Rating of perceived exertion or RPE for short, is a simple system used in strength and conditioning programs to help control fatigue and account for daily variations in performance.
How it works
The context of RPE can often vary depending on its application but the most common use is to assign a rating of difficulty to a set. Many coaches use RPE in combination with % of 1 Rep Max to prescribe exercise
The main benefits to using this system are:
It allows the athlete following the program to have an insight into their program allowing them to learn about fatigue management.
It can account for bad days. If the athlete is having a off day due to external factors it allows the program to autoregulate and account for these changes
For less important accessory movements a difficulty rating can be prescribed instead of a set weight or range, this can help if factors such as equipment changes depending of the venue for training (two different lateral pulldown machines will have different weights despite saying the same as many machines are not at all calibrated)
RPE can also be used to rate a whole session, week or even training block which can give a coach insight into how certain forms or blocks of training can impact the athlete.
Below is a chart that demonstrates RPE in the context of rating a set
Most of your productive training will come within the RPE 5 - RPE 9 range with the majority or that being around RPE 6 - RPE 8. This has been highlighted in green and yellow.
This doesn't mean exercise should never be done at lower RPE or RPE 10 but that would likely be reserved for injury specific, sport specific or event specific training and likely not routinely.
Below is an example of how I could use RPE to show me when to increase the weight on the bar
In the chart we can see that I am squating 70% of my 1 rep max for 2 sets of 5 and then for my final set I am going to do as many reps as I possibly can, but! Going to failure on a set is not very productive so what I can do is set a RPE cap and a rep cap. Meaning if I can peform 8 reps (which is my rep cap) at a limit of RPE 8 I am allowed to increase the weight. The benfit of having a RPE cap is it is a consistent point which I can keep the same thoughtout a whole training block.
In the chart my cap is RPE 8, in the first session I squat 8 reps at RPE 8 so I am able to up the weight next week and in the chart this is shown as an increase of 2.5%.
But on this week I only managed to squat 7 reps on my last set at a RPE 8 cap! As result I now have to keep the weight the same for the next week and so on.
This will allow me to keep fatigue low and fitness adaptations higher.
The skill of rating
Rating RPE is a skill and will require practice, if it is completely new to you it may be beneficial to push how many reps you can do at a certain weight just to get an idea of what a RPE 9 or 10 may feel like. It is also worth noting that it will always be hard to rate low RPE sets but practise makes perfect and this doesn't have to always be perfect as a good coach won’t solely rely on RPE.
If you find that you can't decide between two ratings you can always just put a 0.5 on the end.
Let's say I have a set of 5 reps on squats on my program at RPE8
I get to 100kg on my squat and perform 5 reps but it's feeling fairly hard but I am unsure about the RPE
I could then just write down it was RPE 8.5
As RPE 8 in our context means I could of definitely got two reps
A RPE 8.5 would mean I definitely could of got one rep and maybe two
So when rating sets just keep in mind it doesn't have to be perfect but try to be honest with yourself about how difficult the sets were.