How Rate Of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Can Maximise Your Training
For anyone following an exercise program, it’s not unusual to have questions about the amount of effort required to achieve your goals: Are you training hard enough? How can you tell if you’re training too hard?
Tracking your heart rate using a heart rate monitor can give you a rough guide. However, using your heart rate alone may not always be the best guide and may not capture the desired effort required to maximise your results in a given workout.
This is where using your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, can help you to train at the right intensity to get the results that you want.
- What is RPE?
- Why use RPE
- How to measure RPE
- What affects RPE?
- Strength training with RPE
- Using RPE in the Sweat programs
- Cardio and HIIT with RPE
What is RPE?
Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) measures the intensity of an exercise — it uses a score of how difficult a particular exercise feels while you’re doing it.
RPE is a subjective rating based on how you feel physically and mentally during the exercise. It uses a scale of 1-10 as a guide, where 1 is the least difficult and 10 is the most difficult. Rating your exertion this way enables you to self-regulate your training intensity during a workout, without needing an external monitor or fitness tracker.
When you first start to gauge your RPE it can be difficult to choose a rating. As you gain more exercise experience, you’ll get better at assessing your effort level and the capabilities of your body using the RPE scale.
Why should I use RPE?
RPE allows you to train to a specific intensity to meet the goals of a particular workout.
You can also adjust your training intensity based on how you feel that day. This means your training can be modified in response to any physical or mental stress you might be under, which can help to reduce risk of injury.
Using RPE also enables you to maximise your training by ensuring you’re pushing yourself enough to get results on days when you feel at your best.
How to measure RPE
To determine your RPE, you select a rating between 1 and 10 based on muscle fatigue, elevated heart rate and increased rate of breathing. The higher the number, the more intense the exercise.
An RPE of 1 is often referred to as just above rest, hardly any exertion, while an RPE of 10 is a maximal effort.
What affects my RPE?
Your RPE is a subjective assessment based on how you feel in the moment. Because it’s a self-determined rating, it allows you to take into account external factors that affect your workout performance, including whether you’ve had enough sleep, what you’ve eaten that day, and whether you’re under any form of stress.
If you are dehydrated or you are doing a fasted workout, you might find that you reach the same RPE with a lower objective exercise intensity than if you had a pre-workout snack and plenty of fluids.
Guide to training with RPE
Rate of perceived exertion can be used to guide both strength training and cardio.
Strength training with RPE
You can use RPE to decide how much weight to use for an exercise with a set number of repetitions.
You can determine your RPE for strength training based on muscle fatigue during the first rep of an exercise.
One way to think about RPE for strength training is to consider how many more reps you could complete in total. If you could still complete 2-3 reps, this is an RPE of 8.
Higher volume strength training to build muscle size is usually done at an RPE of 7-8. This training intensity is also good for building confidence with new exercises.
If you’re doing high-intensity resistance training (HIRT), you should select a weight at around a 6-7 RPE to ensure you can maintain correct form throughout the workout, while still pushing yourself.
Exercises done at an RPE of 8-9 are designed to build muscle strength — you’ll also do a lower number of reps.
Using RPE to choose a weight in your Sweat program
You can use your RPE in the Sweat programs.
If you aren’t sure, always choose a lighter weight and increase gradually as you become comfortable with your form for the exercise.
For High Intensity Strength with Kayla Itsines (formerly BBG Stronger) and Strength & Resistance with Stephanie Sanzo, you’ll want to select a weight so that the final rep of each round is difficult but not impossible — an RPE of around 7. For example, if you find that the weight you choose for the first lap of each superset is too easy, you can increase it for the second lap.
The PWR program is designed to increase lean muscle mass through muscle hypertrophy. The activation exercises are done at an RPE of 5-6, increasing to an RPE of 7 for the pyramid exercises and supersets.
For FIERCE, High Intensity Strength at Home with Cass and High Intensity with Cass, the weight you choose will vary depending on the type of workout. For a high-intensity workout like Tabata, you’ll choose a lighter weight because some of the intensity will come from your cardio effort! For a strength workout, you’ll choose a heavier weight, with an RPE of about 7-9.
An RPE scale is provided to help you determine the intensity for some of the exercises used in Stephanie Sanzo’s BUILD program to indicate the intensity of each exercise.
The warm-up includes exercises at an intensity of 4-6. The primary movement, once your body is warm, is done at a higher intensity of 8 RPE. These are your heavy lifts. Towards the end of the workout, you’ll perform exercises with higher reps and lighter weights to induce muscle fatigue and reach an RPE of 9.
RPE for cardio and HIIT
One of the simplest ways to measure your RPE during a cardio or HIIT workout is by considering how easy or difficult it is to talk during exercise.
At very light exertion, it’s easy to carry on a conversation. As you increase the intensity, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk, until the point where you definitely can’t talk!
You can benefit by using a range of training intensities throughout your week. All of the Sweat programs include low-intensity cardio sessions as part of your weekly training goals, so you can use these to start assessing your RPE.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll keep most of your workouts to a lower intensity while you build up a baseline of fitness. Low-intensity cardio workouts should be done at a light to medium effort, where your rate of perceived exertion is a 3.
As you increase your fitness, you can introduce HIIT cardio, where your working periods reach an intensity of 8 RPE.
Train at a variety of intensities to maximise your results
No matter which training style you choose, doing workouts at a variety of intensities can help you to prevent or break through a workout plateau, while you maximise the results you get from your program.
Using your RPE, you can train according to the right level of intensity at every workout. As you use this rating, over time you’ll get better at using it to train hard enough and to go easier when you need to.
How do you use RPE in your training?
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.