Auto-regulation and RPE-based Training
RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. Originally, the RPE scale was invented to measure exertion during physical activity such as endurance exercise, with a range of 1 to 20.
In strength training, Mike Tuscherer popularized the use of RPE by adjusting the scale to the range of 6 to 10, as anything below 6 is considered a warm-up weight that is too light to cause any significant training effects.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the RPE scale, we need to understand why anyone would use it in the first place. Enter auto-regulated training.
Auto-regulation is a way of training that allows the lifter to dictate the load to be used in a given exercise based on their ability to perform that day.
This approach aims to maximize performance by accounting for life factors such as stress, poor recovery, inter-session fatigue and even fatigue accumulated during a single workout (between exercises). It gives us the freedom to train according to how we feel that day, but still under the prescribed target intensity.
Make no mistake: auto-regulation isn’t a way of training easy when we’re feeling low. What it actually does is enable us to pick an appropriate load that will generate the desired training effect, thus allowing us to compensate for days where we’re feeling stronger (by increasing the load) or weaker (by adjusting the weights down).
The RPE scale that is popular amongst strength lifters today is as follows:
(Credit to reactivetrainingsystems.com)
Let’s use RPE 10 as an example. A set at RPE 10 is always a maximal effort set, meaning the lifter could not have possibly completed another rep. This corresponds to that lifter’s rep max (RM) for that specific lift.
A set at RPE 9 means the lifter should be able to perform another rep if needed, under the same exact training conditions. So, if a lifter performs 4 reps at 100kg, but had one more rep left in the tank, then that set would have an RPE value of 9, and 100kg would be their 5-rep max.
Now, if you’ve already got a target RPE value, estimating an appropriate load may seem like a daunting task. Rating accurate RPEs and being able to gauge how much to put on the bar is a skill that gets better with training experience – it requires good knowledge of one’s body and how it responds to training, which is something intermediate and advanced lifters tend to be better at.
In any case, beginners can also benefit and should start using auto-regulated training by rating the first and last set of each exercise, and paying attention to the speed of their reps at heavier loads.
This Seems Complicated. Why Should I Care?
I get it, math is confusing and no one likes to do extra work. Having a prescribed number of sets, reps and weight is comforting to some and can give a lifter a better sense of purpose or structure – leaving all the “guess work” out the door.
Auto-regulation is not much different from percentage-based training when integrated properly. It simply allows the lifter to apply as much stimulus as necessary on any given day.
From a coaching standpoint, it allows for much clearer client feedback which results in programming that is better-suited to the individual. Rating a set as “easy” or “difficult” can be highly arbitrary unlike numerical values which are accurate and standardized. Besides, past a certain load, any set can be viewed as “difficult” or heavy; for that reason, we need a clear and methodical way of rating our performance.
The use of RPE also allows for more accurate estimation of 1RMs, as it refers to a lifter’s most current display of performance. This results in more optimal progression tracking, as you don’t need to actually test a rep max in order to know if it has gone up or down.
Okay… Sounds Pretty Good. What’s The Catch?
As with any system, RPE-based training is not immune to flaws.
One of its biggest criticisms is the fact that rating RPEs accurately is hard and requires a lot of practice. Being a subjective rating, there will be a difference in rep speed among lifters, which can make it hard for coaches to correctly judge RPE when working in a one-on-one setting.
Additionaly, no matter how accurate you are with your ratings, you can never be entirely sure if you’re right or not – but this is a drawback that offers no significant implications in the long run.
Arguably one of the biggest concerns revolving auto-regulated training is the amount of honesty it requires from the lifter. If ego-lifting is your thing, chances are RPE-training isn’t right for you, as it requires you to be brutally honest with your ratings in order to reap the benefits of its approach.
Lastly, the further you get from your 1RM – as in, the lighter the load and the greater the number of reps performed – the harder it is to accurately rate RPEs. Think about a high-rep set you’ve performed recently, such as a set of 10 or 12. Could you have done one more rep? What about two or even three more reps?
Now think about a heavy single or double. In those instances, you can be fairly sure about whether you could’ve performed additional reps. In general, RPE works best with high-intensity sets of up to 7 reps.
Putting it Into Practice
There’s no better way to understand RPE than by applying it. Let’s use a fictional lifter, Maria, as an example. Maria’s program calls for the following sets:
Back Squats, 1x5 at RPE 9, 3x5 at RPE 8
She’s feeling pretty good on this training day, so she loads up the bar and after a few warm-up sets, she performs 1x5 @ 80kg at an RPE 7. The set is too light, so she bumps it up another 5kg and arrives at 1x5 @ 85kg at RPE 9 – right on the money!
Let’s take a look at the following chart and see what that lift’s performance would look like in terms of percentages:
(Credit to Mike Tuscherer, ReactiveTrainingSystems.com)
According to the above generalized chart, 5 reps at an RPE of 9 is equivalent to ~84% of one’s 1RM. Using that information, we can work backwards to figure out her estimated 1RM (e1RM) based on her most current performance.
85 kg / 0.84 = 101 kg
Her subsequent sets call for an RPE of 8 on each set – this is important, as accumulated fatigue in between sets will definitely affect her ability to perform in the following sets if the load remains unchanged.
Knowing that, she reduces the weight to 82.5kg and is able to perform 2 x 5 at an RPE of 8, and 1 x 5 @ 80kg at RPE 8, which is exactly what the program called for.
Now let’s work backwards for a second. Say Maria is prescribed 3 x 5 at 85% of her 1RM. Her known 1RM is 100kg, so her target load for the day is 85kg.
By the same logic and using the same chart as above, her RPE for the first set should be around 9-9.5.
A Few Additional Thoughts…
- When using the RPE scale, leave your emotions out the door. Your rating of perceived exertion during a lift is not and should not be equivalent to how hard or how easy you thought the set was. RPE is a rating of your current performance ability relative to the weight on the bar.
- Your weights likely won’t fluctuate as much as you think they will. As with any well thought-out program, there needs to be a degree of progression that serves to keep us moving forward (and upwards), not zig-zagging across the charts.
- RPE-based training may also be used in combination with percentage-based programs.
- Don’t let your early warm-up dictate your target weights. Have a target weight in mind and allow it to be adjusted based on your closer warm-up sets leading up to it. Similarly, if you feel weak entering the gym, there’s no need to think you will have a shitty session. Put in the work as you normally would, and you may just end up surprising yourself.
There are many more things we can discuss pertaining to RPE-based training, and we will likely cover them in subsequent articles. For now, feel free to leave us a comment if you are unsure of how to implement RPE into your training, or if you’d simply like to learn more.
About The Author
At Barbell Strength, Barbara is the Strength & Nutrition coach for females looking to get stronger, both online and in person.
Her primary focus is to help clients increase general strength and improve body composition through training and nutrition coaching that is individualized to each person and sound in principle.
With over 5 years of coaching experience, her passion for strength training has helped her develop a writing voice that she uses to communicate scientific training knowledge to the average lifter and fitness enthusiast.
Click here to find out more about working with Barbara.