Trying your absolute hardest every day in the gym is a great way to never make lasting progress.

How’s that for a clickbait first sentence? Let us explain.

The “no pain no gain” approach to fitness is slowly dying out in favor of consistent, solid effort. If you turn it up to 11 every session, you’ll likely end up overtrained, burnt out, and worst of all, injured. Instead, a smarter approach to training is to cycle various levels of effort to allow for consistent progress without feeling like you got hit by a truck.

We are not saying don’t go hard in the gym. You definitely need to work to see results. But you need to know when it’s okay to max out (seldom) and when you need to leave a bit in the tank (most of the time).

Picking out weights is challenging for even the most seasoned gym-goer, so how do we measure effort and prescribe intensity? One of the more popular tools is the RPE Scale.

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Table of Contents

What is the RPE Scale?

RPE Chart

How to Use RPE

Benefits of RPE

Cons of Using RPE

Should You Use Rate of Perceived Exertion?

Main Points

 

  • RPE stands for “Rate of Perceived Exertion” and is a 1-10 subjective scale that measures fatigue

  • It can be used to monitor effort and fitness levels

  • It can be used in programming to help you select how much weight to use

  • Using RPE might be difficult for new lifters who don’t know their gym boundaries yet

    What is the RPE Scale?

    RPE stands for “Rate of Perceived Exertion”. This scale was originally created by a Swedish researcher, Gunnar Borg. It ranged from 6-20 to loosely mimic heart rate BPM (~60 at rest up to 200). The idea is that you could use this scale to determine how strenuous an activity was. The lower the number, the easier the task, the fitter the athlete.

    For instance, an experienced runner might casually do an 8min mile without much effort, whereas a recreational runner might pass out making that time.

    At some point, Borg simplified the scale to be 1-10 where 1 would represent light activity and 10 represents the maximum level of effort.

    RPE Chart

    Down below is our own spin on the popular RPE chart:

    RPE Chart

    How to Use RPE

    Some of our intermediate and advanced workout programs use RPE to help you choose how much weight to use each set. In general, most of your training should be done in the 7-8 range. This means that your sets should be challenging, but don’t gas you out to the point you see dramatic declines in performance throughout the session.

    There are times to train at RPE 9 and 10, but we advise you to do so sparingly. In some programs that means every 3rd or 4th week. If you happen to be an adrenaline junkie who loves to train near failure, save it for the end of workouts using accessories targeting smaller muscles (like shoulders, calves, and arms). You’ll be able to do this more frequently than with heavier compound movements.

    It’s not a great idea to consistently train squats and deadlifts at 9s and 10s. These lifts use too much load and cause too much stress to be done at maximum intensity every session. Instead, use them to form a strong base, accumulate volume over time, and build strength strategically. Then every so often, you can really push these lifts to see where you are at. You might be surprised to find that RPE 7 and 8 are no joke when it comes to getting under the barbell!

    Here’s an example of how RPE can be used for the main lift across a four-week training block into a deload:

    Squats

    • Week 1: 4 sets of 5 reps @ RPE 6
    • Week 2: 4 sets of 5 reps @ RPE 7
    • Week 3: 4 sets of 5 reps @ RPE 8
    • Week 4: 4 sets of 5 reps @ RPE 9
    • Week 5 (Deload): 3 sets of 4 reps @ RPE 6

    The advantage of using RPE over predetermined weights calculated using your one-rep max is that your max is a moving target. You might have hit a 400lb squat a few months back under perfect conditions (pre-workout, music blaring, after a breakup), but that doesn’t mean after a 12-hour shift you’re capable of the same lift. Instead, RPE allows you to hit the prescribed sets and reps at a weight that challenges you at a specific level for the session.

    Benefits of RPE

    • It’s a straightforward and simple tool to monitor your effort when working out
    • It can be used for more than just lifting weights. It works for cardio and every form of training
    • RPE allows you to auto-regulate your training sessions to adjust for how you are feeling on the day of your workout instead of pre-determining weight weeks in advance

    Cons of Using RPE

    • RPE can be hard to use if you’re a beginner who hasn’t ever done a workout with true max intensity. If you’ve never taken a set to failure, how do you know what your scale is?
    • RPE can also be tricky for high 20-30 rep sets with moderate weights (RPE 6-8). When you feel the burn it’s hard to gauge whether it’s the effort or lactic acid.

    Should You Use Rate of Perceived Exertion?

    RPE is a viable training tool to monitor your effort level when working out, but it will take some time to accurately use. You need an anchor for each RPE level so you know what is a 1 and what is a 10. Like anything, it takes time and practice!

    Bottom line: it’s worth trying! There are several different strategies to track effort between RPE, percentage of your 1rm, RIR, etc. Try it out for a few months and see if you like it!

    Workout with Uplift Others

    We offer a variety of workout programs at Uplift Others! Check out our selection of home programs, in the gym, and running for all levels. No matter your goal, we have something for you! The best part is that we raise money for teachers’ classroom supplies and all profits will be donated to the cause.

    Brian Oddo CPT

    Founder

    About The Author

    Brian Oddo is the founder of Uplift Others and a Certified Personal Trainer through ACE. He also holds specialized certifications in Sports Nutrition and Behavior Change. Brian has been training clients both in person and online for over six years.

    As a former Division 1 basketball player, Brian enjoys weight training, plyometrics, and any sports to stay active.