A recent study that was accepted in May of this year by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research may shine more light in using RPE when prescribing training intensities. In some instances – RPE scales can be just as – or more effective than standard intensities established by periodized training percentages.
Before diving into what the research suggests, it’s important to understand what RPE is first.
Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
What it is: RPE is a way for coaches and athletes to self-regulate their training intensity. When used in a personal setting it can be a way to determine your training intensity, as opposed to using percentages. On a coaching level RPE can be a way to gain an understanding of an athlete’s level of exhaustion, plus what they have left in the tank.
Who it can benefit: Science has shown benefit in both novice and experienced lifters, but experienced lifters tend to benefit more (as they have a higher training age).
How to use it: The ratings go from 1-10, 1 being absolutely no effort, 10 being your maximum. It’s important to develop what these numbers mean to you. Often they’re very similar among coaches and athletes, but they can vary a little. The below numbers are my interpretation and often are similar with other coaches in the strength world.
10 – At your max, you have no more reps
9 – There’s another rep in the tank, but it’s a grind
8 – You’re beginning to hit your 2-4 rep stride
7 – Often the weight that can be moved with power, but still facilitate strength (5-7ish reps)
6 – Weight that can moved quick and utilized with speed work (+/- 8 reps pending on speed/training goal)
5 – This weight that can be used as warmup and prep for heavier weights
4 & below – Lightweight that can be used for mobility, recovery, and form emphasis
**Every athlete and coach should develop their RPE numbers dependent on their training age and understanding of their lifting habits.
What The Current Research Says
The study referenced in the intro looked at the relationship between RPE and velocity during the squat, bench press, and deadlift during a 1-RM lift (with powerlifters). In the table above there’s mention of bar speed, hence the often use of looking for correlation in research between RPE and velocity (bar speed).
The authors found that when athletes hit their 1-RM and were asked about RPE they were generally consistent across the board. The squat, bench press, and deadlift RPEs were as follow: 9.6, 9.7, and 9.6 with a +/-.5 variation. From the above RPE list, a 9.6 would be consistent in suggesting an athlete doesn’t have one more rep in the tank, which suggests RPE could be a beneficial tool for prescribing training intensities.
When it came to 1-RM RPE and the velocity of the bar, their research suggested consistent findings as previous research, which is was an inverse relationship. As RPE increased the bar’s velocity decreased. The authors suggested developing a “velocity load profile” for even more accurate training intensity prescription. This can be interpreted as documenting your bar speed and relating it to RPE across all lift intensities to create a more accurate RPE scale.
What Previous Research Says
A study published in January in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the use of the RPE/RIR (reps-in-reserve) scale and bar velocity in experienced and novice lifters (performing squats to be exact). The reps in reserve scale they used is below.
10 – Absolute maximum
9.5 – No more reps could be performed, but weight could be increased
9 – 1 more repetition could be completed
8.5 – 1-2 are in the tank
8 – 2 reps are left
7.5 – 2-3 reps are left
7 – 3 reps are left
They had the lifters split into the experienced and novice groups, which was dependent on their training ages. Squatters performed a 1-RM squat followed by squats at 60, 70, and 90% of 1-RM. Then following the completion of the 90% set, lifters performed 8-reps at 75% of their 1-RM. Something interesting about this study was the difference in how the experienced and novice lifters interpreted higher training intensities.
Authors documented that over 93% of the experienced lifters recorded a >9.5 when hitting their 1-RM. On the contrary, only a little over 57% of novice lifters recorded a >9 at their 1-RM.
The above numbers are important and should be something considered when using RPE with different lifters. Experienced lifters understand their bodies better and what they can handle, which would be why they were more accurate when deciding RPE at high intensities. A novice lifter may underplay the amount they can move for a certain numbers of reps.
When it came to bar velocity, the authors documented an inverse relationship with RPE and velocity both experienced and novice lifter, which is similar to the previous study. Concluding their analysis, the authors suggest that using RPE/RIR as an effective way for prescribing training intensities in athletes.
Research suggests RPE as an effective way for lifters to decide training intensities. Although, there should be considerations when using this scale for training in experienced and novice lifters.
Experienced lifters: RPE can be more effective as there’s more of an understanding of what they body can perform. Also, there’s a better understanding of 1-RM training percentages.
Novice lifters: RPE can be used effectively, but there could be some variance in understanding what a true 1-RM is. Without ample training history, it can be more difficult to gauge high intensities.
Why RPE: While training percentages can be effective ways to periodize strength programs, they don’t account for daily life stressors. An example could be an athlete training at high intensities for a long duration who may be approaching burnout, but is still programmed to hit high intensities. Use of RPE could save a lifter from burnout and be an effective way for listening to the body and prescribing deload weeks.
Important: When a lifter’s RPE gets to high intensities and reps may not be left in the tank, sometimes weight can still be increased (as suggested from the last study’s scale). Take this into consideration when utilizing RPE at 90%+ intensities.