Discussion about RPE has been polarizing that it stirred many feelings of lifters around the world. Some deemed it unreliable or useless because it relied on the lifter’s “feeling.” Others defended the idea that it allows calibrated stress to the ever-changing performance condition.
So, is RPE as simple as using your “feeling” to determine the intensity?
Is RPE the answer to programming that allows for fluctuations in human performance?
Let’s dig in.
About RPE in Strength Training
RPE is defined simply as a measure of how hard something feels to you at that particular time.
RPE is a subjective measurement where you rate your set on a scale of 1-10. The harder it is, the higher it falls on the scale.
Easy Peasy. Too easy to count as a work set -> RPE 5.5
Feels like a warmup weight -> RPE 6
A little more than a warmup weight -> RPE 6.5
Feels like an opener. Could do 3 more reps -> RPE7
Could you maybe do 3 more reps -> RPE 7.5
You could have done 2 more reps -> RPE 8
Could you maybe do 2 more reps -> RPE 8.5
You could have done 1 more 1 -> RPE 9
Could you maybe do 2 more reps -> RPE 9.5
Max out effort -> RPE 10
RPE is believed to be superior to the percentage program because there can be a lot of factors that can affect the accuracy of the percentage model. It could be an external factor such as life stress, recovery factors, and others. As much as you want to come to the gym in the best form, you won’t always be at 100%.
Autoregulating the training stress based on the prescribed RPE will automatically take into account all individual differences and external factors affecting you on your training day. The higher precision of training stress will allow better training progress.
Reservations about RPE Training
The most common argument against RPE is questioning whether your subjective feeling matters in determining your training that day.
If you have used a non-RPE program, you might recall feeling like sh*t when you entered the gym knowing that it will be a bad day. 2 hours later, you went out from the gym alive without missing any reps.
You might also be nervous about a heavy top set because your last warm-up felt really slow. However, you pulled some courage and somehow completed that heavy set of five.
Now, imagine if you decided to be a coward and start reducing your top set to account for “how you feel.” You won’t get the experience and satisfaction of accomplishing something truly hard, right?
The other argument against RPE is how accurate can people measure the RPE for it to be useful? For example, do people really know if there will be three more reps in the tank instead of two more? So will that be RPE 7 or RPE 8? Or maybe RPE 7.2517437 because you think there is a slightly more than 25% chance you can do three more reps?
What about that set where it feels f*cking heavy on the first one, but you managed to complete four more? If the first rep looked like an RPE 10, how come you could pull another four?
Before we continue, let’s address the elephant in the room.
“Marvin, you are a Starting Strength Coach.
Starting Strength doesn’t believe in RPE.
So how does this article matter at all?”
Well, I know that I don’t want to give an opinion about something I don’t know. This is why I waited at least six months before writing this article.
Since July last year, I engaged an online coach that prescribes RPE for most of my training.
I also enrolled myself in an online course to learn how RPE is used in training and see whether I could learn anything from them as a coach. I haven’t finished the whole course yet, but I have a general idea.
Interestingly, I had 17.5kg squat PR (the biggest in the past two years), 5 kg bench press PR, and 2.5kg deadlift PR in that six months of training. Of course, the deadlift PR could be much more, but I was greedy and failed a rep. So I blamed myself for that. So does RPE training work after all?
However, let me place a disclaimer that my opinion is purely from my thoughts and experience. Experiencing training under both schools of thought, I can understand why the opposite view exists. It’s never my intention to say or suggest that either side is wrong. In fact, there are a lot of similarities! Let me share that with you.
The Coaching Eye: outsourcing your RPE assessment to a third-party vendor?
On day one when you come to Hygieia for coaching, you will learn the correct bottom position of the squat and how to stand back up using hip drive. After that, you will do the same thing with an empty bar and squat a set of five reps.
Assuming your squat form is satisfactory, I will start adding weight on the bar until I see a noticeable reduction in speed. Then, you will stop at that weight and repeat for a few more sets.
Wait a minute! “Noticeable reduction in speed”?!
Are you saying: when the coach “feel” the weight is challenging/sufficient?
How is this different from when the lifter judges their own RPE?
The difference is that it’s my job to see hundreds of squat repetitions per day – 7 days a week, while a true beginner just finished doing his first five reps. As a result, I am much more accurate in determining the barbell movement’s relative difficulty/intensity than my clients.
A few weeks later, you might start to struggle with the weight on the bar. At that point, I’ll exercise my “super eyeballing power,” deeming that you are approaching the end of the Novice Linear Progression and ready for a slight tweak in programming. And there you are, promoted from a Novice to late novice/intermediate lifter.
The coach’s eye on the bar speed versus RPE
Stop treating both as mythical powers! They are both tools!
Tools have their functions and its limitation.
You need to hone your skills in using the tools.
A correct tool in the hand of an excellent craftsman can produce a work of art.
A correct tool in the hand of an idiot creates disaster.
All roads lead to Rome!
When I started training with RPE programming, I was half expecting something very spectacular. Like how by autoregulating the weight, I can better manage the recovery. I should feel more fresh coming into training sessions by managing the RPE of the training sessions.
Well, I was surprised that I still felt tired. Weight on the bar also kept on increasing week by week. Despite trying my best to fulfill the RPE requirements, I still get injured. Probably the most count of injuries in 6 months. But despite all of that, at the end of the cycle, I can still achieve my PR.
So I am sadly reporting that the two training methods were practically the same because the process felt the same and yielded similar results. (Makes me wonder how much people can get their feelings hurt arguing for something so similar)
However, I learnt that both show the fundamental nature of good programming. Therefore, TWO RULES and everything else is secondary:
1. Training is not random. Good programming from both methods requires you to do specific exercises and keep re-exposing you to them to get specific adaptation from doing the movements.
2. Training should allow incremental progress. You don’t get strong from guessing the correct RPE; you get stronger from doing the work however it is prescribed. If the stress dosage is accurate, it shows in the amount of weight you can lift next week.
You can eat your ice cream with cone, or you can use a bowl and a spoon. Some swears by the cone; some don’t like the mess when it melts. All roads lead to Rome or eating ice cream or strength training.
These days, the world is getting more opinionated. And what’s worse, it’s super easy to offend people with different opinions. For once, can we not discuss how we are so different to one another, and recognise that we are probably more similar than what we initially think.
Who cares what program you use.
As long as you strive to get stronger and get other people stronger, you are my friend. You are my comrade.
In fact, we are brother-in-arms.
Next time I see you, let’s do our biceps curl together.