How to use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale
CrossFit Fargo utilizes strength training based on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) versus your standard prescribed percentages. The purpose of this article is to educate you on the WHY and HOW we use the RPE scale in training.
What is the RPE Scale?
The Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale is a numeric scale from 1-10 that helps athletes gauge their intensity or exertion during exercise or training. It helps you gauge how an exercise feels, and provides a way to self-assess the quality of movement at a particular time during training.
It's important to note the difference between exercise and training. Exercise is moving your body to burn calories and improve health. Training is exercising according to a plan with specific and targeted outcomes.
One important aspect of CrossFit and Strength Training is progression. Exercising with progression is how your body adapts to get stronger, faster, well-balanced, and more fit.
This is where the RPE Scale comes in. It can be used for any type of exercise, and is commonly used for both aerobic training, strength training, and weightlifting. We primarily use RPE prescriptions for our strength training such as squats, presses, and deadlifts.
Why use the RPE Scale for Strength Training?
Us CrossFitters are performing a lot of movements day in and day out, week after week, that compliment and otherwise affect our specific strength training. Factors like our ability to control workout schedule, recovery, work/life stress, and nutrition also come into play when we are performing a set of squats in the gym. By basing our load off of a "feels like today" prescription instead of a percentage of your last known 1RM, we are able to make more meaningful progress in movement mechanics and strength.
You can often gain muscle and strength faster by adding and subtracting weight based on your Reps In Reserve (more on that in a minute), instead of regularly or arbitrarily adding or removing weight from the bar based on percentages or otherwise.
I personally have been training based on the RPE system for several years, and my movement quality and strength gains have far surpassed anything that I saw when basing load off of percentages. I found lifting according to arbitrary (to me) percentages to be both dangerous for my movement mechanics and also limiting for strength gains. RPE gives the best of both worlds for athletes who have a lot of variables affecting their training.
RPE-based training keeps you SAFE.
Here's what the RPE Scale looks like and how you should use it
As you can see on the chart, the RPE Scale is based on Reps in Reserve, or how many reps you have left. Let's pretend we are in a squat session. On the whiteboard, you might see the following:
5 @ 6 RPE
5 @ 7 RPE
5 @ 8 RPE
Plus, two repeat sets.
You will begin with some easy sets with the purpose of warming up to your first set of 5.
1st set: Your first working set of 5 (the 6 RPE) will still be very manageable with solid mechanics. It still feels a bit like a warmup set.
2nd set: Your second working set of 5 (the 7 RPE) will be at a weight where you feel like you have 3 solid reps left in the tank.
3rd set: Your third working set of 5 (the 8 RPE) will be at a weight where you feel like you definitely only have 2 solid reps left in the tank.
4th and 5th set: You will repeat that same weight for two more sets of 5.
Another example of something you might see, using deadlifts:
5 @ 7 RPE
5 @ 8 RPE
5 @ 9 RPE
Plus, one down set @ 90-95% of heaviest set
You will begin with some warmup sets, building up to your first working set.
1st set: Your first working set of 5 (the 7 RPE) will be at a weight where you feel like you have 3 solid reps left in the tank.
2nd set: Your second working set of 5 (the 8 RPE) will be at a weight where you feel like you definitely have only 2 solid, mechanically sound reps left in the tank.
3rd set: Your third working set of 5 (the 9 RPE) will be at a weight where you feel like you definitely have one and only one solid rep left in the tank.
4th set: Your forth working set of 5 (the down set) will be at 90-95% of the weight you used in your heaviest set.
RPE Priorities to keep in the front of your mind:
Quality matters. When we think about Reps in Reserve, it's not just about how heavy it feels, but also your perceived ability to maintain movement mechanics and quality.
That being said, the tendency with some athletes is to undershoot their RPE scale. For a 9 RPE, Think of it as, I definitely have one AND ONLY ONE solid rep left in the tank. For an 8, I have two and only two repetitions left. Etc.
10 RPE means 1RM, and you probably can't repeat it if you tried it again. A 9.5 means you might fail your next rep.
As always, if you have any questions on your lifts, our gym training program, or just want to chat, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!