Okay, so you've gotten a few weeks of strength training under your belt and you've documented your one-rep-max for those big barbell lifts. To progress toward the next PR, you'll typically lift a percentage of your max for a planned number of varying reps and sets over your multi-week program. Sounds simple enough, at least on paper.
What the numbers and percentages don't account for are all the human elements that can easily influence your gym ritual. These daily occurrences can take form in a number of ways. Maybe you had a strenuous day at your work desk. Perhaps you had a rough night's sleep. You missed your pre-workout snack. You can't focus on anything right now except for your favorite Netflix series.
All these factors can make even the lightest workouts seem daunting, even when numbers indicate you should complete the lift easily. This doesn't mean percentage-based training is totally bunk, but there are other effective ways to clang and bang those weights.
RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion, is one such training method that doesn't require a ton of numbers and math, but rather, a simple understanding of your own body. This popular measuring tool can help you maintain your fitness journey and offer up a nice change of pace from percentage-based training.
What is RPE?
Rate of Perceived Exertion is a scale that measures the intensity of your exercise. The scale is based on how easy or difficult you perceive an activity, and is completely subjective to your personal feelings. No max or percentages are required, so you can cater your training based on your status in that particular moment in relation to a number of sensations like increased heart rate, level of fatigue, breathing patterns and more.
The Borg vs. Modified RPE Scale
While RPE is subjective, there are general understandings of how to structure the scale. The original RPE scale was developed in 1982 by Swedish researcher Gunnar Borg, ranging from levels 6–20. The lower the number, the less exertion you should perceive an exercise to require. For example, a level 6 on the Borg scale would indicate no intensity like sitting on a chair, where a level 18 should feature heavy exertion, like in a max deadlift or fast-paced sprint.
The Borg RPE scale ranges from 6–20 to give you a decent estimate of where your heart rate should be during the varying intensities. Simply multiply the RPE by a factor of 10 to get your estimated heart rate. For example, if you perceive an exercise to be RPE 10, then you should be aiming for roughly 100 beats per minute.
Using the Borg scale can help you properly identify the RPE, but it does require access to your heart rate, whether that be through a fitness tracker or knowing how to measure your BPM. If you aren't looking to take your pulse before every workout, the Modified RPE scale could be your ticket to training success.
Instead of focusing on heart rate, the Modified scale ranges in levels from 1–10 based off your breathing pattern. So, an RPE 1 on the Modified scale would mean that you can easily hold a conversation while training, whereas an RPE 9 or 10 would indicate deep breathing without any room for lack of focus.
Whichever method of determining RPE is up to you. If you're not as confident in measuring your breathing patterns, stick to the Borg scale. If you like a more compact range with less math, use the Modified. Both can help you cater your workouts based on your intended output rather than max lifting totals.
The Pros and Cons to RPE Training
As with any workout method, there are positives and negatives, all in relation to your personal goals and training style. Below are a handful of pros and cons on instilling an RPE measuring method in your fitness routine.
Pro: Your Training is Based on Feel, Not Numbers
Instead of taking the time to determine your 1RM, you can easily jump into RPE training because it doesn't rely on this data. Besides, not everyone has the ability to effectively and safely assess their max, which can lead to inaccurate percentages and mishandled regimens. Rather than relying on these statistics, RPE allows for a free-flowing, subjective scale that changes depending on your abilities in the moment. If you know what a "hard" workout is to your personal capabilities, this can make RPE the go-to measuring tool without the strain of finding your max in every exercise.
Pro: RPE Can Make Every Workout a Success
You're not a robot, you have a life outside of the gym. And with that comes stressors and varied vibes. So, with every new day comes different fitness outputs, which isn't the intended training routine when you base your workouts around percentages. Regardless of your feelings and physical state, your goal is to rep X amount of weight for X amount of sets, and when you're stressed, fatigued or just unmotivated, you can miss those numbers, causing even more stress with that added sense of a failed workout.
RPE training takes away that strain and allows for unlimited variability. Not feeling your hottest that particular afternoon? Settle into your training and cater the weight to your vibe. Feeling extra juiced? Stack those plates as high as you desire. When you train under an RPE regimen, the lone goal should be to push yourself to the desired intensity. The weight doesn't matter, only the effort.
Con: You Need to Understand Your Max Effort
While RPE training does give the power to the person, you do need to understand just what "maximum intensity" means to you. If you're new to the gym or have trouble assessing your output, this can lead to mismatched scaling in your exercises. Experienced lifters and fitness enthusiasts should know how their body reacts to certain stressors like added weights or higher rep ranges. If you're just getting under the bar for the first time, it might be best to use percentage-based scaling for a while as you feel out what your body can actually do.
Con: RPE Requires Honest Self-Assessment
Every now and then, it's okay to cut a few corners. That is not the case with RPE, however. In order for your training to remain effective, you need to honestly assess your personal feelings before decreeing an exercise's intended RPE. If you decide to take it easy on certain days where you know you could push harder, your progress could be limited more than if you were prescribed to a certain weight or rep range. For those not willing to give their training the respect and honesty it's due, percentage-based measurements are best in order to keep a more rigid, structured regimen in place.
RPE training can be an effective, interesting way to change the way you look at training. Taking the emphasis away from what was lifted and giving it to who actually lifted it, this measurement scale can be a great way to keep you progressing forward, even if the numbers don't indicate it. As long as you're honest with yourself and know your capabilities, RPE could be the solution to any of your workout woes.
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