.mashelite.com/velocity-and-the-rpe-scale/
Hackett, D. A., Cobley, S. P., Davies, T. B., Michael, S. W., & Halaki, M. (2017). Accuracy in Estimating Repetitions to Failure During Resistance Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(8), 2162-2168.
Jensen, J. (2016). Making Sense of Bondarchuk: Athlete Adaptation Profiles. Retrieved July 5, 2019, from https://www.jtsstrength.com/making-sense-of-bondarchuk-athlete-adaptation-profiles/
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Helms, E. R., Cross, M. R., Brown, S. R., Storey, A., Cronin, J., & Zourdos, M. C. (2018). Rating of Perceived Exertion as a Method of Volume Autoregulation Within a Periodized Program. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(6), 1627-1636.
Cooke, D. M., Haischer, M. H., Carzoli, J. P., Bazyler, C. D., Johnson, T. K., Varieur, R., . . . Zourdos, M. C. (2019). Body Mass and Femur Length Are Inversely Related to Repetitions Performed in the Back Squat in Well-Trained Lifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33(3), 890-895.
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