Training | POSTED October 31, 2022

You, Me and RPE: Part 2

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a great way to regulate the intensity of your training sessions and manage fatigue. It is as easy as rating how many more reps you think you have left in the tank after completing a set on an exercise. For example, an RPE 7 roughly corresponds to having 3 more reps left in the tank. RPE allows us to find the “goldilocks” zone of not too easy and not too hard. In this article, we’ll look at how we can apply RPE to training and some of the ways we can calculate it.

Using RPE during a warm-up

When we warm up, we can use RPE to help us determine what we do for our top set. Let’s say our goal is 3 sets x 6 reps at 100kg @ RPE 7. A good approach is to treat your warm up sets as though they are the top set. This means we use the same number of reps and also attempt to move the weight as fast as possible. An example could look like this:

  • 2-5 sets x 6 reps x 20kg (empty barbell)
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 40kg
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 60kg
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 80kg
  • 1 set x 6 reps x 95kg @ RPE 6 (~5% of top estimated load)

We use this final warm-up set as an indicator set to help us determine an appropriate load selection. If this final set is easier than expected (RPE 5 or lower), then we might choose to load up 102.5kg for our final working sets. If this final set however is harder than expected and is rated RPE 7 (the prescribed RPE) then the good news is that we can call this indicator set our first working set.

RPE and modifying load selection

So what do you do if you do a set and realise it doesn’t match the prescribed intensity? This is often referred to as undershooting or overshooting a set. Undershooting is when the RPE of the working set is too easy or lower than expected, whereas overshooting is when the RPE of the working set is too hard or higher than expected.

Now, undershooting a set isn’t as bad as it seems. Slight undershoots will result in less fatigue accumulation and consequently may allow you to adhere to a program for longer. This is because there is less of a need to introduce a deload. A deload is a period of time where intensity, volume or both are scaled back to allow fatigue to subside. If we are constantly taking deloads, then we are losing effective training time throughout the year. However, consistently undershooting can present issues in the long-term as you may be slowing the rate of progress.

How about overshooting? Again, the occasional overshoot isn’t a massive deal. However, if this is a constant occurrence then you may find that you are accumulating fatigue much faster throughout a training cycle. Accumulated fatigue means you might be entering subsequent sessions less and less recovered.

For example, consider a top single at 100kg with a prescribed RPE 8 with back off sets of 3 sets x 5 reps at 70%. If we overshoot the single and it’s an RPE 9 we can simply modify the projected estimated 1 repetition maximum (e1RM) and the back off sets at 70% will still be appropriate. Conversely, if the single was easier than expected, the e1RM will reflect this and the 70% will be heavier.

Just to reiterate, undershooting or overshooting every now and then generally isn’t a big deal. However, it is probably helpful to get into the practice of being as accurate and honest as you can about the effort of your sets.

Starting a new program

When starting a new program, we won’t always know what the most appropriate load selection should be. We can use RPE to help us determine what to put on the bar in a few different ways.

Low stress weeks can be a great way to introduce a new program and allow us to get an idea about what the loads should look like going forward. By pulling back the average RPE for the week (and consequently the loads used throughout the week) we are able to better estimate an appropriate starting point for the following week without overshooting. A low stress week has the added benefit of allowing us to recover from any build up in fatigue.

Another great way of determining an entry point is by ascending sets. As an example, say we have to do 3 sets x 10 reps at RPE 7. To find the appropriate entry point we can spend the first session doing a set at RPE 5, then RPE 6 and finish with a set at RPE 7. This way we know that the working weight for the following week should be somewhere between what was used for the set at RPE 6 and RPE 7 (roughly).

Troubleshooting

What is progress and how do we define it with regards to training? Quite simply, progress can be defined as an improvement in capacity with regards to a certain task. Let’s look at an example over a 2 week period with squats.

Week 1: 3 sets x 5 reps at 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 2: 3 sets x 5 reps at 102.5kg @ RPE 9

While the load has increased from week 1 to week 2, notice that the perceived effort required has increased also, so has there been an improvement in capacity? The numbers tell us that there has not been an improvement and all that we have done is move the goalposts.

Now, what can you do if you’re really struggling to work out the RPE of a set? Do an AMRAP set! AMRAP stands for As Many Reps As Possible. Since RPE is closely related to how many reps you have left in the tank then we can pretty easily determine the RPE of a set. Imagine you have a set of 10 reps at 50kg @ RPE 8, but you can’t tell if it’s actually an RPE 8. We can set up safeties and ask someone to spot us and then attempt an AMRAP set. If you can only get to 2 extra reps out, then the estimate of 50kg @ RPE 8 is correct. Getting more than 2 reps means that you have undershot the weight. Getting anything less than two reps indicates that you may be overshooting.

Conclusion

RPE is a great way for us to regulate our training and track progress effectively across training cycles. Not only that, but it allows us to account for the ebbs and flows of life and adjust our training accordingly. If you’re having a rough week, trying to push and do more than the week before might not be the most effective approach.

Hopefully this article has given you a better idea about what RPE is and how we can use it to manage our training. If you’d like to learn more, contact us here.