When it comes to gaining strength in the gym, a tactical approach is always better than shooting from the hip. While some athletes can follow their instincts and make long-term progress, most people will find success using a structured methodology.
Both RPE and percentage training offer their own unique benefits for program design, but discerning which is appropriate for your needs isn’t the simplest task. Luckily, we can pull back the curtain and look at how these modalities impact training decisions to determine which one is right for you.
RPE Training Defined
RPE, or “Rating of Perceived Exertion,” is a format that has gotten a lot of love in strength circles over the past few years, and for a good reason. The basic principle of RPE training is straightforward: it assigns an “effort value” to each set performed to help quantify how hard you’re working.
It bears mentioning that a similar system has been in use for many years in physiotherapy and rehabilitation settings. The “Borg” RPE scale measures exercise effort in clinical settings between 6 and 20. However, the RPE scale we will be examining today is the default used in strength sports and measures effort between 1 and 10.
Because the RPE scale isn’t universally standardized, there is a degree of interpretation of each value means for each athlete. That said, the most common iteration uses each number as a designation for how many additional repetitions the subject could have performed if they pushed themselves as hard as possible.
- RPE 10: No additional reps could be performed.
- RPE 9: One more rep could be performed.
- RPE 8: Two more reps could be performed.
- RPE 7: Three more reps could be performed.
- RPE 6: Four or more additional reps could be performed.
While the scale is technically between 1 and 10, for practical purposes, most exercise plans tend to designate loading between RPE 5 and RPE 10. Below that level, training is not generally strenuous enough to elicit a response.
Percentage Training Defined
Percentage training stands in stark contrast to RPE as a metric for exercise difficulty. It aims to prescribe loading parameters in training plans as a static percentage of the athlete’s one-rep max (1RM) on a given exercise. The format of percentage training is even more digestible than that of RPE. As long as the athlete has a reliable 1RM value to use as a benchmark, the loading parameters are determined with some basic arithmetic.
- Hypothetical 1RM Back Squat: 315lbs
- 90%1RM: 285lbs (approximated)
- 85% 1RM: 270lbs (approximated)
- 80% 1RM: 250lbs (approximated)
- 75% 1RM: 235lbs (approximated)
If you don’t know your one-rep max, you can also use the calculator below and plug in the stats of your most recent session for a specific lift.
One Rep Max Calculator
Benefits of RPE Training
RPE and percentage training are similar in function but vastly different in form, each with its own unique perks and pitfalls. The RPE system shines when applied to a well-made training program in the hands of an athlete who knows their physical capabilities.
Subjectivity and Versatility
The RPE scale provides a subjective measure of effort in the gym. While this is not universally applicable to every trainee, it does allow for a high degree of flexibility in how one approaches their workouts since performance capabilities tend to fluctuate based on daily nutrition, sleep quality, and external stressors. Recent literature has showcased that experienced strength athletes strongly correlate their RPE with the velocity of the barbell. (1) This indicates that RPE training may be particularly relevant in disciplines like powerlifting and weightlifting, where maintaining a high bar velocity can be critical to success.
While strength gains tend to come easy in the first few years of training, it can be difficult to maintain the same pace after you’ve been in the gym for a while. Progress tends to slow dramatically as an athlete becomes more advanced, reducing the efficacy of linearly designed programs. Using RPE as a primary metric sidesteps this pitfall and affords the athlete more autonomy in their training.
RPE training is also uniquely applicable to auxiliary exercises. It is often impractical (and sometimes dangerous) to determine a reliable 1RM on accessory work such as face pulls, back extensions, or arm training. The RPE scale is well suited to making sure you’re putting in enough effort into these movements. For example, if you’re prescribed sets of 10 reps at an RPE of 7 or 8, you can select a weight that would have you hitting failure at 12 or 14 reps — how much weight you’re actually lifting is irrelevant.
Benefits of Percentage Training
In many ways, percentage training leans in the opposite direction of RPE. It tends to excel in situations or contexts where using RPE might fall short.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of using percentage training is that it simplifies the process of determining the load. Figuring out just how hard you should be training can be complicated and intimidating, especially for novices, which may overshoot or underestimate their work capacity. (2) Following a simple, consistent blueprint ensures that you’re not leaving gains by the wayside.
The consistency provided by most percentage-based programs means that the gains should roll in steadily, especially if it is your first time following a structured routine. While the magic of linear progression will dwindle eventually, by following a structured program, you’re all but guaranteed to reap the benefits for a long while.
[Related: The Ultimate 10-Week Powerbuilding Workout Routine for Mass and Strenght]
RPE & Percentage Training: Comparison
Unfortunately, no training style is perfect. Both RPE and percentage training excel in different ways, and understanding which one is appropriate at a given time is half the battle. Inappropriately applying a training ideology can lead to frustration, stagnation, or even potential injury.
A versatile methodology that fits well into every aspect of your training is important. Although percentage training is fantastic for load selection on movements like squats and deadlifts, it isn’t handy for accessories.
In contrast, the RPE scale applies to both primary movements and accessory work. In fact, RPE can be used to measure effort in almost any activity you perform in the gym, from sled pushes to snatching. This makes it suitable for anyone with a good sense of how hard they can actually work.
Ease of Use
Although RPE seems easy enough, the inherent subjectivity can make it cumbersome for certain athletes. Assigning a value to a set is great when your estimation is accurate. However, this is easier said than done.
Both novice and intermediate trainees often poorly estimate their own exertion levels, a skill that only improves after several years in the gym. These potential inaccuracies can offset the convenience of RPE systems.
Percentage training gains a lot of ground by removing any guesswork on the part of the athlete. Since people regularly overestimate how close they are to failure (3), percentage training might be better suited for anyone who isn’t acutely in tune with their own capabilities.
When followed properly, most training methodologies can be effective long-term. That said, RPE training does edge out percentage work when considering an athletic career in totality.
Many popular periodized programs eschew percentage work since your responsiveness to linear progression dwindles as your training age increases. Anyone who has been in the gym for a few years can attest that making progress is no longer as simple as adding five pounds to the bar every week. As such, a more robust and personalized approach is required to keep making gains, and this is where RPE shines.
RPE & Percentage Training: Application
Understanding various training methods is great, but knowledge is only as good as its application when it comes to fitness. Both RPE and percentage work can be comfortably integrated into a workout routine, though the form each takes will look somewhat different.
Sample Percentage Training
A simple visualization of percentage work might involve beginning at a relatively low percentage of 1RM and then building on it week over week, affording a gradual but familiar increase in difficulty. It is also common to reduce overall volume as intensity increases, to avoid injurious situations or burnout.
- Week 1: 70%1RM, 3 sets of 5 reps
- Week 2: 75%1RM, 3 sets of 5 reps
- Week 3: 80%1RM, 2 sets of 5 reps
- Week 4: 85%1RM, 1 set of 5 reps
Sample RPE Training
Using RPE as a progression metric over a weekly or monthly scale isn’t exactly straightforward. After all, since the valuation is subjective, it naturally fluctuates. This makes it difficult to pin down a specific rate of progress. However, it can be successful if you adjust factors such as rest time or total volume.
- Week 1: 3 sets at RPE7
- Week 2: 4 sets at RPE7
- Week 3: 5 sets at RPE7
- Week 4: 3 sets at RPE8
Even though exact intensity levels will fluctuate by daily readiness, overall exertion should be relatively consistent, allowing you to push your total workload higher. Training volume is one of the main driving factors of long-term gains in the gym, and consistently improving how much work you can do in a given session is a sure-fire way to boost your total or add lean muscle.
Sample Combination RPE + Percentage Training
Perhaps the most efficacious method is a combination of RPE and percentage work. This will ensure that you’re only working as hard as you’re capable on a given day while still hitting consistent, measurable loads that can be referenced and improved over time. One such outline could involve an RPE-determined “top set” followed by back-off or drop set work at a specific percentage of intensity:
- Week 1: Top single at RPE8, followed by 3 sets of 5 reps at 75% of that single.
- Week 2: Top single at RPE8, followed by 3 sets of 5 reps at 78% of that single.
- Week 3: Top single at RPE8, followed by 3 sets of 5 reps at 82% of that single.
Alternatively, RPE can improve the amount of work performed over time at a specific percentage of 1RM:
- Week 1: Three sets of max reps up to an RPE6 with 70%1RM.
- Week 2: Three sets of max reps up to an RPE7 with 75%1RM.
- Week 3: Two sets of max reps up to an RPE8 with 78%1RM.
- Week 4: One set of max reps up to an RPE8 with 82%1RM.
No training modality is magic on its own — like most aspects of fitness and performance, the devil is in the details. Applying a progression structure to a routine that isn’t right for you probably won’t yield the gains you’re looking for. Conversely, picking the right pathway for your personal needs can set you up for an incredible amount of success in the gym.
RPE’s modern, fluid approach to training intensity makes it easy to roll with the punches and keep pushing your limits in the gym without being hamstrung by a rigid, restrictive system. However, it requires a great deal of self-awareness and wisdom about one’s own limitations to be effective truly.
On the other hand, percentage training removes much of the guesswork that often plagues the minds of newcomers who don’t know themselves or their potential very well. By putting training loads “on the rails,” athletes can focus on the work itself. Yet this can also be overly restrictive and tends to drop off in potency over time. If all it took to build a truly impressive total or achieve an eye-catching physique was to throw another five pounds on the bar every week, everyone would do it.
Unfortunately, getting ahead in the gym is a long and arduous process. Wrong turns can easily become more common than right ones. With that in mind, understanding the “how” and the “why” of RPE and percentage work can help you make the right calls about your own training and lead to a long, successful career.
What is percentage based training?
Percentage-based training is defined as dictating load based off of one’s true or estimated 1-rep max. Every percentage used will represent an amount of one’s 1RM and reps will vary based on the percentage prescribed in a workout.
What is RPE based training?
Rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is a training methodology that uses a scale to autoregulate training with intrinsic and real-time set-to-set feedback.
What are the benefits of RPE training?
RPE training is beneficial because it allows lifters to regulate intensities based on how they’re feeling on a day-to-day basis. This is useful to ensure there’s no overreaching with intensities and it can help fend off fatigue.
In addition, RPE training can be beneficial for helping athletes remain objective about their strength capabilities.
What are the benefits of percentage based training?
Percentage based training is simple in nature, which makes it easy and beneficial for beginners to understand. In addition, percentage based training can help newer athletes create goals for various rep ranges by creating intensity goals.
- Helms E., et al. (2017) RPE and Velocity Relationships for the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in Powerlifters. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 31(2): 292-297.
- Steele, J., Endres, A., Fisher, J., Gentil, P., & Giessing, J. (2017). Ability to predict repetitions to momentary failure is not perfectly accurate, though improves with resistance training experience. PeerJ, 5, e4105.
- Barbosa-Netto S, d’Acelino-E-Porto OS, Almeida MB. (2021) Self-Selected Resistance Exercise Load: Implications for Research and Prescription. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 35(Suppl 1):S166-S172.
Featured Image: bob boz/Shutterstock