Using RPE to Maximize Your Effort

Oftentimes as fitness coaches, we run into an issue wherein our clients don’t know whether or not they are working as hard as they should be. With absolute beginners, some may not even know what working hard, as it applies to strength training, even feels like.

It is true that in the very beginning, new trainees should be eased into training and that an emphasis should be placed on proper movement in the squat, hinge, push, pull, etc, first and foremost. Once this technical baseline is established, then some buttons can be pushed when it comes to training.

The issue of working hard also rears its ugly head in a semi-private setting, or even when we (or our clients) train on our own. For those that are motivated, have the time, and/or want to get better, the latter is a no-brainer, and should definitely be a habit that coaches cultivate in their clients. But it’s not enough to just follow a program, check off boxes, and go through the motions. Unfortunately, this is what the majority of commercial gym goers do. They’re just unaware of how best to maximize their efforts in the gym.

Or, going to the gym might be a thoughtless task for some gym-goers, who simply believe that just showing up is all that matters in the quest to lose 30 pounds. Well, showing up is one thing, but actually putting in the work is another. If you showed up for a lecture in college and promptly fell asleep, did you actually get anything out of it?

There is actually one simply way to maximize and modulate your efforts in the gym, especially in strength training for the exercises that most definitely should be loaded up. These are your squats, deadlifts, bench presses, cleans, snatches, and so on. They are often the first and second exercises you should be attacking in your training.

What’s RPE?

If you haven’t been doing so already, it might be time to learn about Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and how to utilize it in your training.

Borg-scale-rpe

In the world of clinical exercise physiology (think health & fitness, but on a medical level) it is not uncommon to see RPE being used on the Borg Scale. This is a scale that goes from 6-20, with 6 being little or no effort, and 20 being maximum exertion.For the sake of fitness training, it is much easier to go from a scale of 1-10, and perhaps the best adaptation of RPE in fitness training comes from powerlifter, Mike Tuscherer. Strength Coach Todd Bumgardner explains this system here, and here’s the gist.

Realistically, only ratings from 6-10 are ever utilized, as 1-5 won’t produce any sort of stimulus whatsoever. Using a squat as an example:

  • An RPE of 10 would apply to a successful squat, with no reps left in the tank. This is a maximum effort set.
  • RPE 9 means that you have 1 rep left in you.
  • RPE 8 means 2 reps left in the tank.
  • RPE 7 means 3 reps left in the tank. If maximal effort was applied to a squat, the weight should feel light and the squat should feel fast.
  • RPE 6 means 4 or more. This RPE applies to warm-up sets or sets where lifting with speed and technique are emphasized.

After every set, ask yourself: what was my RPE on that? This is especially useful for the big lifts, but I still like it for secondary exercises such as dumbbells rows or barbell lunges. Most of the time an RPE of 8 should be achieved. I think that this works particularly well for these secondary movements, which are often used for multiple sets of 6-10 reps. For big lifts–the kinds you set PRs on–RPE’s of 9 and 10 should be achieved from time to time. Hitting those RPE’s regularly on these neurally taxing lifts is a recipe for overtraining though, so be wary of that.

RPE essentially dictates the weight you use, and it’s an easy way to determine if what you did was too heavy or too light. However, this only works if you are honest with yourself and take ownership in your training. If you are, RPE works extremely well when it comes to maximizing your gym efforts day in and day out. For beginners, it’s a great way to get in tune with their bodies and builds awareness of what they’re capable of.

Finally, using RPE is also flexible depending on the day and how you’re feeling. The weights you use depend on your RPE, and not the other way around. Thus, on a particularly crappy day or during a deload week, an RPE of 8 might only be a 225-lb squat, when it could be 255 on a normal day. Nevertheless, it would still means you had two reps left in the tank at that given point of time.

The next time you’re in the gym, stop guessing at how hard you’re really working and use RPE to maximize your efforts.

By the way, this deadlift was definitely an RPE of 10.

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by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau Halevy Life Staff CoachJeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.