"How Heavy Should I Go?": Explaining RPE and How to Use It

By Big Bertha
June 20, 2022
"How Heavy Should I Go?": Explaining RPE and How to Use It

When lifting, it can be hard to know if you are using the right amount of weight for the exercise at hand. Too little, and your body won’t have any stimulus to adapt to, making the exercise close to meaningless. Too much, and you can overexert yourself leading to higher fatigue build up (taking away from sessions later in the week), or worse, injury. Over the course of this article, we’ll explain how we use a tool called RPE to help us choose exactly what weight we should be using.

What Is It?

RPE, or the Rate of Perceived Exertion, is a tool used in resistance training as a subjective indicator to determine how hard an exercise feels. While we think of it as a scale from 1 to 10, we only really care about judging it from RPE 5 and up.

So let’s take a look at the different ratings on the scale, how they feel, and how many Reps in Reserve (RIR) we should have at each rating.

Let’s start with RPE 10, the top end of our scale. RPE 10 feels like a full max out. If we are at an RPE of 10, then there are absolutely no reps left in the take. If we tried to do another rep, we’d fail it.

RPE 9 tells us that we could MAYBE do another, but we could definitely add a little more load if we wanted without failing - emphasis on a little.

RPE 8 is considered challenging, but we know we could probably do at another 2 reps with it.

RPE 7 is challenging, but we like to think that it feels like the weight is moving a little more snappy here. With RPE 7, you could hit another 3 before failing.

RPE 6 is where the weight doesn’t even feel fatiguing and moves quickly. For any strength or bodybuilding type of work, this would be considered a warm up.

Lastly is RPE 5 and down. This is all warm up territory. If you can do 5 reps or more, than it’s RPE 5 and we know that we need to increase the weight substantially if we want any benefit.

Why Do We Use It

So why do we use RPE as opposed to something like percentages based on a max effort lift? Well, for a few reasons.

First, not everyone has trained enough to confidently complete max effort lifts. This alone throws away any usefulness of percentages, since there is no context behind it.

Secondly, you may not feel the same from day to day, thus, a percentage can be overly exerting on some days, and not hard enough on others. Say, for example, you crush a Dumbbell Press on a Monday using 40lbs in each hand and it feels like an RPE 7. Now, fast forward to the following Monday where you are to do the same exercise with the same RPE. What happens if you didn’t eat as much the previous 24 hours, had an extremely stressful Sunday, and barely slept that night. That 40lbs in each hand may not feel like an RPE 9 which would indicate that you should go down slightly in weight. This is arguably the biggest reason to do RPE for many people.

What to Do if You're New to RPE

It’s understandable if you are new to this and unsure if your rating of exertion is on point. There are a few things to know.

  1. It’s hard for everyone at first. Especially if you are new to lifting (or coming back to lifting after a short time off) since you will be getting stronger at a quicker rate than normal. Do your best to feel it out because what matters most is doing it consistently. After some time, it’ll get easier and more effective.

  1. A quick way to assess if you’re on point with it is to take a set to failure. We recommend doing this with exercises you are comfortable with and have great technique doing. For instance, if you are doing a Goblet squat and feel like it was an RPE 7, that means, you should only have 3 more reps in the tank. On your last set (if cleared by your coach) keep repping until you can’t anymore. Note, we consider technique breaking down as the end of the set, so stop once you feel your form is no longer solid. If you got more than 3 reps, then you know your RPE was actually lower than a 7!

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, RPE is a tool. It’s a tool we use so that we can make better informed decisions to enhance our training. As you start out, it may be confusing, and that is ok. Feel free to ask your coach any questions you have regarding it, and do your best to be honest and try your hardest when judging your sets. Happy lifting!

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