This Is the Best Guide to the RPE Scale on the Internet

Program Overview

This is a 12 week powerlifting peaking program based on rate of perceived exertion (RPE). It uses 4 training days per week and divides the 12 week program into four different training blocks ending with a taper. It was created by Matt Mignone at Mignone Strength (@mignonestrength) and is generally recommended for intermediate and advanced lifters.

The competition movement frequency is typically as follows each week:

  • 3x squats (2x competition, 1x variation)
  • 3x bench press (1x competition, 2x variation)
  • 2x deadlift (1x competition, 1x variation)

Common variations include paused squats, paused deadlifts, and Larsen press (aka feet up bench press). You’ll be training two of the three competition lifts (or a variation) each training session along with 3 to 6 accessory movements. There is no direct overhead press work, but seated dumbbell shoulder presses are programmed once per week.

Training Block Goals

Each training block has the following goals:

  1. Ending with a new 5RM on week 4
  2. Ending with a new 3RM on week 8
  3. Overreaching, accumulating fatigue during week 9
  4. Tapering down volume weeks 10 and 11, ending with a new 1RM on week 12

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The Borg Scale vs. The RPE Scale

Before the modern RPE scale, there was the Borg RPE scale. Gunnar Borg, an exercise scientist, invented it over 40 years ago[*].

RPE scales like the Borg scale are one way to gauge the difficulty and intensity of workouts.

In other words, rating your perceived exertion during your workouts is a fancy way to label your workouts as easier or harder.

Similar to the visual analogue pain scale you may have used at a doctor’s office, researchers like the Borg scale because it’s reproducible and helpful in analyzing large data-sets[*].

However, the Borg scale is not necessarily a reliable indicator of exercise intensity on an individual level. Take a look:

6 – No exertion at all

7 – Extremely light

8

9 – Very light

10

11 – Light

12

13 – Somewhat hard

14

15 – Hard

16

17 – Very hard

18

19 – Extremely hard

20 – Maximal exertion

With all due respect to Dr. Borg, a scale of 6-20 is hard to remember and the opposite of intuitive.

“Wow, this workout sure is an 11 on a scale of 6 to 20!” said no one, ever.

The Borg scale is also a subjective measure of exertion. In a sample of hundreds or thousands of people it can detect a trend, but one athlete’s definition of “hard” could be another person’s idea of “maximal exertion.”

And most critically, it lacks the autoregulation element that makes the modern RPE scale so useful. There’s a big difference between labeling your workouts on a scale of 6-20 and using a system that tells you exactly when to add or remove weight to achieve the correct intensity.

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Using Fatigue Percents

There are a few important guidelines in terms of using fatigue percents in the real world: 1) understanding the effect of different percentage ranges and 2) time limits.

Understand that the following information represents guidelines taken from The RTS Manual. I have added additional notations and explanations to clarify the concepts.

These fatigue % ranges are determined entirely from Tuchscherer’s practical experience coaching hundreds of athletes. Nonetheless, practical experience is always subject to error. Keep that in mind. These percentages may not work out exactly for you. Take personal notes, pay attention, and adjust over time.

Fatigue Matters

We have to differentiate between fatigue and volume. Fatigue is the amount of stress we’ve accumulated from a workout. Volume is the amount of work we actually did in the workout.

Now, of course, these things are highly correlated, but they’re not synonymous. The higher the level of volume tolerance an individual possesses, the less fatigue a given amount of volume is going to cause. Because “fatigue” is the far better proxy for the size of the dose of stress we’ve given the body, we’re more interested in how much fatigue a workout has caused rather than how much volume it contains. We need to begin to think of volume as the tool that we use to create fatigue rather than thinking of it as what literally drives progress.

Readiness is also largely important when it comes to fatigue considerations. That is, even for the exact same individual, different levels of volume will cause different levels of fatigue on certain days. Let’s say that, hypothetically, you only got two hours of sleep last night, had to fight traffic for two hours on the way home from work, and you find that your dog is sick and throwing up when you finally do get home. Do you think that you’re going to be able to handle the same amount of volume as usual? Even if you can, do you think it will cause the same amount of fatigue? Of course not.

Because of these problems, preplanned, prewritten programming based on percentages is highly flawed. What we truly need is a way to regulate our weights and volume on any given training session to ensure they match our particular level of readiness that day. Let’s take a look at how we can do that.

What’s the RPE Scale For?

In theory, you can use the RPE scale of 1 (no effort or intensity) to 10 (maximum effort or intensity) for any physical activity, including cardio. And plenty of coaches and personal trainers do exactly that.

However, where RPE really shines is in weight training.

The concept of “reps in reserve” gives you an objective way to gauge the intensity of a set, and it is more individualized and relevant than traditional measures of intensity.

You should consider using the modern RPE scale for lifting if your goals include:

  • Getting stronger
  • Gaining lean muscle
  • Attaining the many proven benefits of weight training with optimal recovery and no injuries

Essentially, if you’re performing resistance training that involves loading and repetitions, RPE allows you to be your own coach and make more consistent progress than other ways of gauging intensity.

It helps you push harder when you need to, but also gives you some slack when you’re fatigued or your recovery isn’t optimal.

Who Should Use RPE?

Nearly anyone can use RPE to enhance their lifting.

That said, if you just started lifting, take some time to get familiar with the basic movements first.

Because RPE requires you to self-rate the difficulty of a set, it’s not very useful for a total beginner. After all, when you first start squatting and deadlifting, any weight might feel challenging!

And if you don’t track your workouts somehow (journal, app, scrawled onto scrap paper) you’ll probably find RPE tricky. (Seriously though, start tracking your workouts!).

But if you’ve been lifting with dedication for at least a few months, you’ve probably got enough experience to benefit from RPE.

Along with experience, this method also requires some self-honesty. That’s because you need to be able to accurately gauge how many reps you had left “in the tank.”

Someone who’s overly timid may stop too soon, while a lifter with an oversized ego may push too far.

However, as long as you can be like Goldilocks–motivated just right, but not so hyped you overrate your capabilities–RPE is going to work perfectly for you.

ADVICE FOR INTERMEDIATE LIFTERS USING RPE

Here’s a detailed example of how we might put the RPE principles into action with one of our athletes.

The following is a 4-week training cycle that is appropriate for an intermediate lifter with the goal of gaining strength and size, who has experience correctly performing the squat, bench, and deadlift, with a frequency of training each body part with at least moderate volume at least twice per week.

This training block would best be used as an “intensity block” after a lighter, higher repetition and volume cycle of training. (This is a form of periodization, which refers to organizing training in blocks to enable us to make faster progress. If this isn’t familiar to you right now don’t worry about it. We’ve explained it in detail in our book, but all you need to know is that this is a purposeful higher intensity, lower volume block of training after a period of higher volume). 

This cycle concludes with strength testing, which can be done either by testing 1RM or by performing as many reps as possible (known as an AMRAP) with a load you don’t think you’d currently be able to get more than 6 reps with. (It’s your choice whether you want to do a 1RM or 2–6RM test).

Here are the rules for this intensity block of the training cycle:

  • The RPE range for the main lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift) is 7–9 RPE, meaning you should be able to still perform 1–3 repetitions at the conclusion of all sets. This allows you to maintain solid form and reduce injury risk and manage the higher fatigue levels that are generated by compound lifts.
  • For the secondary lifts, it is 8–10 RPE (0 to 2 repetitions remaining at the conclusion of all sets on exercises that are not squat, bench or deadlift). These lifts can be taken nearer to failure as they have a lower biomechanical complexity and thus lower injury risk, and generate less fatigue.
  • Additionally, 10 RPEs should only occur on the last set of secondary lifts, if they occur at all. This helps to ensure that you don’t have to reduce the load or lose repetitions on any subsequent sets.
  • For each exercise, I would advise choosing a load you can do for the target rep range on the first set that is near the bottom of the RPE range (either ~7 RPE or ~8 RPE depending on whether it is a main or secondary lift). Then, keep the load the same on subsequent sets. You will find each subsequent set’s RPE will rise with cumulative fatigue, so it’s important to keep it at the bottom of the range.
  • In the final week, the RPE values are lowered because it is a taper prior to testing.
WEEK 1
Monday:Squat 3 x 8, Bench 3 x 8
Wednesday:Deadlift 3 x 3, Bench 3 x 6
Friday:Squat 3 x 4, Bench 3 x 4
Saturday:Lat Pulldown 3 x 10, OHP 3 x 10, Row 3 x 10, Calf Raise 3 x 10, Curl 3 x 10, Pushdown 3 x 10
WEEK 2
Monday:Squat 3 x 7, Bench 3 x 7
Wednesday:Deadlift 3 x 2, Bench 3 x 5
Friday:Squat 3 x 3, Bench 3 x 3
Saturday:Lat Pulldown 3 x 9, OHP 3 x 9, Row 3 x 9, Calf Raise 3 x 9, Curl 3 x 9, Pushdown 3 x 9
WEEK 3
Monday:Squat 3 x 6, Bench 3 x 6
Wednesday:Deadlift 3 x 1, Bench 3 x 4
Friday:Squat 3 x 2, Bench 3 x 2
Saturday:Lat Pulldown 3 x 8, OHP 3 x 8, Row 3 x 8, Calf Raise 3 x 8, Curl 3 x 8, Pushdown 3 x 8
WEEK 4
Monday @7 RPE every set:Squat 3 x 1, Bench 3 x 1, Deadlift 2 x 1
Wednesday @7 RPE every set:Squat 2 x 1, Bench 2 x 1, Deadlift 1 x 1
Friday:OFF
Saturday:Mock Meet or AMRAP testing

What we’ve done here is display the final mesocycle (a 4 to 6 week block of training) of a longer period of training which combines elements of linear, daily undulating, and block periodization. Within this block, we started with higher volume and lowered it as the intensity increased (hence the linear element), while also undulating the repetition targets on a day to day basis within the week.

Using RPE to manage fatigue

So, we know that strength is not stable as it fluctuates session to session based on stress inside and outside of the gym. And you now know that RPE can be a useful tool for making sure the appropriate intensity of effort is used on a set to set basis given this.

By adding an RPE guideline to each exercise in our training programs we can ensure that we don’t hammer ourselves too hard when we train, or underperform when strength is unexpectedly high.

Some of you might be a little confused right now if you were under the impression that training to failure was a good idea to do on every set or the majority of sets if your goal is hypertrophy.

Why Training To Failure On Every Set Is A Bad Idea

Recall that volume is a key component for hypertrophy training. So let’s take a hypothetical situation where you decide to take 3 sets with your 10 rep max (10RM) to failure on all sets and see what your volume is if you don’t change the load.

If you go all the way to failure on set 1, doing 10 reps and then maintain the same load, you will more than likely drop to ~7 reps on set 2, and then down to ~5 reps on set 3. That means a total of ~22 reps performed with a 10RM load.

Let’s say instead, you stayed 1 rep shy of failure on your first set and did 9 reps. More than likely you’d be able to maintain 9 reps on set 2 but be pretty damn close to failure, and then on set 3 only be able to get 8. In this case, you got 26 reps with a 10RM load, which is four more reps. Can you honestly say that the former is better for hypertrophy given the importance of volume?

Comparison of Total Reps Performed: Failure vs. First set RPE @9
All sets to failureFirst set RPE @9
Set 1109
Set 279
Set 358
Total reps performed2226

Well, we don’t have to speculate, because we actually have data to show that training to failure on average results in similar adaptations to not training to failure, except training to failure results in being in a less recovered state. So there is nothing to gain, but potentially something to lose in that you’ll be able to train less frequently.

Fatigue management is very important for making progress. Especially if you are using a more moderate volume, higher frequency approach. 

If you are training a muscle group or exercise more frequently, you have to be strategic in your load selection to avoid overburdening yourself and subsequently underperforming due to being in the haze of recovery from the last session.

This is where RPE comes in…

You may have a high-volume, moderate-load, upper-body session earlier in the week, and then a heavy-load, upper-body session with moderate volume later in the week. Training to failure on the first session of the week can suppress force production and generates muscle soreness to a greater degree than staying short of failure, and this can interfere with that heavy session.

So, instead of cranking out a bunch of sets to failure during session one, leave 1–3 reps in the tank at the end of your sets with compound exercises and only take the last set of your isolation work for each muscle group to failure. This can make a big difference in fatigue management. 

The end result is that you’ll go into your heavy session fresh and ready to perform, meaning greater gains and less likelihood of injury in the long run.

References

  1. Helms ER, Storey A, Cross MR, Brown SR, Lenetsky S, Ramsay H, Dillen C, Zourdos MC. RPE and Velocity Relationships for the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in Powerlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Feb;31(2):292-297. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001517. PMID: 27243918.
  2. Zourdos MC, Klemp A, Dolan C, Quiles JM, Schau KA, Jo E, Helms E, Esgro B, Duncan S, Garcia Merino S, Blanco R. Novel Resistance Training-Specific Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jan;30(1):267-75. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001049. PMID: 26049792.

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