How to Use the RPE Scale for Better Workouts

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How to Use the RPE Scale for Better Workouts

Learn how to use the RPE scale to improve your gains, how to convert other programs to RPE, plus a sample lifting program for fat loss, strength, and lean muscle.

rpe scale

If you want to train smarter and get better results, the modern RPE scale may be the most important tool to add to your toolbox.

This technique takes a session or two to learn, but injects a massive boost of effectiveness, efficiency, and fun into your gym visits.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to take your workouts to the next level with RPE!

What is the RPE Scale?

RPE stands for rating of perceived exertion or rate of perceived exertion

It’s hard to know for sure who originated it, but the highly successful powerlifting coach and competitor Mike Tuchscherer popularized the modern RPE scale.

It’s a ten-point scale that describes the intensity of a weight training set. The rating derives from whether you could have performed additional repetitions after the end of the set (and if so, how many). 

Here’s the formula:

10 – (Reps in Reserve) = RPE

So if you just performed a set of squats and couldn’t do any more reps, that was an RPE 10 set. If you could have done one more, it was an RPE 9 set, two more and it was and RPE 8 set, and so on.

This method may sound subjective, but it’s based directly on your performance and exercise intensity. 

Lifters can use RPE to gauge their own effort and adjust as needed, and trainers can use RPE to write highly customized yet simple programs for clients. 

It’s also a fantastic way to discuss intensity levels with a coach, far more helpful than “that was sorta hard” or “that was REALLY hard.”

Not only that, you can use RPE to self-coach and get better results from any weight training program.

Autoregulation: Your Best Training Friend

Most weight training programs use fixed weights determined ahead of time, or percentages of your one-rep max (%1RM). 

While these traditional methods work, they are not very flexible. (In a moment, we’ll cover how to convert conventional percentage-based programs to RPE programs.)

On the other hand, RPE is a form of autoregulation.

Autoregulation is a flexible approach to exercise that allows real-time intensity adjustments based on feedback. Some studies indicate that it can work better than traditional periodization[*].

Other examples of autoregulation include using a heart rate monitor during aerobic training, or using heart rate variability (HRV) to adjust your intensity based on your recovery from recent workouts.

All of these methods have one thing in common: instead of guessing or blindly following directions, they help you listen to your body and measure your level of exertion or fatigue. 

And that’s why RPE and other forms of autoregulation are increasingly popular with pro athletes, high-level coaches, and smart fitness enthusiasts.

Basically, because getting more fit requires a balance of exercise and recovery, autoregulation can help you get fit faster and easier.

Implementing the RPE scale is also an excellent way to prevent overtraining and injuries.

What’s the RPE Scale For?

In theory, you can use the RPE scale of 1 (no effort or intensity) to 10 (maximum effort or intensity) for any physical activity, including cardio. And plenty of coaches and personal trainers do exactly that.

However, where RPE really shines is in weight training.

The concept of “reps in reserve” gives you an objective way to gauge the intensity of a set, and it is more individualized and relevant than traditional measures of intensity.

You should consider using the modern RPE scale for lifting if your goals include:

  • Getting stronger
  • Gaining lean muscle
  • Attaining the many proven benefits of weight training with optimal recovery and no injuries

Essentially, if you’re performing resistance training that involves loading and repetitions, RPE allows you to be your own coach and make more consistent progress than other ways of gauging intensity. 

It helps you push harder when you need to, but also gives you some slack when you’re fatigued or your recovery isn’t optimal.

Who Should Use RPE?

Nearly anyone can use RPE to enhance their lifting.

That said, if you just started lifting, take some time to get familiar with the basic movements first. 

Because RPE requires you to self-rate the difficulty of a set, it’s not very useful for a total beginner. After all, when you first start squatting and deadlifting, any weight might feel challenging!

And if you don’t track your workouts somehow (journal, app, scrawled onto scrap paper) you’ll probably find RPE tricky. (Seriously though, start tracking your workouts!).

But if you’ve been lifting with dedication for at least a few months, you’ve probably got enough experience to benefit from RPE. 

Along with experience, this method also requires some self-honesty. That’s because you need to be able to accurately gauge how many reps you had left “in the tank.”

Someone who’s overly timid may stop too soon, while a lifter with an oversized ego may push too far. 

However, as long as you can be like Goldilocks–motivated just right, but not so hyped you overrate your capabilities–RPE is going to work perfectly for you.

How to Use the RPE Scale

The RPE scale is simple to use, and it only gets easier with practice.

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Warm-up as needed with lighter weights
  2. Select a target weight for your set
  3. Perform the set, focusing exclusively on proper technique
  4. Immediately assign an RPE to the set (start by using the flowchart below)
  5. Rest
  6. Adjust the weight if needed, then repeat steps 3-5

rpe scale

Of course, you can also calculate RPE by simply subtracting “reps in reserve” from 10. After one or two workouts, you’ll be able to assign RPEs intuitively, but the flowchart above is the best way to begin.

Remember to adjust your weight as needed after every set to hit your target RPE. As you become more fatigued, you may need to reduce the weight on the bar.

Other than warming up with lighter weights, most of your workouts will consist of sets with RPEs from 7-10. 

Keep in mind that more intensity isn’t always better. You’ll get better results by mixing lower and higher RPEs within a workout, as well as building up your intensity over time.

For goals like strength and gaining lean muscle, keeping the RPE of the majority of sets between 8-10 is best. But an RPE of 7 or less is excellent for practicing a movement or building explosiveness and will help you become a better lifter.

The RPE Scale and Low Reps vs. High Reps

RPE works best when you target a specific number of reps for multiple sets. 

You may not hit your target RPE the first time, but the feedback allows you to dial in the intensity after you complete a set.

And if you are writing your own lifting programs, you also need to know when to use low reps versus high reps.

Here’s a brief breakdown of how RPE and reps relate to one another:

  • Low reps (1-3) + RPE 7-8  = Good for practicing a movement, explosive training, or working up to a heavier weight
  • Low reps (1-3)  + RPE 9-10 = Ideal for gaining strength, helpful for gaining lean muscle
  • Moderate reps (5-10) + RPE 7-8  = Good for gaining lean muscle or practicing a movement
  • Moderate reps (5-10) + RPE  9-10 = Ideal for gaining lean muscle, helpful for gaining strength
  • High reps (12-25) + RPE 7-8  = Helpful for muscular endurance, helpful for gaining muscle, helpful for increasing blood flow and speeding recovery
  • High reps (12-25) + RPE 9-10 = Ideal for muscular endurance or training speed-strength-endurance

But unless you are advanced enough to write your own routines, your best bet is to apply RPE to your current workouts, or to another popular and time-tested weight training program that fits your goals. 

That said, the above information is also useful for choosing what workout is best for your goals, even if you aren’t in the habit of creating workouts for yourself.

One of the beautiful things about RPE is that it can make just about any lifting regimen better.

The RPE Scale vs. Percent of One-Rep Max

Percent of one-rep max, sometimes abbreviated %1RM, is the most popular way to describe the intensity of a weight training set.

Anyone who’s received instruction on training other people is intimately familiar with %1RM.

There are hundreds of different tables, charts, and formulas to help trainers and coaches choose an appropriate intensity for their clients.

Unfortunately, %1RM has some major downsides. 

First and foremost, it’s just an educated guess. 

Everyone is different, and their muscle fiber composition, training history, recovery status, and dozens of other variables make it impossible to predict how intense a given weight will really be[*]. 

As a result, good coaches use %1RM as a starting point, then adjust as needed.

But that also means that if you don’t have a coach, using %1RM will often leave you lifting too much or too little weight. Sure, over time you may learn to adjust, but it’s not always easy for novice or intermediate lifters to know when 60% of 1RM ought to become 70% of 1RM.

And second, although your one-rep max changes over time as you get stronger, most people don’t retest it very often. 

That’s actually smart, because testing your one-rep max puts extra stress on your body, and may even increase your injury risk. But it makes %1RM even more of a guesstimate.

Finally, %1RM is totally inappropriate for some exercises. There’s no point testing your one-rep max for calf raises, crunches, or dumbbell curls, so the %1RM method is irrelevant for those and many similar exercises.

How to Convert Percentage-Based Workouts to RPE

While %1RM and other traditional methods can work, RPE works better. 

Fortunately, you can substitute RPE into percentage-based programs like this:

rpe scale

To use the chart, find the number of prescribed reps from your program, then find the nearest %1RM below it. Trace that row to the left, and you will find the equivalent RPE(s).

The chart only goes up to 12 reps, but you can still assign RPEs to higher-rep sets. It’s a good idea to use an RPE between 7-9 for higher rep sets unless your main goal is muscular endurance, in which case you can utilize a higher RPE to good effect.

The Borg Scale vs. The RPE Scale

Before the modern RPE scale, there was the Borg RPE scale. Gunnar Borg, an exercise scientist, invented it over 40 years ago[*].

RPE scales like the Borg scale are one way to gauge the difficulty and intensity of workouts.

In other words, rating your perceived exertion during your workouts is a fancy way to label your workouts as easier or harder. 

Similar to the visual analogue pain scale you may have used at a doctor’s office, researchers like the Borg scale because it’s reproducible and helpful in analyzing large data-sets[*].

However, the Borg scale is not necessarily a reliable indicator of exercise intensity on an individual level. Take a look:

6 – No exertion at all

7 – Extremely light

8

9 – Very light

10

11 – Light

12

13 – Somewhat hard

14

15 – Hard

16

17 – Very hard

18

19 – Extremely hard

20 – Maximal exertion

With all due respect to Dr. Borg, a scale of 6-20 is hard to remember and the opposite of intuitive.

“Wow, this workout sure is an 11 on a scale of 6 to 20!” said no one, ever.

The Borg scale is also a subjective measure of exertion. In a sample of hundreds or thousands of people it can detect a trend, but one athlete’s definition of “hard” could be another person’s idea of “maximal exertion.”

And most critically, it lacks the autoregulation element that makes the modern RPE scale so useful. There’s a big difference between labeling your workouts on a scale of 6-20 and using a system that tells you exactly when to add or remove weight to achieve the correct intensity.

Sample RPE Scale Training Program

Want a better understanding of how to make the modern RPE scale work for you? 

Check out this twice-weekly, full-body training program geared towards gaining strength and building or maintaining lean muscle mass.

Anyone of any age can use this program, and it’s also appropriate if your goal is fat loss.

Always talk to a doctor before you begin a new exercise program, particularly if you’re sedentary or have a medical condition.

And if you’re unsure how to perform these exercises safely, find a local personal trainer to walk you through the proper technique and form.

Make sure to warm up long as as needed before each movement, using the same exercise with lighter weights.

Also, don’t forget to adjust the weight as needed after each set to stick with the appropriate RPE and intensity.

Day One
Exercise Sets Reps RPE
A1. Squat (any variation) 5 5 9
A2. Standing calf raises 5 10 7-8
B1. Dips (use assist if needed) 4 6-8 8-9
B2. Pull-ups (use assist if needed) 4 6-8 8-9

 

Day Two
Exercise Sets Reps RPE
A1. Deadlift (any variation) 8 3 8-9
A2. Kneeling overhead cable crunch 8 5-8 7-8
B1. Incline dumbbell bench press 3 12-15 8-9
B2. Chest-supported row (machine or free weights) 3 12-15 8-9

 

Where you have the option to choose within a rep range or RPE range, decide ahead of time and stick with it for a while. 

It’s smart to start this program with fewer reps and lower RPEs. You won’t need to add reps or intensity very often.

For example, begin by doing 4 sets of 6 dips with RPE 8. When you want more of a challenge, switch to 4 sets of 8 dips with RPE 8, or 4 sets of 6 dips with RPE 9.

Overall, you don’t have to change the program much to progress. The autoregulating nature of the RPE scale can keep you getting stronger for weeks or months, because you’ll know exactly when to add more weight.

Conclusion: Autoregulation for the Win

Sometimes, training hard isn’t enough to make gains. It can even be counterproductive.

The modern RPE scale is a perfect example of training smart.

Numbers, percentages, and flowcharts may seem complicated. However, if you are already going to the gym regularly, you’ve got the difficult part down.

If you want to see what RPE can do for you, you can convert your current program to RPE, or give the sample program listed here a test drive.

Within one or two sessions, you’ll be amazed at how easy, intuitive, and helpful autoregulation can be.

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