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Everything RPE: From Understanding to Application

The two most important aspects of any training program are INTENSITY and CONSISTENCY.

This article addresses a subjective measurement of intensity which, when used appropriately, I think can help with consistency in the gym as well. More on this later.


First, what is intensity?

Intensity refers to how hard we push ourselves for any given exercise or session. Intensity in training can be expressed several ways:

  1. Percentage of max, %1RM

  2. RPE, rating of perceived exertion

  3. RIR, reps in reserve

While many programs use %1RM, I rarely use it. I prefer the subjective scales that take into account how my client is feeling on any given day to dictate the load on the bar.

Consider this scenario from a client last week.

DR gets home Sunday night from a week long family vacation where he didn't train. Monday night and Tuesday night he is up all night with his young daughter who got sick. He has not slept well for 2 nights, is adjusting to the time change from his vacation, and has not training in a week.

Needless to say, he is a bit off his game.

DR, however, is a beast and he's still going to train. If I had programmed specific weights or specific percentages of his max he would have gone in and hit those no matter what. Under the circumstances, I do not think that would have been a great idea and he would have felt even shittier.

Instead of programming %1RM or specific loads, I train all of my clients using a subjective measure, RPE.

RPE stands for rating of perceived exertion.

This is a subjective assessment of how hard a given task is based on a 1-10 scale.

A 1 is incredibly easy and a 10 is maximum effort.

His program that day said "Build to a 4RM at an RPE of 8. Then take 80% of that top set for 2 more sets of 4."

Here, he selects the load based on how he feels.

Let's say DR is perfectly rested and fueled. He is feeling good and in a great training environment with motivating training partners.

In that situation, a 315# x 5 rep back squat may only be an RPE of 6 or 7.

Let's say DR is sleep deprived and stressed out like he was last week.

In that situation, a 315# x 5 rep back squat may feel like an RPE of 10.

Training with RPE as your intensity gauge allows you to take into account everything in life that can effect your training in a much more sustainable way than training with absolute values designed to be hit on a perfect day.


I use RPE with my clients in two ways: to gauge the intensity of an individual exercise and an entire session.

This chart should help you figure out what the RPE of any given set is. This also compares it to how many more reps you could get with great technique before failure.

Your final reps of a hard set should basically look the same as the first in terms of technique but they are just slower, shakier, and more grindy.

I do not encourage my clients to push to the point where technique breaks down and the exercise is no longer recognizable.

The RPE of a session is similar but doesn't necessarily correlate to reps in reserve or technique but just overall output. I have never rated a workout as RPE 10, save for a CrossFit workout or two from when I was a silly kid... but I have certainly rated individual sets as RPE 10. Most of the time, you should leave the gym feeling accomplished and strong, not destroyed. I think most productive sessions are roughly an RPE 7-8 on the whole with some higher intensity sets and some lower intensity sets with enough rest to perform at a high level from set to set.


As teased earlier, I believe that training with appropriate RPE targets can lead to more consistency in the gym because, to quote one of my long time clients, TF, you won't "feel like a bag of shit" after your workouts and dread going to the gym.

This is a sophisticated and organized way of listening to your body, pushing when its time to push, and holding back when its time to hold back.

RPE should rise and fall, starting off low at the beginning of a new program and building higher towards the end of the training block and then starting again.


Fortunately, you can make GREAT gains training without pushing yourself balls to the wall all the time in the gym. You can make progress in both strength and muscle building by pushing close to failure, but not all the way to failure.

Want to read more on training to failure vs. non-failure training?

Read my article -> SUBMAXIMAL TRAINING: Hitting the Sweet Spot

Read the latest Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis on the topic

This next part, I will admit, hasn't been proven in research but it holds true for myself and every client I have ever worked with. By training a bit shy of failure you are able to push yourself more often without overreaching. Overreaching on a frequent basis can lead to overuse injuries and burnout - both of which are not ideal for a long, successful training career. I have found that by training hard, within 5 reps to failure but not at total failure, me and my clients can do so longer thus making better long term gains.


Here is how I may progress a client over a 4 week mini-block on a big lift like the squat using RPE as the intensity gauge.

Week 1

Build to one top set of 4 reps at an RPE 8

Then, take 80% of that top set for 3 sets of 4 reps

1 x 4 RPE 8

3 x 4 @ 80% of top set - these may be between an RPE 5 and 7 as fatigue accumulates

Week 2

Take last week's top weight for 2 sets at RPE 8. This week, the client is deciding how many reps at that weight they can hit for the given RPE. That may look like this:

1 x 5 RPE 8, 1 x 4 RPE 8

2 x 4 @ 80% of top set - by this point this weight may feel heavier than last week because we did 2 sets at an RPE 8 this week. Call this between an RPE 5-7 again.

Week 3

Take the top weight for 3 sets at RPE 8. The client is still deciding how many reps to go for at a given weight. It may look like this:

1 x 6 @ RPE 8, 1 x 5 @ RPE 8, 1 x 5 @ RPE 8.5 slight over-reaching but that's okay maybe they were having a great training day

1 x 4 @ 80% of top set as a back-off - with the increase in volume at heavier loads this is probably feeling like an RPE 7 at this point

Week 4

Build to one top set of 4 reps at an RPE 8.

I may program some back off sets here too - it depends on the whole program.

Now that the athlete has had 3 weeks of build-up, they can typically eclipse their week 1 weight at the same RPE. There may be some combination of technique improvement, of neural improvement, or some mild strength improvement allowing them to achieve a heavier weight at the same RPE.


It is true, being that this is not an objective measure, that there can be significant variation in someone's ability to get this totally right. But that's okay. As people get used to training like this they get better at using the scale. Even if, say in the above example, the client undershot their RPE and it was really only a 6. The nature of a progressively overloaded program will build on that and push them to higher limits.


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